Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Importance of the Unspoken Word

In David J. Lieberman's book "You Can Read Anyone", the author explained that a person wrongly accused will instinctively go on the offensive, while someone who is guilty will become defensive.  This working understanding of human behaviour is an important skill set for the PR Professional as it will be an essential consideration when advising their client on the appropriate "tone" to adopt in a crisis communication situation.

The importance of adopting the "correct tone" was clearly illustrated in the Brad Lau saga when Brad responded to allegations against him in a "calm and objective manner" (http://cwfong.blogspot.com/2010/08/brad-lau-saga_24.html).  This response is uncharacteristic of an innocent person (as supported by David Lieberman's research), and thus worked immensely against Brad in his efforts to contain the crisis.

In addition, a communication study by Albert Mehrabian has shown that a lot of communication comes through non-verbal communication and when we are unsure about words and when we trust the other person less, we pay more attention to what we hear and see.
PR Professionals must therefor be cognizant that in a crisis situation, stakeholders are actively trying to determine the truth.  Stakeholders will then scrutinise every news release and media moment in search of clues to assess the truthfulness of the company's statements and the credibility of the company spokesperson.  Incongruency in body language and actions taken will discredit the spokesperson and any message that the crisis communicator is trying to deliver.

In short, in a crisis communication situation, PR Professionals must not only ensure the accuracy and appropriateness of the words used but also the "tone".  This is because the unspoken word is as important, if not more, than the spoken ones. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Singaporean Arrested for Anti-Government Remarks on Facebook

Singapore.  (26 August 2010.  1600 hrs).
Yahoo! News Singapore today published a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) on the arrest of a Singaporean for inciting violence via his Facebook postings.

The Singaporean, identified by local media as Abdul Malik Ghazali, was apparently arrested for his post on Facebook calling for Singaporeans to "burn" the sports minister and the PAP.  Abdul Malik Ghazali has defended his actions by claiming that he did not mean "burn" in the literal sense and had used it as a metaphor. 

Singapore's cyber-space has been set ablazed since the report was first published and a quick count of the over 400+ comments show the majority of netizens criticising the police actions and denouncing it as another ploy by the government to suppress opposition to their rule.

As I have written in my research paper, social networking websites like Friendster, FaceBook and Twitter have changed the information environment.  Citizen Journalists can now reach out and influence as many individuals as professionally run news organisations.  Herein lies the danger.  As unlike professional journalists who abide by a code of ethics, citizen journalists are unregulated and may be motivated by personal agendas.  In addition, the homogeneity of these social communities, and sense of bond among “friends” with common interests, makes these communities susceptible to being easily manipulated.

The Greek Riot in 2008 is a case in point where the death of a student, at the hands of the police, need not have degenerated into nation-wide violent protests. The incident could have remained contained pending investigations by the authorities. Unfortunately, irresponsible citizens began spreading unsubstantiated accusations of police brutality on social networking sites. This fanned anti-police sentiments which eventually spiralled out of control. Analysts are unanimous in their belief that social networking websites were the catalysts in the Greek riots of 2008.

Hence, while I believe that netizens have the right to express their views, the expression of these views must be done responsibly.  The inciting of violence is definitely not one freedom I support.
In my opinion, the Police is right to investigate this case and if a crime has been committed, the appropriate actions taken.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brad Lau Saga II

Singapore. (24 August 2010.  1230 hrs).

Brad Lau has responded to the accusations against him by posting a point by point rebuttal, supported with screen-shots of emails and SMS text messages.

In positioning his response, Brad adopted a non-confrontational approach and attributed the issue to a miscommunication between himself and the PR Manager of the restaurant.  The "tone" adopted in his blog was also non-emotional and was directed at the public at large and not towards the restaurant.

Public reaction to Brad's response has been negative with people being sceptical about his side of the story.  This is because Brad made three key mistakes.

Firstly, the timing and tone of his response is not congruent with a person who is the "victim" of a vicious attack on his integrity and character.  Taking 2 full days to respond and then asking for the public to be objective hints at guilt. 

Secondly, while Brad chose to offer a point by point rebuttal, he missed responding to some allegations.  This again is an indication of guilt.  As mentioned in an earlier post, being on the information defensive puts the responder at a disadvantage.

Thirdly, while Brad used screen-shots to substantiate his side of the story, considering the ground swell of bloggers criticising his actions, Brad failed to use third party endorsements to put other bloggers or restaurants he has reviewed on his side.  A stakeholder analysis will reveal that Brad's character and integrity is the main issue at hand.  Hence having one or two "supporters" who can substantiate his charcter and integrity would have helped strengthen his side of the story.

What Brad did do right was to elevate the issue to one of a miscommunication.  This, as highlighted in my earlier post on Handling Negative Feedback, is the correct move as it is difficult for the restaurant to dispute this.

In summary, what we can learn from this incident are three things: (a) In responding to stakeholders' negative feedback, the timing and tone of the response must match the incident to be believable; (b) taking the information initiative is always the preferred course of action as it requires the respondents to answer all your allegations.  Failing to respond adequately to any one allegation makes the responder look guilty; and (c) the importance of using third party endorsement to substantiate our claims.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brad Lau Saga I

I am reading with great interest the developing Brad Lau saga.  Essentially, a self-proclaimed food blogger dined at a fine restaurant with a group of his friends and then demanded that the meal should be free.  Eventually, fearing a negative review, the restaurant caved in to his demands and reduced the bill from $435 to $159.  Even with the deep discount, Brad Lau was unhappy and was reported to have stormed off.

This is precisely the type of danger I spoke about in my research paper where the low cost and wide reach of social media exposes companies to exploitation by unscrupulous "citizen journalists."

While I cannot be certain how the story broke on STOMP or YahooNews, there is much we can learn on how to effectively manage threats by unscrupulous "citizen journalist."

Firstly, the restaurant was open about the incident and took the information initiative by pushing out their side of the story to "frame" the incident in their favour.  This is important as the responding party faces the additional challenge of disputing the facts of the initial news story.

Secondly, the restaurant effectively garnered third party endorsements to discredit the unscrupulous "citizen journalist."  This shifted the crisis from a "I say, you say" situation where both parties can be seen as correct.  Third party endorsements are credible as they are seen to be offering an independent view of the incident.  As part of a company's crisis communication contingency plans, companies would do well to consistently gather and compile third party endorsements.

Judging from the negative comments by netizens against Brad Lau, it is my assessment that the restaurant's decisive and social media savvy response not only prevented a crisis situation, but provided it with valuable publicity.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Driving Force Behind Newspapers

Singapore (22 August 2010).  I was just surfing the net earlier this morning and I came across this posting on The Temasek Review (TR)  (http://www.temasekreview.com/2010/08/21/countering-the-straits-times-hogwash-that-the-yog-has-caught-the-international-medias-eyes/).

The blog was essentially criticising a report in The Straits Times citing extensive coverage in the international media on the YOG.  The author proceeded to give a blow by blow account of how The Straits Times was misleading Singaporeans.

When I reflected on this article, what came to mind was the fact that any newspaper (or new agency for that matter) exist for the sole purpose of making money for their stakeholders.  Hence, the main aim of any newspaper is to sell newspapers and the only way they can sell (and continue to sell) newspaper is to give their readers what they want to read.

As a PR Professional, what this teaches me is that we must fully understand the target audience of any news agency we approach.  Pitching our stories to those that are not interested is a waste of effort, while pitching our stories to those who are "against" our employers will likely result in negative stories.

The key to a successful story is thus finding the correct newspaper to reach our target audience.  As a rule of thumb, newspapers exist to inform, educate and entertain their readers.

Facilitating Media Interviews

The most common mistake new PR Professionals make in facilitating interviews is allowing reporters to control the pace and direction of the interviews.  This is usually not a problem if the reporter is objective.

It must be remembered that the Reporter-PR Professional relationship is a symbiotic one.  Hence, as much as the reporter would like you to believe, he needs you as much as you need him.

With this understanding on the "balance of power", the PR Professionals is not at the mercy of the reporter.  Hence, during the interview, the PR Professional can and should control the pace and direction of the interview.  This will include such basic things as the start and end time of the interview and the "no go" areas/ topics.

In additional, during the course of the interview, the PR Professional should not hesitate to come in to stop the interview if the reporter does not abide by the pre-agreed "no go" topics or if the reporter becomes hostile towards the interviewee.

Remember, the PR Professionals primary responsibility is to the company and by extension the interviewee.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Importance of Selecting the Correct Theme and Messages

Singapore.  (21 August 2010. 1400 hrs).  There was an article in The Straits Times today by Rachel Lin about the current controversy over distance-based fare.  The article attributed the seeds of the controversy to a mis-match between the "lived experience of commuters" against the original message communicated and the official statistics used to support the message.

This case clearly illustrates the importance of not only selecting the correct message to be delivered but the need for the message to be 100% truthful.

According to Rachel Lin, the Public Transport Council (PTC) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) pitched the more palatable message of fare reduction rather than the true rationale that the new fare structure was the more equitable option.  This was however a rather short-term view of the situation as it would only be a matter of time before the "lived experiences" of commuters differed from that communicated by the authorities.

To me, the main casualty of this controversy is the "power" of official statistics and statements of government officials.  It is my assessment that, henceforth, Singaporeans will view all messages from the PTC and LTA with a pinch of salt.  Trust once lost, is hard to regain.

Singapore Youth Olympic Games

Singapore. (21 August 2010. 0900 hrs). The Singapore Youth Olympic Games (SYOG) got underway last Sunday (15 August 2010). Since then, the organisers have been plagued with a series of negative reports on the Games.

From news of poor and insufficient food for volunteers to collapsing tentages, from volunteers gambling during breaks to mass food poisoning. The negative reports seem to be coming fast and furious.

To be fair to the organisers, in any event of this magnitude, there are countless areas that can go wrong. No organiser, no matter how perfect, can be expected to prevent all these things from happening.

So what can an organiser do? Fortunately, there is a solution and it comes in the form of an Information Risk Assessment Worksheet or IRAW.  See Diagram below.

Diagram: Information Risk Assessment Worksheet (IRAW)

Designed to guide a deliberate planning process, the IRAW helps to (a) identify potential crisis areas; (b) the probability of it occurring; and (c) the impact on the company if the crisis does occur. With this as the base, the PR Team can then work with the organisers to prioritise high impact crisis for management attention.

While many will say that hindsight is 20/20. I dare say that if the PR Team had taken the time to do the IRAW, most of the crisis the organisers are facing now could have been avoided.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Value of Pre-empting Negative News

Reference my earlier blog about the "no show" of the international celebrity, the news release did its job to frame the crisis and mitigate any potential fall-outs.

While there were media enquiries about his "no show", the PR Team referred the media to the New Release it had issued prior to the show. From the fact that the media did not play-up the story, it appears that the New Release was sufficient to placate media interest.

In the early stages of a crisis, the PR Team is always faced with a dilemma on whether to react or not. One school of thought says that reacting will only bring attention to the crisis and spur media interest, while another school of thought says that we need to be open and pro-active to frame the crisis and hopefully mitigate its impact.

This real life example demonstrates that, in the age of new media, it is always better to respond than not.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Public Relations Professionals: The Silent Professionals Working Behind the Scene

During a recent assignment, I had the pleasure of working with a team of dedicated interns and temp staff attached to my Public Relations Team. A common gripe among them was that no one seems to appreciate the hard work and sacrifices of the Public Relations Team and that people only remember the mistakes.

This reminded me of an assertion made by the author of the book The Black Swan. In the book, the author highlighted the flaw in our society where we reward those that let mistakes happen and then save the day, rather than reward those that are so good at their jobs in the first instance that mistakes don't happen.

This is an unfortunate but sad fact of the Public Relations Professionals' role in any company. The only consolation that I could offer my team was the knowledge that we were the silent professionals working behind the scene to ensure everything went smoothly. Hopefully, some day, company CEOs will remember us and give us our due rewards. Until that day, my advise to my team of Public Relations Professionals was to seek personal satisfaction for a job well done.

News Release: Legally Binding?

Singapore.  (14 Aug 2010.  2300 hrs).  Today, an international celebrity who was scheduled to perform at a local event did not show-up. In a bid to "manage the crisis", the PR Team was called in to craft a News Release.

As with all Releases concerning multiple parties, the final draft was a collaborative process with the celebrity's management company proposing that the celebrity's absence be explained as "unavoidably delayed". Realising that the celebrity had likely broken a legal agreement, the PR Team decided to consult the company's lawyers on the suitability of this statement. Thankfully this was done and, on the advise of the lawyers, the word "unavoidably" was removed. This was to prevent any potential wiggle-room for the celebrity to avoid paying the company compensation.

While the word "unavoidably" sounds like good PR Speak, it was designed to protect the interest of the celebrity. As I explained in an earlier blog about the working relationship between reporters and PR Professionals, as PR Professionals we must also remember who is our pay-master. This is no different even when we are dealing with other PR Professionals from other companies.

Do Embargoes Work?

It is common in the PR world for News Releases (especially speeches) to be embargoed. To add "weight" embargoes are usually accompanied by signed non-disclosure agreements (NDA).

While news organisations will generally abide by the embargoes, they are very often under pressure to "scoop" the story from under other news organisations. Herein lies the challenge.

In a recent national level event, a few reporters were given "exclusive access" to information which was embargoed with a NDA. However, the reporter went on to do his own research and found embargoed information via open sources. He eventually used this information and ran the story.

Upon analysis, it became clear that while the reporter was careful to stay within the NDA, his "exclusive access" to the bigger picture undoubtedly helped him piece the story together. Thus, while he abided with the "letter" of the embargo, he broke the "sprit" of it.

To me, the lesson is clear. Embargoes are useful but are not foolproof PR tools. Embargoes should only be used as a last resort and, if used, organisations must be prepared to accept that they will be broken.

Can Reporters and Public Relations Professionals be Friends?

One of the operating principles by which Public Relations Professionals work is to develop good working relationships with reporters. To do this, the Public Relations Professionals try to be friendly and "please" the reporters. The premise is simple. If the reporter "likes" the Public Relations Professional, the better the chance that the reporter will cut the Public Relations Professional and his client some slack.

Personally, I think nothing can be further from the truth. To me, reporters and Public Relations Professionals need each other and the basis of the relationship should be based on professionalism. Friendship is a by-product and should not be the basis of the working relationship.

This is because as professionals, our loyalty is always to our pay-masters. To do otherwise, compromises our professionalism. I have come across too many examples of Public Relations Professionals who assume that they have developed a close friendship with the reporter. Based on this friendship, and a false sense of trust, the Public Relations Professional divulge sensitive information to the reporter only to see it being used against his client.

Thus, it is my opinion that Public Relations Professionals should focus on developing a professional working relationship with the reporter and not developing friendships. Don't get me wrong, I have many good friends who are reporters, but whenever I hang out with them, I always remember that we are all professionals and that our loyalties lie with different pay-masters.

Putting out Positive News during a Crisis

During a crisis, the stream of negative news can often overwhelming. Besides trying to get the company's side of the story out to "frame" the crisis, I also believe that the company can do more to manage the situation.

An excellent example occurred during the Fort Hood Shooting I wrote about in my research paper. In that crisis, quite soon after the shooting, stories started to emerge about the bravery of the soldiers and police officers responding to the crisis.

While I cannot confirm that PR Professionals were behind these stories, but Sgt. Kimberly Munley became the hero of the day. Once the media picked up on this new story angle, stories about Sgt Munley added some needed balance to the otherwise predominantly negative news about a crisis.

In short, as a Crisis Communicator, we can do more and we must be on the look out for and, where available, push out positive stories during a crisis. This, I term, regaining the information initiative.

Handling Negative Stakeholder Feedback

Any company, no matter how professionally run, will from time to time have to deal with negative feedback from their stakeholders. Some of these feedback will come in the form of direct emails or, if the company is unlucky, on some social network website.

While not all feedback can be addressed via templated responses, there are two principles which I believe are essential ingredients in an effective response.

Firstly, the stakeholder's unhappiness must be acknowledged as genuine and the company's response must directly address his concerns. If the response is to be made on a social media website, it is often more effective for the company to address the response to the stakeholder. A common mistake made by companies is to provide a general response to the concern raised. By making a general response, the company "trivialises" the stakeholder's concerns and this is likely to instigate the stakeholder to continue his "attacks" against the company.

Secondly, companies must avoid addressing the concern at the "tactical" level. The concern must be elevated and linked to universal principles like fairness, safety and corporate social responsibilities. Doing this will avoid a drawn out PR battle as it is very difficult for an unhappy stakeholder to argue against universally accepted principles. (I will write more about this in time to come)

Hence, to address negative stakeholder feedback, a company must do two things - (a) acknowledge the stakeholder's concerns; and (b) elevate and link the concern to a "universal principle" before offering a solution.

The Internet never forgets ...

Singapore. (30 July 2010. 1500 hrs). In an article published in the Digital Life supplement of The Straits Times dated 28 July 2010, the reporter cited incidences where past acts posted on the internet have come back to haunt her friends.

The reporter cited incidences where a man lost his job after being seen partying on Facebook while on sick leave, and the dismissal of the CNN editor for Middle Eastern affairs after she tweeted about her respect for the Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. The reporter also cited survey reports that show that 70% of hiring managers and recruiters in the United States have rejected applicants based on information they have found online on them.

This is additional proof of the impact of the 'perfect information environment' I talked about in my research paper.

Press Conferences and Ambush Marketing

Singapore. (30 July 2010. 0945 hrs). I was involved in the organisation of a press conference to publicise an upcoming major sporting event recently, and noted that need for PR professionals to be centrally plan and execute all aspects of the conference.
During the press conference, a photo opportunity was planned for the media to capture the distribution of ice-cream to the event participants. Unfortunately, the PR team was focused on ensuring that the presentation slides were in order, the logistical set-up perfect and the proper people selected and prepared for the media interview. The organisation of the photo opportunity was delegated to the logistics team.

Unaware of the phenomenon of Ambush Marketing, the logistic team proceeded to purchase the required number of ice-cream for distribution without any consideration for the brand. Thankfully, an hour before the press conference was to begin, a member of the PR team noticed the brand of ice-cream to be distributed and the photo opportunity was cancelled. This, without a doubt, averted a potential crisis with the sponsor.
Ambush marketing is a common phenomenon surrounding major events. PR professionals must therefore centrally plan and execute all aspects of a press conference to prevent it.

Research: Crisis Communications in the Era of New Media


     Research by Brand Finance [1] has shown that a company's brand can account for as much as 84% [2] of its total enterprise value and, based on the size of the enterprise, this can be quite substantial. In its 2007 Report on the World's Most Valuable Brands, Brand Finance valued Coca-Cola's branding at $43.1 trillion. Given a brand's significant contribution to an enterprises' overall value, companies must work to protect its image and reputation in any business crisis. Failing to do so can result in nett losses of up to 15% [3] of enterprise value, while properly doing so, can add an average of 5%.

     Defined as any event that can have a material impact on a company, a business crisis characteristically threatens the company's survival, occurs suddenly and requires immediate and complete management attention. Actions taken by the company to mitigate the crisis is known as Crisis Management. As all crisis will affect a company's image and reputation to a certain degree, integral to Crisis Management is the need to protect the company's credibility and good reputation. This aspect of Crisis Management is known as Crisis Communication and is seen as a sub-set of Crisis Management.

Crisis Communications Role in Crisis Management

     Unfortunately, this inter-relationship between Crisis Management and Crisis Communication is not the most ideal as it limits Crisis Communication's contribution to the company's Crisis Management efforts. An equal inter-relationship is more effective, as managing a business crisis, is not only about addressing the tangible aspects of the crisis (i.e. product recall, damage to property or injury to customers), but also the intangible aspects of the company's reputation, credibility and brand image. See Diagram 1. Effective Crisis Management therefore requires the company to communicate to a large number of stakeholders, each with different issues and concerns, via a Crisis Communication plan that is independant of, but working in tandem with, the Crisis Management process.

Diagram 1: Relationship between Crisis Communications and Management
The New Information Environment

     The proliferation of New Media [4] has changed how effective Crisis Communication is to be done. Unfortunately, many companies and PR professionals have not fully understood the impact of these changes and are essentially using out-dated strategies and techniques. The presence of low cost internet access and internet ready devices have broken the monopolistic hold of professionally run news organisations. In today's information environment, practically anybody can create and disseminate “news” contents. These unregulated “Citizen Journalists” can now galvanise populace support as widely and as effectively as any big budget news organisations. Furthermore, the internet's ability to provide instantenous news on a 24/7 basis, consolidated and indexed (via intelligent search engines), has made it the primary source of news [5]. Essentially, the convergence of media technology has fundamentally altered the way individuals receive news and gather information and has created two new dimensions to Crisis Communication – User Generated Contents and Rallying Tools.

a.  User Generated Contents. The internet has put in the hands of every individual the power to express themselves globally. Any individual with a digital device and internet connection can create, publish and distribute media contents. This has effectively put a "journalist" on every street corner of the world and no incident is likely to occur without someone seeing it, recording it and reporting it. Unfortunately, unlike professional journalists who submit themselves to a code of ethics, these “Citizen Journalist” do not abide by such standards and their reportings can be motivated by personal agendas. Such dangers of abuse was demonstrated in Singapore when a group of teenager seat-hoggers threatened to damage a cafe's reputation when they were asked to make room for other customers. See Diagram 2.

Diagram 2: Unethical Behaviour by Citizen Journalists

b.  Tool for Social Movement. Social networking websites like Friendster, FaceBook and Twitter, have brought together individuals with similar friends or interests into virtual communities. The homogenity of these communities, and sense of bond among “friends” with common interests, makes these communities susceptible to being organised and galvanised to support causes. Similar to the earlier example of potential abuse by citizen journalists, these virtual communities can also be abused by individuals. The Greek Riot in 2008 is a case in point where the death of a student, at the hands of the police, need not have degenerated into nation-wide violent protests. The incident could have remained contained pending investigations by the authorities. Unfortunately, irresponsible citizens began spreading unsubstantiated accusations of police brutality on social networking sites. This fanned anti-police sentiments which eventually spiralled out of control. Analysts are unanimous in their belief that social networking websites were the catalysts in the Greek riots of 2008.

Implications for Crisis Communications

     As a direct result of these technological advances, the nature of Crisis Communication has fundamentally changed. In the new information environment, Crisis Communication operates in an environment in which information is:

a.  Near Instantaneous Media Cycle. As acknowledged by Reuter's Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, “every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public and not by traditional journalists.” The omnipresence of “journalists,” coupled with technology that enable professional journalists to report the news as it develops, has compressed the media cycle and crisis response times. This compression was demonstrated in Janurary 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River. In that incident, emails, tweets, photos and videos of the incident began filtering through cyberspace 15 minutes before the main-stream media even reported it [6]. In fact, the first recorded tweet occurred 4 minutes after the incident. (See Diagram 3).
Diagram 3: Twitter Breaks the News Again

b.  Perfect Information Environment. The ability of internet search engines to trawl the world wide web for information, and to present it collated and indexed, effectively provides stakeholders with perfect information about an incident. This means that nothing is likely to remain hidden forever and that once the spot-light is turned-on, everything related (both past and present) will be revealed and scrutinised. This “know-all” nature of the internet environment is demonstrated in our daily news reports where the subject's childhood associations, past comments on websites or blogs can be reported. In the November 2009 Fort Hood Massacre, the New York Times tracked a posting on the website Scribd allegedly published by the shooter supporting suicide bombings by muslim extremists [7] (See Diagram 4).
Diagram 4: Post Showing Support for Suicide Bombings

c.  Multiple Media Platforms. A 2008 study commissioned by The Associated Press on the News Consumption Behaviour of Young Adults [8] revealed that younger consumers are not only less reliant on newspapers for their news, but that they also consume news across a multitude of platforms and sources. Online videos, blogs, online social networks, mobile devices, RSS, word of mouth, web portals and search engines have become their go to sources. As many of these New Media sources are unregulated, the risk of distortion to the facts is extremely high. Nik Gowing, in his July 2002 article for the Humanitarian Practise Network, describes how facts about an Israeli offensive into the West Bank in the Spring of 2002 to neutralise suicide bombers targeting Israel was distorted by questionable emails, photos, videos and blogs to portray an Israeli massacre of Palestinians [9]. While eventually unsubstantiated, the negative world opinion cost the Israeli Defence Force heavily and forced their early withdrawal denying them the ability to act in self-defence.

     In short, in the new information environment, Crisis Communication is beyond the control of any individual or organisation. Crisis Communication managers must accept that nothing can be hidden forever and that Crisis Communication must be open, fast, accurate, broadly communicated through multiple platforms and comprising a cyberspace component.

Characteristics of Effective Crisis Communications

     To meet the challenges of operating in the new information environment of a near instantaneous media cycle, one in which perfect information is available, and one in which stakeholders get their news from multiple platforms, effective Crisis Communication plans must be (a) open; (b) timely; (c) truthful; (d) broadly communicated; and (e) present in the internet (See Diagram 5).
Diagram 5: Characteristics of Effective Crisis Communications in the Era of New Media
a. Open. As nothing in the new information environment can be hidden indefinitely, Crisis Communication managers can no longer try to manage an incident by preventing it from being made public. It must be assumed that all news worthy incidences will be reported and that the role of the Crisis Communication manager is to “frame” the incident so that the company will be seen as positively as possible. Adopting an open reporting approach has two main advantages. Firstly, open reporting will establish the company's credibility with stakeholders with regards to their desire to resolve the crisis. This credibility will in turn position any subsequent actions taken positively. Secondly, being proactive in releasing information about the incident will prevent distortion of the facts. This will allow the company to “frame” the incident in its favour as well as prevent the crisis from spiralling out of control.

b.  Timely. Given the speed with which the New Media operates, Crisis Communication managers can no longer “beat” the media cycle. Fortunately, stakeholders accept that it takes time for a company to gather the facts of an incident and are willing to wait a reasonable time to hear from the company. While there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a reasonable time, an initial statement acknowledging the incident within the 1st hour and a follow-up press conference within 4 hours has so far proven to be the norm. The timely acknowledgement of an incident will also enable the company to gain the information initiative [10]. In addition, as there is usually conflicting information during the early stages of a crisis that causes confusion, the timely release of information will fill this vaccum and reduce distortion of facts. Putting a “face” to the company also allows the company to establish itself as the primary source of credible information on the crisis.

c.  Truthful. In the perfect information environment, false or deliberately misleading statements will be found out. It is not uncommon for stakeholders to search for past incidences to discredit the company's claims or for other similarly affected parties to come forward. Once a pattern of incidences is established, this will imply a cover-up on the part of the company giving further traction to the crisis. Crisis Communication managers must therefore only allow complete truths to be disclosed. This is because in a crisis, the credibility of the company's spokesperson is central to an effective Crisis Communication plan. The Crisis Communication manager must therefore protect the spokesperson's credibility. To fulfil this role, the Crisis Communication manager has to think like a journalists and when facts are doubtful, seek proof from their internal stakeholders before releasing the information.

d.  Broadly Communicated. The presence of numerous news platforms has complicated Crisis Communication as Crisis Communication managers can no longer rely on the traditional press conference to communicate the company's message to all affected stakeholders. Online videos, blogs, online social networks, RSS, web portals and search engines are alternate news platforms that also need to carry the message. As such, the development and release of New Media compatible information, customerised to the different technical requirements of each platform, is integral to a holistic Crisis Communication plan. Given the large number and types of platforms, requiring specialised skills, the Crisis Communication management team alone is unlikely to be able to cope and will need to be augmented with a team from the IT department.

e.  Internet Presence. As mentioned earlier, the perfect information environment allows powerful search engines to instantenously collate and index all related information on the incident for users. Hence all news reports, both positive and negative, will be seen by the stakeholders. To maintain a positive "spin" to the crisis, Crisis Communication managers must ensure that the number of positive reports exceed the negatives. This is done via the proactive and deliberate publishing of information on the internet. Additionally, as the internet “archive” practically everything indefinitely, the company's Crisis Communication plan does not end with the closure of the crisis. The company's side of the story must remain posted so that the company continues to tell its side of the story indefinitely.


    Internet technology has fundamentally changed the nature of Crisis Communication. Companies and PR Professionals operating in this new information environment must understand the technological implications and adjust their approach accordingly. Only then, can the PR Professional adequately serve his or her client.

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1. Independent brand valuation consultancy.
2. http://www.bpcouncil.com/var/10/3143-The%20Measure%20of%20a%20Brand.pdf
3. Dr Rory Knight and Dr Deborah Pretty (1995, Templeton College, University of Oxford - commissioned by the Sedgewick Group.
4. A broad term to describe the amalgamation of traditional media with the interactive power of the internet. Examples include YouTube, Blogspot, FaceBook and Twitter.
5. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press 2008 Report.
6. www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/4269765/New-York-plane-crash-Twitter-breaks-the-news-again.html
7. www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/us/06suspect.html?_r=1
8. www.ap.org/newmodel.pdf
9. www.odihpn.org/report.asp?id=2450
10. A crisis communication technique of releasing information to control the direction of the crisis.

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