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Part 2 of an interview with a Chinese PR student on crisis communications and social media.

Here is Part 1.

3. Does social media impact crisis communications in different ways in Asia versus the UK? Are there any characteristics exclusive to the UK?

In my experience social media can indeed impact crises differently in Asia, and much of this comes down to speed – parts of Asia are very highly networked – and the culture of the web, which can be immensely volatile, especially in a country like China. Compounding matters there’s the fact that customer and stakeholder opinion is evolving quickly across the region, not least concerning expectations about corporate good behaviour and transparency, while government attitudes towards foreign companies, in particular, can be hostile, and control of the internet notoriously uneven. These aspects – and plenty of others – require a close understanding of the context in which you are operating.

Operationally, the main difference is that Asian organisations tend to be more conservative, hierarchical and slow to make decisions, which can make the management of a crisis challenging. And where there is a culture of strong local political control, and a pliant local media, local companies may well have little experience of having to manage serious negative events in public and online – a notable example being Taiwan Formosa and the Vietnamese governments’ inept handling of a toxic spill earlier this year that ravaged hundreds of kilometers of coastline and damaged the livelihood of thousands of local Vietnamese fisherman.

Equally, some multinationals operating in Asia are reluctant to devolve crisis decision-making to their local businesses, resulting in precious time being lost when you need to respond quickly and appropriately at the start. And for the reasons pointed out above, foreign companies must be mindful of throwing the standard western crisis playbook at what may be a very different business, media, political and legal environment.

I’m not convinced there’s anything intrinsically unique about the nature of crisis communications in the UK – at least in a western context – other than perhaps the behaviour of the mainstream media, specifically the tabloid press, which can be very single-minded in their willingness to build up and then attack an organisation, and whose views tend to bleed quickly and deeply into the social web.

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory.

 

Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising. And at least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.

Why?

After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists, write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.

 

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

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