Thursday, September 29, 2011

London Weight Management Controversial Slimming Ad Sparks Debate

London Weight Management (LWM) responded to criticism of their latest advertisement as being demeaning and discriminatory of overweight women. The controversy started when TV host Anita Kapoor penned an open letter to the company on her blog on 23 Sep 2011 which was eventually picked-up by Social Media and then the Main Stream Media.

While I cannot be certain that LWM's response is not intended to continue the debate so as to keep it in the public eye (i.e. some PR professionals hold the view that all publicity is good), if it is not, then the response is ineffective in 2 key aspects:

Lack of Empathy. The response as printed by Yahoo! News showed a complete lack of empathy with stakeholders' concerns. In fact, LWM appeared to completely ignore it and simply stated that they complied with local regulations and that the advertisement was approved by the MDA (I am quite certain MDA will respond to this as MDA does not regulate ads tastefulness). This approach is not ideal as by not demonstrating an understanding of their concerns, stakeholders will then not be “open” to listening to your explanation.

Did not “Elevate” the Issue. In defending its approach to the advertisement, LWM's Marketing and Communications Manager, Ms Hazel Tang, stressed that the storyline is based on the real life experience of one of its clients. While this explanation is “strong”, I feel that LWM could have “elevated” the issue to one of using “real life examples” to sell its product and services instead of simply stating that “we complied with all local regulations” and that "it is based on a client's personal experience."  Elevating the issue will then prevent frivolous counter-arguments by stakeholders and afford LWM a stronger position to defend itself.

In short, in order to manage negative stakeholder comments, it is imperative that the affected organization (a) demonstrate empathy and understanding of stakeholder concerns/ issues; and (b) “elevate” the argument to a universally accepted concept or ideal before addressing it.

My assessment is that this response by LWM is unlikely to end the controversy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Last Minute Cancellation of Night Safari Halloween Horrors Event by WRS' CEO Isabella Loh

Much has been said about the sudden cancellation of the Halloween Horrors event and the possible personal agendas that may be behind it. As a Public Relations (PR) Professional, our job is to stay above the fray and to help our client communicate the “correct” message. In this instance, using the negative fall-out as a gauge, it is safe to assume that Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) did not quite communicate their message as well as they could have.

So what can PR Professionals learn from this incident? To me there are 2 key lessons:

Internal Stakeholders and Communication Policies. One factor that aggravated the crisis for WRS is the appearance of a “divide” between the management and staff. Media reports included “leaked” information and “anonymous” sources that contradicted the official statements of the CEO. While I am the last person to support a cover-up, I however firmly believe that any organization facing a crisis must portray a united front. Without dwelling into the possible group dynamics in this incident, WRS could have (a) communicated the intent and rationale for the cancellation to all internal stakeholders before going public; (b) put in place a Communications Policy that clearly stated who is authorized to speak with the media (both main stream and social) and, more importantly, what is to be said. This internal alignment would have, in my opinion, limited the perception of a management-staff divide.

Appropriate Use of Social Media. While I acknowledge that the speed of Social Media is a game changer in crisis communications, Social Media is nonetheless still a tool. In other words, organizations should be aware of its impact, but should not allow it to dictate what must be done. To illustrate, it was observed that Isabella issued an apology to the Singapore Polytechnic (SP) interns via Facebook as opposed to face-to-face. This, in my opinion, lacks the sincerity of an apology and comes across as pandering to the masses. A more effective approach, would have been for Isabella to apologize to the SP interns in person, and thereafter issue a Facebook posting publicizing it. In fact, a face-to-face apology may illicit some  understanding from the interns would could be included in the Facebook posting.  Social Media is after all only a tool for crisis communication and not the communication.

In short, this incident has highlighted the increasing importance of employee brand ambassadors in the era of social media. To strengthen this aspect, organizations must have in place a good internal communications framework and the supporting communications policy.  This incident has additionally highlighted the dangers of PR Professionals forgetting that Social Media is a tool for crisis communications and, while it is an important consideration, it should not be the communication.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

PR Crisis for California Fitness Over Cancellation of Membership Over Failure to Pay $8 Admin Fee

Today, The Singapore Straits Times and Social Media scene has been abuzz over California Fitness' cancellation of several members' lifetime membership due to their failure to pay a $8 annual administration fee.  Media reports have highlighted that an affected member, who had brought the fitness chain to The Small Claims Tribunal, had been awarded a $1,500 refund from the original membership fee of $4,000.  California Fitness has a major PR crisis on its hands and, in my opinion, if not managed well will signal the start of its demise as a going concern.


This is incident reminds me of a similar one I blogged about on 2nd September 2011, People's Association (PA) Replies to Forum Letter on Appointment of Grassroots Advisor, and is another classic example of how “good communications cannot help bad policies.”  This is because crisis communications is about presenting the truth to affected stakeholders and no amount of sugar coating or reframing can change the fact that a policy is flawed.  To put it simply, a rose by any other name still has thorns.

So what should California Fitness do?

In this instance, as has been demonstrated by the finding of the Small Claims Tribunal in favor of the member, California Fitness is legally at an indefensible position.  Hence, California Fitness' only approach is to change its policy and to go on the PR offensive to shore up its brand reputation.  To do this, California Fitness must (a) acknowledge the error of its past policy; (b) empathize with affected customers over the distress they have felt; (c) apologize and offer some act of contrition.  The Theme which California Fitness' crisis communication plan should adopt is one of "Remorse".

While this approach may be difficult for management to swallow, it is in my opinion the only possible solution to prevent decline in sales over the very negative publicity.  After all, as I have said in the beginning of this post, "good communications cannot help bad policies".

Friday, September 16, 2011

Crisis Scenario Discussion: What would you do if your teacher is accused of molesting one of the children

Scenario

You receive a complaint from a mother that her son had been sexually abused while at the pre-school you manage.  From your industry sources, you know that the mother had made a similar false claim in the past.  The police are investigating the complaint.  What would you do?

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My first step is to do a Stakeholder Analysis to identify the major Stakeholders and their Issues/ Concerns.  It is only after I have done this, do I then develop the appropriate message (including actions) to address them.

In this scenario, there are two major stakeholders - the parents of the other children who would be concerned about the safety of their child, and the teachers who would be concerned that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Thus, in my opinion, the appropriate response would be to issue a statement (a) acknowledging that a complaint has been received; (b) that the school places a high premium on the safety of the children under its charge; (c) that the school is helping authorities investigate the allegations; and (d) additional measures would be instituted to ensure the continued safety of the children until investigations are completed.

Essentially, I would go public with the allegation as we now operate in a "perfect information environment" and it is only a matter of time before the public finds out. Being proactive then enables the school to frame the issue and gain the information initiative.

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Do you agree or disagree with my proposed response?  Do share your thoughts.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

OCBC Succeeds in Managing Customers Unhappiness over Service Disruption

OCBC suffered a “technical glitch” yesterday (13 Sep 2011) which resulted in an island-wide disruption to its banking services. For a period of approximately 4 hours, OCBC customers could not access their accounts via the ATM, Internet Banking or Credit Card Services.

Apart from the “physical” immediate action undertaken by OCBC to mitigate customer inconveniences, OCBC also responded well in the “information” dimension to protect its reputation. OCBC's crisis communication plan was open, timely and included the use of Social Media platforms like Twitter. This Social Media integration with Main Stream Media proved effective in keeping customers updated. The piece de resistance in OCBC's crisis communication was the broadcast of a SMS apology by its CEO (Mr David Conner) which, judging from Social Media monitoring sites, was well received by customers.

So what are the key lessons for Crisis Communicators from this incident.

Firstly, as mentioned in my research, an effective crisis communication plan must comprise the 5 Essential Elements of being open, timely, 100% truthful, broadly communicated and internet present. A quick look at what transpired yesterday would reveal that OCBC's plan included all of these elements: (a) OCBC's confirmation of the technical glitch was noted to have been posted on Twitter within an hour of the incident; (b) OCBC was “truthful” over the cause (at least as far as we can tell for now); and (c) OCBC used a mix of Social Media as well as Main Stream Media channels to communicate with stakeholders.

Secondly, attribution theory of crisis communications states that stakeholders will attribute responsibility based on OCBC's perceived role in the crisis. In this instance, in view of the prompt restoration of services and OCBC's perceived attempts to minimise customer inconveniences, stakeholders can tolerate one off “technical glitches” and “forgive” OCBC. Unfortunately, this is a one-time pass and a second incident would not be viewed in the same light.   Hence, in my opinion, while it was a brilliant PR move for the CEO to SMS an apology to affected customers, I thought OCBC should have gone one step further. This is because technology is unpredictable and even with numerous redundancies in place, I would predict that it is impossible to prevent a second occurrence. Hence, a stronger approach would have been to “compensate” customers for their inconvenience. Much like Domino Pizza's strategy where a failure to deliver a performance standard is reframed into one in which the customer accepts willingly.  Such a move by OCBC, would have put OCBC in a strong position should a second incident occur.  In fact, I would even venture to say that such a move would encourage existing customers to switch their banking to OCBC.

All said and done, I think overall the PR Team at OCBC did a fantastic job!  Kudos!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Role of Employees in Crisis Communication

In Aug 2011, the Altimeter Group published an interesting report on the impact of social media. In its report, based on studies on 50 social media crisis, Altimeter Group concluded that 76% of these crisis could have been avoided if the companies involved had put in place the necessary organisation structures, staff processes and social media policies.

Based on their research, Altimeter Group identified that “advanced” companies that use social media had correctly identified the crucial role their rank and file employees play in the social media environment. These companies then not only allowed employee usage, but encouraged employees to use social media professionally. This is something I had blogged about on 2 Sep 2010 in my posting on “SIA Crew Warned over Facebook Use” where I mooted the idea of creating “ambassadors.

As a system, at the employee level, “advanced” companies were observed to have established (a) a robust and comprehensive social media policies that guide employees on what they can or cannot disclose; and (b) introduced corporate social media training programmes that taught employees on the correct use of social media.

Judging from the successes reported by these “advanced” companies, I think it is time that Singapore companies embrace the notion of developing their own social media “ambassadors”.

CW

P.S. It feels good when research substantiates your thinking.  :-)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) Suspends Facebook Comments Function Over 'Cyber-Harassment'

The Straits Times today reported that Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) had to temporarily disable its Facebook comments page after animal rights activists flooded it with messages calling for the release of the resort's 25 dolphins.

RWS' response was to go on the offensive by labelling the activist's actions as cyber-harassment and attributed responsibility to Animal Concerns Research and Education Society's (ACRES). To support their position, RWS provided screen-shots of the “abusive” posting and cited ACRES' own Facebook wall posting on 2 Sep 2011 where it “urged its followers to repeatedly post messages relating to the Marine Life Park on the Resorts World Sentosa Facebook page over the weekend from 9am Saturday to 9pm Sunday”.

So what can Crisis Communicators learn from this?

Firstly, RWS' response. It is my opinion that RWS made the correct decision to suspend the comment function on its Facebook page. Similar to an incident in which activists stand in your physical establishment and deny you the freedom to conduct your business, it is necessary for an organisation to use all proportionate means to deal with the “attack” and to allow it to restore normal business activities.

Secondly, and this is where I disagree with RWS, is its approach to go on the offensive against ACRES. I disagree with this approach as ACRES is after all an activists group and being labelled negatively is nothing new to them – in fact, it is expected. Additionally, crediting them with the “attack” adds to its “street credibility” and it is likely to embolden them further.

When dealing with activists, it must be noted that such groups are made up of the vocal elements (those that do the actions), a larger base of silent supporters (those that provide the financial support) and a still larger base of people that tolerate them (those that say do what you want just don't inconvenience me). Thus, it is my opinion, that a better approach for RWS would have been to seek to undermine ACRES credibility and support by indirectly by turning its silent supporters against them and the larger population's tolerance of them. To this end, RWS should have adopted a Theme of “benevolence” and hence (a) acknowledge that ACRES held a different view from RWS and the majority of Singaporeans; (b) RWS is willing to work with ACRES to address their concerns; (c) a denial of service attack on RWS' Facebook wall was not constructive as it inconvenienced other customers.

Activism is not common in Singapore. Unfortunately, with the increasing reach of Social Media, Singapore companies need to understand activism, its structure, and how to deal with it. This attack on RWS will certainly not be the last.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Social Media Abuse: Mexicans Face 30-Year Prison Term for Using Twitter to Spread Fear

The Associated Press today carried a report that 2 Mexicans are facing a 30-year prison term for allegedly using Twitter to spread chaos. In the report, the man and the woman (Gilberto Martinez Vera, 48, a private school teacher, and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, a radio presenter) are accused of spreading false reports that gunmen were attacking schools in the city of Veracrus.



As I explained in my research on Crisis Communications in the Era of Social Media, social media has enabled practically anyone with Internet access to reach out to a global audience. Unfortunately, unlike professional journalists who subscribe to a professional code of conduct, these citizen journalists do not. Citizen journalists are therefore free to pursue personal agendas without regards for the consequences.

This is another prime example of the dangers of allowing the unconstrained use of social media. While I am not advocating Government regulation or censorship of social media, I am however advocating that Governments enact laws that will enable them to hold netizens accountable for their actions. Such laws, used judiciously (so as not to infringe on the individual's right to expression) will then enable Governments to stop blatantly irresponsible actions against the common good.

While I firmly support the right of free speech, I also believe that the right comes with the obligation to use it responsibly. And, if an individual fails in his obligations, he or she must be held accountable.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

PA's 2nd Straits Times Forum Response Once Again Misses the Point

In an attempt to correct an earlier botched response to a Straits Times Forum letter questioning the appointment of PAP Advisers to Grassroots Organisations, Ms Ooi Hui Mei (Director Corporate Communications for the People's Association) 2nd response was carried in the 3 Sep 2011 edition of The Straits Times. In her response, Ms Ooi (a) once again failed to acknowledge the concern of the writer but instead trivialised it by saying that the “Government appreciates the public's interest” in this matter; and (b) attempted to explain why the PA needed to be pro-government.

In an earlier blog posting of mine, I shared with readers 2 principles which I believe are essential in handling negative stakeholder feedback. They are ...

Firstly, the stakeholder's unhappiness must be acknowledged as genuine and the response must directly address this. A common mistake made is to provide a general response to the concern raised. Doing so, the organisation not only "trivialises" the stakeholder's concerns, but demonstrates a lack of understanding of the situation. This is likely to instigate the stakeholder to continue his "attacks" on the organisation as he feels that he has not been “heard”.

Secondly, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, the organisation must avoid addressing the concern at the "tactical" level. The stakeholder's concern must be elevated and linked to universal principles like fairness, safety or perhaps 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.

Hence, in order to effectively address negative stakeholder feedback, the PA must do 2 things - (a) acknowledge the stakeholder's concerns; and (b) elevate and link the concern to a "universal principle" before offering a solution.

Based on Ms Ooi's second response, it is my opinion that this is not likely to be the end of this matter.

(If you find this blog posting useful/ interesting, please click the Google +1 button to show your support. Thanks.)

Follow me on Twitter @sg_crisis_guru

Dear Readers,

I resisted the push to have a Twitter account for the longest time as I felt that I did not have much to up-date on a regular basis.  Well, things have changed and I now have a Twitter account.

Hence, if you want to stay updated on the latest thinking on crisis management and, more specifically, crisis communications (in Singapore and around the region), please follow me on Twitter @sg_crisis_guru.

I hope to share my thinking, as well as to hear and learn from you.

Cheers!
CW

Friday, September 2, 2011

People's Association (PA) Replies to Forum Letter on Appointment of Grassroots Advisor

The 31 Aug 2011 People's Association (PA)'s response, to a Straits Times forum letter by Mr Muhammad Yusuf Osman supporting the idea that Advisers to grassroots bodies should be the elected Member of Parliament (MP), is a classic example of the refrain that “good communications cannot help bad policies.”

This is because communications is about presenting the truth to affected stakeholders. No amount of sugar coating or reframing or, in this case, double-speak, can change the fact that the policy is flawed and biased in support of the government. To put it simply, a rose by any other name still has thorns.

So what could the PA have done?

For this particular case, instead of attempting a feeble attempt to explain the issue, my advice as a crisis communicator would be for the PA to first “elevate” Mr Muhammad Yusuf Osman question to one about fairness (which, by the way, is the writer's main concern). And, once having established that, gone on to try to explain why it is more “fair” to the public for the Government to appoint grassroots advisers who support its programmes.

While this approach may not address the root issues of fairness and equity, it would in my opinion (a) show an understanding of the issue raised; (b) demonstrate empathy to the writer; and (c) perhaps make a bad policy sound more palatable.

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