Thursday, October 28, 2010

Balance of Power between Main Stream Media and Social Media

Singapore.  (28 Oct 10)

I came across an interesting blog posting titled "Poor online PR" by Ian Tan.  In his 24 Oct 10 posting, Ian cited the "power struggle" between the traditional main stream media (MSM) and the newer Social Media (SM), and suggested that the former still held the upper hand when it comes to influencing the masses.  Ian holds this view as he believes that the majority of people still rely on the MSM for information.

While I agree with Ian that the MSM enjoy greater credibility with stakeholders due to their professional structure, I disagree that they hold the upper hand over SM especially in crisis communication situations. 

As mentioned in my earlier posting titled Perception is Reality, I believe that organisations that can seize the information initiative will be able to shape stakeholder perception by framing the issue in its favour.  This in turn puts the organisation in an advantageous position as the human tendency to selectively filter information to fit the initial perception perpetuates the perception - real or imagined.  Being human, MSM reporters are not immune from this and it is inevitable that some of their reporting will be "biased".  Thus, it is my opinion that in a crisis it is the SM that holds the upper hand and this is where organisations should weight their efforts.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Perception is Reality

Singapore.  (23 Oct 2010)

Harvard Business Review Today published another interesting blog posting by Jeffrey Pfeffer titled Shape Perceptions of your Work Early and Often.  In his blog posting, Jeffrey stated that it is not so much what you do, but what people think you have done that makes perception reality.  This perception in turn becomes self-sustaining as people tend to assimilate new information in ways consistent with their initial perception.  Jeffrey cites a New York Times article highlighting that during President Obama's term, Americans' income taxes went down by $116 billion.  This is however a little recognized fact as about half of those responding to recent public opinion poll thought their taxes had remained the same, a third thought they had gone up, and about one in ten said they did not know.
To the PR Professional, Jeffrey's article reinforces the need for Crisis Communications Managers to not only frame the crisis, but to seize the information initiative early.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How Forethought Separates the Good from the Great

Singapore.  (21 Oct 10)

Harvard Business Review Today published a blog posting by Jeff Sibel on how forethought or forward planning separates the good companies from the great companies.  In his posting, Jeff says that great companies constantly "chip away at the edges of uncertainty, to make bets based on past experience."

To me, Jeff's posting reinforces the need for PR Professionals to "product test" all their Messages before releasing it to stakeholders.  Unfortunately, this crucial step is often missed on the basis of time sensitivity i.e. need to get ahead of the media cycle.  While I agree that getting ahead of the media cycle is important, PR Professionals need to balance the two.  A "poor" Message communicated on time is likely to do more harm than a "good" Message communicated slightly late.  One only needs to look at the botched branding of the Chevy Nova in Spanish-speaking countries, where “No va” means “It doesn’t go," to see the importance.

Hence, my message to PR Professionals is to test, test and test all Messages before their release.  While a full-scale focus group involving a representation of your stakeholders is ideal if time permits, a quick poll of the people in your office (or with an independent consultant) will usually identify important tweaks to enhance the effectiveness of the Message.

Like Jeff, I believe that forethought (or more specifically in this scenario - product testing) is what separates the great PR Professionals from the merely good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Product Recall: Tylenol 8-Hour caplets 50 count

Singapore.  (19 Oct 10)

McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, today announced the voluntary recall of Tylenol 8-Hour caplets 50 count.  This is the latest in a series of recalls this year for non-prescription cold and pain medicine. Last month, William Weldon, CEO of Johnson and Johnson, delivered a mea culpa and an admission of guilt that his company had let the public down through the numerous drug recall.

If you refer to my earlier posting on Themes and Messages, Johnson and Johnson's latest Message continues to be consistent with the company's Theme.  The mea culpa (as defined by Wikipedia as "an admission of having made a mistake by one's own fault (one that could have been avoided if the person had been more diligent)) is yet another Message that "Johnson & Johnson's first responsibility is to its customers."

It is my assessment that if Johnson & Johnson continues to consistently communicate this Message, Johnson & Johnson will once again not only weather the recalls, but strengthen it brand image in the process.  This is an excellent example of how important developing and selecting the correct Theme is to the crisis communication process.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

McDonald's: Happy Meal Resists Decomposition

Singapore. (16 Oct 2010).

YahooNews carried the report by The Upshot on New York City-based artist and photographer Sally Davies' latest project. In the project, Davies left a McDonald's Happy Mean out in her kitchen to see how well it would hold up over time. According to Davies, after 6 months, “the only change that I can see is that it has become hard as a rock.”

In response to Davies’ project, McDonald’s responded by issuing a statement defending the quality of the chain’s food and dismissing Davies’ work as something out of “the realm of urban legends.” McDonald's then went on to reiterate that (a) McDonald’s hamburger patties in the United States are made with 100% USDA-inspected ground beef; (b) are cooked and prepared with salt, pepper and nothing else — no preservatives, no fillers; and (c) our hamburger buns are baked locally, are made from North American-grown wheat flour and include common government-approved ingredients designed to assure food quality and safety.

I have three observations on McDonald's crisis communication approach to this incident:

a. My assessment is that McDonald's PR Department is unable to assess if this incident will become a crisis and they have hence decided to adopt a scaled response (read my earlier post).

b. From a crisis communication perspective, McDonald's crisis communication approach is to frame the incident as an "urban legend" and then reassure stakeholders that McDonald's abides with all legal requirements on food safety. As I mentioned in my earlier posting on the Brad Lau saga on the importance of Tone, McDonald's muted response to an attack on its quality of food is (in my opinion) an indirect admission of guilt. If they could prove conclusively that Davies was wrong, they would have denied it outright and probably threaten her with legal action.

c. McDonald's has adopted the correct approach of not lying in their response. This is extremely important as any outright lie, if caught, may significantly damage the company's brand image beyond repair.

Let's continue to monitor this incident to what happens. My assessment is that this is likely to blow over and McDonald's scaled response would have enabled them to get ahead of this incident.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Research: Daily Source for News

Singapore. (14 Oct 10). 

SG Polls conducted an online straw poll asking Singaporeans if they will "read the Straits Times today."  The survey findings (424 respondents) are as follows:

22% - Yes
10% - Yes, on the web
32% - Yes, on a mobile device
17% - Yes, in multiple ways
19% - No

A key-take away from this survey is that of those who said yes, 72% of them used new media platforms for their daily news.  This is almost 3 out of 4 persons and is further evidence supporting the need for an Internet presence in crisis communication situations.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Singapore (13 Oct 10).

I recently came across Pete Blackshaw's book "Satisfied Customers Tell 3 Friends, While Angry Customers Tell 3,000."  Similar to my research, Pete's research also showed how, what he calls "consumer-­generated media," allows a single disgruntled cus­tomer to magnify his com­plaints to an audience of millions.  In this new information environment, effective crisis communications, requires companies to be perceived as open, transparent and trusted.

In Pete's opinion, companies need to establish and proactively maintain a customer relationship that is authentic, listening and responding.  In his opinion, a good company blog is an effective tool as illustrated via Pete's analysis of how pivotal Dell's and AOL's company blog proved in mitigating their crisis.

A quick research of the major listed companies in Singapore show that these companies are not maximizing the potential of their company websites.  To their management, the company website is essentially a static information counter for customers and investors to "pull" information.  This is a mistake, as I have mentioned in an earlier posting, efficacy of the crisis communication message is dependent on the perceived credibility of the source.

Thus, as crisis occur unexpectedly and credibility cannot be developed overnight, crisis preparation efforts must include the creation of an interactive company website that is open, transparent and trusted.  The presence of such a website pre-positions the company with a strategic edge in its crisis communication plan.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Themes and Messages

Singapore.  (10 Oct 10).

When consulting for companies in crisis communication scenarios, I often hear their in-house PR Professionals use the words "Themes" and "Messages" to explain their choice of press statements and sound-bites.  Unfortunately, many of them do not fully understand the difference between the two, and this is extremely dangerous as the selection of the correct Theme is fundamental to an effective crisis communication plan. 

So what is the difference between the two?

Themes are the over-arching idea/concept which the PR Professional wants the stakeholder to conclude, while messages are individual pieces of information which the PR Professional uses to "build" the Theme in the stakeholders' minds.  Themes are therefore never directly communicated but are deduced by the stakeholders.  For commercial companies, the Theme is usually aligned to the attributes of the company's (or product's) Brand Image.  Generally, Themes are "universal" in nature and remain constant, whereas Messages are contextual and will vary from incident to incident.

Allow me to use the April 2010 voluntary recall of over 40 infant and children's OTC medicines by Johnson & Johnson's (J&) McNeil Healthcare to illustrate.

In this incident, McNeil Healthcare's Message was the voluntary recall of the products as they "did not meet the quality standards" of the company.  Following up that Message was another press release from J&J that the company expects the voluntary recall to impinge on second-quarter earnings because of lower sales.  Noticeably absent from both press release was any mention of J&J's Credo which "put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first."  Combined, these two Messages build upon each other and conveys the Theme (J&J's Credo) and lead stakeholders to conclude that J&J puts their customers above profits and that consumers can always trust J&J products. 

Hence, as you can see from the above example, an understanding of the difference between Themes and Messages is important.  A failure to understand the difference, would have resulted in a crisis communication plan that only addresses the incident without protecting or building upon the brand of the company or product.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

RSAF Apache: Internet Presence and Google Keywords

Singapore (3 Oct 2010).

A major impact of social media on the new information environment is that stakeholders now seek information and news from multiple platforms and sources.  Whenever an incident occurs, stakeholders instinctively go to online search engines to "google" for breaking news.

As mentioned in my earlier posting about “google bombs”, search engines like Google rank "popular" websites highest and return them whenever related keywords are searched.  This is a self-reinforcing loop as high rankings lead to even more hits that in turn guarantees the website continues to rank high.  Conversely, a poorly visited company website is unlikely to get a high enough ranking to ensure that the company's side of the story is told.

In the recent incident on the emergency landing of a RSAF Apache helicopter, a search for the keywords "RSAF Apache" on Google returns the website Temasek Review at the top.  This is unfortunate as the Temasek Review is a well-known anti-establishment website and people interested in finding out more about the emergency landing may get a bias view of the incident.  Thus, while MINDEF's Public Affairs Department did well to proactively report the incident and get their initial side of the story out into cyberspace, they may need to apply one of the key lessons from BP's handling of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico - purchasing Google Keywords.

In BP's scenario, in order to gain control of the information environment, BP purchased Google's search words for "oil spill".  This then ensured that BP's official website was returned at the top of every search and BP's side of the story was readily available (See Diagram 1).

Diagram 1: BP Uses Google Keywords to Control the Information Environment
While the RSAF incident has not turned into a crisis and hence may not necessitate the purchase of Keywords, MINDEF's Public Affairs Department needs to monitor the type of stories/ posts being linked to the incident.  Then, should the stories/ posts linked to the incident become exceedingly negative, the appropriate counter-measures taken.  In the mean time, MINDEF would do well to push out more positive stories to balance the reporting.

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