Friday, July 29, 2011

Crisis Communication Plan: The 5 Essential Elements

The proliferation of Social Media has changed how effective Crisis Communication is to be done. 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 instantaneous news on a 24/7 basis, consolidated and indexed (via intelligent search engines), has made it the primary source of news. 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.

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 January 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. In fact, the first recorded tweet occurred 4 minutes after the incident.

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.

c. Multiple Media Platforms. A 2008 study commissioned by The Associated Press on the News Consumption Behaviour of Young Adults 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. 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 Planners must accept that nothing can be hidden forever and that a Crisis Communication Plan must be open, fast, accurate, broadly communicated through multiple platforms and comprising a cyberspace component.

Characteristics of Effective Crisis Communications - The 5 Essential Elements

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.

a. Open. As nothing in the new information environment can be hidden indefinitely, Crisis Communication Planners 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 Planner 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 Planners 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. 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 vacuum 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. 100% 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 deceit is established, this will imply a cover-up on the part of the company giving further traction to the crisis. Crisis Communication Planners 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 planner must therefore protect the spokesperson's credibility. To fulfil this role, the Crisis Communication Planner 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 Planners 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 Social Media compatible information, customised 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 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 instantaneously 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 Planners 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.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Crisis Communication: KFC Malaysia Food Tampering Scandal and How Facebook Saved the Day

In Jun 11, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Malaysia was faced with a potential social media crisis when videos of food tampering by their kitchen staff started circulating on the Internet. As part of its crisis response strategy, KFC Malaysia established a page on its Facebook wall to tell its side of the story and restore consumer confidence.

Like many other crisis communication experts, I attribute KFC Malaysia's success in avoiding a crisis to its timely, open, truthful, Internet present and broadly communicated crisis communication plan – what I have termed the 5 essential elements of a crisis communication plan. This approached effectively enabled KFC Malaysia to seize the information initiative and effectively frame the crisis as the action of a single rogue employee. Additionally, by responding via social media, KFC Malaysia also ensured that their response was on the same platform as the video.

As a crisis communication consultant, I must admit that I was impressed by KFC Malaysia's social media savviness to create a Question and Answer to centralise all feedback related to this matter. While dangerous in the sense that anger feeds upon anger, this forum is nonetheless a useful tool for the organisation to “hear” everything that is being said about it. The organisation can then use the collated “intelligence” to accurately judge consumer sentiments, stakeholder concerns and respond appropriately to it. Furthermore, the forum gives netizens a platform to vent their anger with the knowledge that someone in authority is listening. This cathartic act in itself is useful to dissipate stakeholder anger.

If there is one suggestion that I can give to KFC Malaysia, it is to consider purchasing Google Ad Words related to the crisis. This is because Facebook pages cannot be index by search engines and KFC Malaysia's response is not showing up in searches related to this crisis.

Overall, well done to the PR Team at KFC Malaysia.


For more information about our in-house crisis communications training, email justin[a]

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Crisis Communication: Why the CEO is not the Best Spokesperson in a Crisis

As part of crisis communications, it is often necessary for organisations to put a “face” to the crisis. In view that the spokesperson must demonstrate top management's commitment, accountability and control of the situation, many organisations select their CEO to front the crisis. In my opinion, the CEO is not the most appropriate choice.

This is because studies have shown that communication is based on 93% body language and paralinguistic cues and only 7% on the words themselves. Thus, in the era of social media where videos or pictures of press conferences are readily available for viewing, scrutiny and analysis on a 24x7 basis, the spokesperson's ability to deliver a congruent message is crucial.

In a crisis, the CEO is usually fully aware of the facts of the situation and, in order to successfully manage the crisis, certain facts may need to be temporarily withheld from the public. In such instances should the CEO to be questioned by the media, his body language may “leak” indicators that he is being less than truthful. This in turn may do more harm than good.

It is therefore my opinion that the best spokesperson in a crisis, is not the CEO of the organisation, but the organisation's Director of Public Affairs (DPA). And, in order to prevent “leaks” when communicating with the media, the DPA should not be a member of the Crisis Communications Team. The creation of such a Chinese Wall, will additionally maintain the Director's credibility with the media in the event the media discovers that the organisation has been less than 100% truthful.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Research Data: Internet and 2G/ 3G Mobile Phone Penetration Rates

Singapore's The Straits Times today (9 July 2011) published an extract from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) latest survey on Internet and Mobile Phone Penetration Rates. The extract showed the following:

Mobile Phone (2G and 3G): 7.41 million mobile phone subscriptions giving a penetration rate by population of 146.1%.

Residential Wired Broadband: 1.2 million subscriptions giving a penetration rate by households of 102.7%.

Wireless Broadband: 7 million subscriptions giving a penetration rate by population of 138.3%.

As the figures show, wireless Internet connections is almost as prevalent as mobile phones and with industry experts estimating that smartphones account for between 72% to 90% of all mobile phone sold in Singapore, the impact of social media on crisis communications is significant.

Public Relations and Crisis Communications professionals must therefore realise that we live in a 'perfect information environment' where nothing of significance can be hidden indefinitely.  Thus, the best (and in my opinion the only) approach in a crisis, is to be open, timely, 100% truthful and Internet present.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cognitive Bias: Where Perception is Reality

In crisis communications, perception is reality. Stakeholders are after all humans and, like all of us, subject to involuntary cognitive bias.

The significance of cognitive bias in crisis communications is that it leads stakeholders to form lasting first impressions that will then “color” all subsequent information to fit the bias. Consequently, any new information that matches the bias will be used to reinforce it, while any information that contradict it will be discarded. This explains why first impressions are difficult to change and the importance of framing the crisis early.

In a crisis, the most common form of cognitive bias affecting communications is that of stereotyping. Defined by Wikipedia as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing, stereotypes can both help or hinder the crisis communications efforts.

A classic example of the use of positive stereotyping was by Oliver North during the Iran-Contra scandal. Oliver's defence rested on him convincing the American public that he was an honorable man, fighting for freedom and democracy. Tapping on the values and image that the American public associated with its military men, Oliver conspicuously wore his military uniform throughout his televised trial. To many, this was what enabled Oliver North not only to avoid incarceration, but walk away as a “hero”.

In the same light, crisis communicators must be aware of the negative stereotypes that their clients may have. Be it the negatives associated with a politicians that “lie” or corporate leaders who are “heartless” and only interested in the bottom line. In a crisis, good crisis communicators must “distance” their clients from the negatives.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

IPRS Lunch Talk - Digital Communications - 22 July 2011

The Institute of Public Relations Singapore (IPRS) will be organising the following Lunch Talk on 22 July 2011.

Victim of Online Vigilantism in Singapore - What should you do?

Over the weekend, a sales manager became the latest victim of online vigilantism in Singapore. He was on his way to trading in his BMW 5 S...