Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt Unrest: The Rallying Effect of Social Media

CNN.Com carried a report today on how protesters in Tunisia and Egypt are using social media to communicate, inform and organise themselves. This “rallying effect” of social media was one of two new dimensions of social media I identified in my earlier research.

Since the Greek Riot of 2008, where researchers first observed the rallying effect, social media's effectiveness as a rallying tool for social movement has increased significantly. This is attributed to the proliferation of mobile phone versions of social networking tools which now enable users can now stay connected to their network 24/7 and from anywhere in the world.

Authorities are therefore rightly concerned over the potential for abuse by individuals or organisations with ill intent.

It was reported that Egypt's attempts to block Internet traffic has had limited success. This is because the nature of the Internet makes it amorphous and practically impossible to block.  So what then can authorities do to counter the rallying effect?

The answer lies in raising their own army of ambassadors. In a world where social networks can grow in size to tens of thousands, it is impossible and unrealistic for any government to employ sufficient number of PR or crisis communicators to address all the negative information on the Internet. The only sustainable option is for governments to communicate and engage with their stakeholders to convert them into ambassadors of the government.  These ambassadors must be proactively engaged by officials to ensure their understanding of the government's position on matters, rationale for policies, and limitations to adequately address all the concerns of all the citizens all of the time. This clearer understanding of the government's position and thinking will then enable the ambassadors to "speak up" as third-party endorsements for the government to counter negative information.

In addition, as social media becomes even more pervasive, governments should begin educating their citizens on the dangers of being manipulated by individuals or organisations with ill intent.

Hence, as I have said many times in this blog, communication is the key to winning the battle for social media.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Does Open Sharing of Crisis Communication Strategies Affect its Effectiveness?

While sharing the crisis communications framework with a group of executives at a workshop recently, I was asked whether revealing the "mechanism" behind crisis communications would limit its effectiveness. After all, if stakeholders knew what you were trying to do, wouldn't they view your Messages with skepticism?

My answer was simple. All crisis communications is based on truth. And as the model suggests, the organisation's failure to gain the information initiative has allowed the crisis to take on a life of it own. As a result, the organization has either been falsely or maliciously attributed with responsibility.  Thus, if the organisation's crisis communication's Messages are aimed at (a) correcting false or malicious perceptions; and (b) helping stakeholders to better cope with the crisis, rational stakeholders would welcome the act.

A simple analogy is the sales process.  Every customer knows that the salesperson is not being friendly for nothing.  The salesperson is doing it with the clear intent of making a sale.  Knowing the salesperson's intent in no way changes the sales process.  The savvy customer still purchases only when the product meets his needs.  No matter how friendly the salesperson, if the product does not meet the customers' needs, the customer is unlikely to buy.

The same is true in the crisis communications process.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Prime Minister wants The Online Citizen Gazetted as Political Association

On 10 January, the Prime Minister's Office of Singapore revealed its intention to gazette the website, The Online Citizen, as a political association.  As a political association, The Online Citizen will be barred from receiving funds from foreign donors or allow foreigners to take part in its events.  The gazette, the Prime Minister's Office explained, is necessary to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics as the website has the potential to influence and shape political outcomes.

From the perspective of crisis communications in the era of social media, I find the move by the Prime Minister's Office counter-productive.

Firstly, blogs or websites without the complementing "brick and mortar" element or a defined organisation structure are just websites.  Even with a large following, netizens accept the views expressed on the website with some scepticism.  The Prime Minister's Office move to gazette the website has effectively legitimised the contents over-night.  And, based on the curiosity effect, I am certain that viewership of The Online Citizen has significantly increased since the announcement.

Secondly, in the era of social media, no country or entity can completely eliminate dissenting voices.  Take the recent cablegate by wikileaks as a case in point.  The Online Citizen is only one of many websites out in cyberspace than can easily and effectively morph itself to keep ahead of the government's efforts to "control" it.  Hence, as I have advocated in some of my earlier blog postings, stakeholder engagement and not stakeholder censorship is the more effective approach to managing social media.

In short, while I can understand the Singapore government's need to prevent foreign influence in domestic politics (i.e. foreigners' agendas may not be in Singaporeans best interest), I feel that the Singapore government's approach is off the mark.  In the era of social media, stakeholder engagement and not stakeholder censorship is the key to winning the battle for cyberspace.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Framework for Crisis Management (Part 2)

According to Bernard Weiner's research, locus of control refers to the perception of whether the crisis was caused by the organisation or the situation; stability whether the factors contributing to the crisis was predictable; and controllability whether the organisation could have acted to prevent it. Thus, if the crisis was caused by the organisation, was something which the organisation could reasonably have predicted to occur, and was within the ability of the organisation to prevent, then attribution of responsibility would be high.

Depending on the cause of the crisis and the extent to which the organisation is responsible/ culpable, the crisis communicator can conceptually adopt 1 of 4 crisis response strategies. Where there is no culpability, the organisation can either deny responsibility or redirect responsibility, while in scenarios where the organisation has culpability, the organisation can either diffuse/ share responsibility or accept responsibility. The key in any of these strategies, or any other variations of them, is that the crisis communication Message must target at least 1, or all 3, of the dimensions.

Deny Strategy. In this strategy, investigations would have determined that the organisation was not responsible for the crisis and that the exact cause is unknown. Unfortunately, due to false or malicious attribution, the organisation is perceived by stakeholders to be culpable. The crisis communication Message in this scenario must therefore (a) directly refute the source of the false (or malicious) attribution; and (b) demonstrate to the stakeholders how the crisis was caused by an external party or event, was something that the organisation could not have predicted, and that there was nothing that the organisation could have reasonably done to prevent it. The key focus of this strategy is show that the organisation is also a “victim” of the crisis.

Redirect Responsibility. This second strategy is usually employed in scenarios where the cause is not the organisation but another entity. Similar to the former scenario, false or malicious attribution have made stakeholders perceive the organisation as culpable.  Thus, the crisis communication Message would be to state the facts surrounding the crisis to guide stakeholders to the “correct” cause of the crisis. This entails providing verifiable evidence that the cause was external, that the external entity had prior knowledge of the potential for the crisis, and that the organisation was powerless to prevent the crisis. In this redirect strategy, the organisation must explicitly guide stakeholders to hold another entity responsible. The key focus of this strategy, similar to the former, is show that the organisation is also a “victim” of the crisis.

Diffuse/ Share Responsibility. In this third strategy, investigations would have shown that the organisation was partly responsible for the crisis. Thus, in this scenario, the crisis communication Message would be to guide stakeholders' perception to the fact that the crisis was triggered by an external entity, that an external entity's actions had prevented the organisation from foreseeing the crisis, and that both parties' failure to act contributed to the crisis. The key focus of this strategy is demonstrate the complexity of the crisis and that the organisation, on its own, could not have foreseen or prevented it.

Accept Responsibility. In this fourth strategy, investigations would have shown that the organisation was fully responsible for the crisis. Here, the crisis communication Message would be to accept responsibility for the crisis and focus on providing information to help the stakeholders deal with their anger towards the organisation. Common tactics used in this strategy are punishing the perpetrator, seeking forgiveness from stakeholders or even compensating the victims. The key focus of this strategy is to shift stakeholders' emotions along from anger to neutrality and eventually to sympathy.

In all of the above strategies, crisis communicators should incorporate Messages to reinforce and build upon the espoused Vision and/ or Values of the organisation.  Done properly, crisis are excellent opportunities to enhance brand value.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Framework for Crisis Management (Part 1)

Building upon my earlier post on what I concluded was the Essence of Crisis Communications, I will now offer (over a series of blog postings) a possible framework upon which crisis communicators can develop their crisis response strategies.

However, before we go into the framework, I must emphasize that all crisis communications must be based on 100% truth. This is because we now operate in a perfect information environment where lies and partial truth will be found out. And once this occurs, the impact to the organisation's reputation is likely to be worse than any initial admission of responsibility. Hence, the first step in a crisis is to determine the truth behind the crisis to determine who is responsible for the crisis.

Thereafter, once the cause of the crisis has been determined, the crisis communicator will then develop a crisis response strategy to guide stakeholders' perceptions of responsibility to the “correct” cause. This is done via specific efforts to influence stakeholders' perception of the dimensions related to locus of control, stability and controllability of the crisis. The theory is that changes in one, or all three, of these dimensions will result in a different attribution of perceived responsibility.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Essence of Crisis Communications

During a recent Awareness Workshop I conducted on Crisis Communications in the Era of Social Media, I was asked by a participant if crisis communications could be defined in one word.

After some reflection, I answered "attribution" or, more specifically, "attributing responsibility".  This to me most accurately sums up the entire purpose and, for that matter, process of crisis communication.

According to research by Bernard Weiner, when a crisis erupts, stakeholders will seek to attribute responsibility.  Then depending on factors like locus of control, stability and controllability, the stronger the perceived link between the crisis and the organisation, the greater the attribution of responsibility.

Thus, at its essence, crisis communication is about guiding stakeholders to hold the "correct" cause responsible for the crisis.  And if the organisation is the cause, to help stakeholders to deal with their anger in a manner that does not adversely affect the organisation.

Monday, January 3, 2011

United States Navy (USN) Investigates Raunchy Videos with Anti-Gay Remarks

CNN today reported that the United States Navy (USN) has launched an investigation into how a series of raunchy videos (full of sexual innuendo and anti-gay remarks) were produced and shown to the crew of the USS Enterprise in 2006 and 2007.  The existence of these videos were made public last Saturday by The Virginian-Pilot (a newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia).

In response to the crisis, the Navy issued a statement on Saturday saying that (a) the production of videos, like the ones shown on the USS Enterprise, was not acceptable then and are still not acceptable in today's Navy; (b) the Navy does not endorse or condone these kinds of actions and that leadership had "put a stop" to the inappropriate content on the Enterprise several years ago; and (c) that it is "unfortunate" that copies of these videos remained accessible to crew members especially after leadership took actions 4 years ago.

In view of the recent controversial repealing of the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy by President Obama, the Navy was quick to realise that they had a crisis on their hands.  In addition, the Navy was also astute in their assessment that the videos were likely "leaked" by an insider and that the media would thus have "perfect information" on all facts related to the videos.  Hence, based on this assessment, the Navy's initial crisis response was to be timely and 100% truthful in acknowledging the incident.

After the initial response, the Navy then sought to contain the crisis by using the twin crisis response strategies of (a) minimising the crisis by demonstration that they are in control.  This they did by highlighting that they were "aware of the incident" and had "taken action 4 years ago"; and (b) seeking stakeholder sympathy by hinting that the Navy was a "victim" i.e. someone had deliberately "leaked" the old videos.

In critiquing the Navy's crisis communication strategy, I feel that the Navy failed to do a proper stakeholder analysis to identify the main stakeholder concern(s).  In my assessment, with the current controversy over the repealing of the DADT policy, the main stakeholder concern is that anti-gay slurs are condoned by the highest levels in the Navy.  If my assessment is correct, the Navy's current response of "we already took actions" is grossly off the mark and will further fuel the crisis.  After all, how can the Navy claim to have taken action, when the primary actor in the inappropriate videos was promoted to assume 1 of only 11 coveted commands within the Navy.

Hence, the key lesson for crisis communicators from this crisis is that the media will shape what stakeholders think about, why stakeholders think about it, and how stakeholders think about it.  To be effective in crafting crisis communication Messages, crisis communicators must first seek to correctly identify stakeholders' main concern.  Failing to do so, may prove disastrous.

Let's see if my assessment is correct.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

David Beckham Fights Back Over Irma Nici's Sex Scandal

The print edition of Singapore's The Straits Times today reported that David Beckham has officially filed a US$25m lawsuit against Irma Nici (the sex worker who claims that Beckham has a threesome with her and another brunette at the Claridges Hotel in London) and the publishers of In Touch Weekly magazine (who ran the story in Sep 10). In court documents Beckham has declared that “he has never met Irma Nici and never involved in sex with her” and that her “statements have caused stress to his family”. This is the latest in a series of sex scandals that have been linked to Beckham.

From a crisis communications perspective, it is clear that Beckham's reputation in the area of marital fidelity is not favourable. Thus, it is likely that any accusations against him is perceived as highly plausible by stakeholders.  What is interesting is that the scandal does not seem to be affecting Beckham's brand image. On the contrary, the continued media attention only serves to keep him in the limelight and, in my opinion, add to his brand image. Hence, the decision to seek legal recourse, and what will be a very public court case, is a shrewd public relations move by Beckham.

Beckham's crisis response strategy must therefore be viewed in the context as one designed to gained publicity (and win a lawsuit) and not one in which the intention is to repair his reputation and brand image.