When crisis is a tweet away – New rules of crisis management for PR professionals

“We live in a digitally connected world where a crisis doesn’t knock, it tweets,” Ameer Ismail, President, Lintas Live, MullenLowe Lintas Group, makes a pertinent point on the challenges of crisis management in the digital era. Social media has exacerbated the challenges for PR professionals when it comes to addressing negative talk, managing brand reputation, facing the boycott or cancel culture, especially when the public is the nameless, faceless yet powerful voices on the Internet.

Highlighting the key challenges, Ameer Ismail said, “In today’s informed and emotionally charged environment, a crisis can hit brands when they least expect it, like a curveball. It’s important for communications professionals and clients to stay calm, remain vigilant and stay confident at every stage.”

He further said, “At Lintas Live, our crisis management process is called ‘Shield’. ORM and social listening is what we deploy at the start to understand the current sentiment. The analytics married with our PR skills gives us the ability to flag off negative conversations that have the potential of cascading further and becoming a crisis. We have a model by which all communication and insights are analyzed at different stages by in-house as well as cultural experts who can understand deeper nuances of the environment. As a part of our process, we conduct curated scenario planning workshops for clients, to help identify and plan responses for any eventuality. We also table important cultural realities that could potentially be reputation damaging if not managed right.”

Speaking about certain ways in which brands can avoid the destruction, Rohan Kanchan, Managing Director, Weber Shandwick India, said, “We undertake a thorough risk assessment by auditing client’s potential business risks, sites, the operating environment and sectoral dynamics and the product sale and engagement process. This in turn leads to Scenario planning which forms the basis of protocol development and guidelines for managing any exigencies within the firm. Whilst documenting protocols is important, our experience tells us that sensitising and training internal stakeholders is what makes the difference in real life situations. Turnaround time is shorter today and therefore decision making in managing and communicating through adversity is even more critical. Training and workshops provide real-time experience in a safe, controlled environment and importantly, the confidence to deal with complex situations.”

Kanchan spoke about Weber Shandwick India’s proprietary award-winning crisis simulation software, Firebell, which is tailored to service varied client industries and their influencer groups. “Developed by our digital and crisis professionals it brings technology, dynamic modeling, media nuances and real expertise to train executives in managing crisis and its escalating scenarios. In the last 5 years, and especially during and post COVID, we have seen tremendous off-take for such programs with executive leadership teams themselves closely involved in these preparedness workshops,” he added.

In the event of a crisis hitting a client, it boils down to one’s ability to monitor, analyse, develop a counter strategy and most importantly, pivot quickly to the evolving scenario. “This is where our crisis expertise, credentials for handling similar mandates and the process and protocols we develop for our clients helps them navigate such trying times,” he added.

According to Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Director,  Nucleus PR, “This works with a combination of crisis communication prep work and pre-emptive strikes tied in together with vigilance and a regular smattering of crisis update. This approach works for every crisis scenario and a seasoned PR professional will always be prepared for most eventualities. Social media activism just happens to be another one on the plate.”

Adding further, she said, “But when we delve into this one, a key task that will help you avoid or mitigate or prepare for this is to get the social media team to run all tricky creatives by the PR team. As a PR professional who has a pulse on the mood of the nation across verticals outside the comfortable brand bubble, s/he will be able to guide the team on possible backlash on the creative and how to handle it. If the brand chooses to risk it anyway then the PR team can prepare for a crisis scenario.”

“Experience is the expertise,” remarked Kanchan, while speaking on the challenges that a PR/ communication professional has to go through while dealing with such adverse situations. “Handling multi-sector and multi-stakeholder assignments over the years provide you with an immediate visual playing field of any exigent situation. It’s important to breathe, take a step back and almost develop a drone view of the situation. Play out the process and steps including stakeholder reactions, to develop your response strategy. Be in-depth on your industry knowledge and agile in your ability to move quickly. Facts and attention-to-detail become your basic tools,” he added.

Rattan pointed out, “It is extremely stressful to say the least when you are dealing with social media activists, especially when all this is avoidable and adds unnecessary stress to the life of a communication professional. These individuals don’t have an editor that you can go to or appeal to their journalistic ethics for a fair media trial. It’s like the wild wild west scenario and you have to assemble your gang versus theirs to either drown out the noise or rise above it. I mean, there has to be a better use of our time!”

It gets particularly frustrating when brand teams don’t adhere to the set process of looping in PR teams on tricky creatives. It’s even more annoying when they assume that a tone deaf creative is right and there is nothing wrong with it. There are many situations I have found when that’s true, said Rattan.

She also listed seven steps while elaborating on how PR as a domain handles or manages such unforeseen situation. These are:

Listen - When social media activists pull up something then there has to be a point somewhere. Find that point and look at it from both their perspective and the brand perspective.

Decide - Based on your understanding and the brand ethos decide which way you want to play it.

Reaction - Gauge the intensity of the crisis as well so you can decide on an appropriate response and tonality for it.

Agreement - Put the bets in front of the brand and share your advice. It is essential that all of you are on the same page so as not to cause a very public spill over.

Approach - If you are wrong- straight off apologise. If you are not, then reach out to the activist and help them understand your perspective without losing your cool.

Communicating - How will you communicate with your core audience during this crisis is essential. Zero in on a mode and be consistent.   

Silver Lining - A crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate all your core values. Choose a few to highlight and weave them in conversations.  

On the guidelines for the PR industry and the skill sets that are required to deal with such unforeseen situations, Kanchan said, “Sound counsel, effective execution and being abreast on the latest digital and social developments are what help a client tide through a crisis. It’s an investment of time that communications professionals must do to gain deeper knowledge across sectors, work closely on live-projects with experts in this field and develop critical and analytical thinking around an industry and its sensitivities. Ultimately, it’s the experience that counts and a productised approach to managing adversity.”

Rattan added here, “Every PR professional knows that a crisis is part and parcel of working on a brand reputation. A new thread that has now been added to the worktable is social. This now requires a deeper understanding of how the social media platforms work, their landscape and algorithms along with their integration with your brand values.”

“This now also demands a higher level of conscious pitching from PR professionals. While every crisis finds its way into media and most brands would love for you to leverage this to get them in the news, you need to identify which ones you want to highlight to the larger set of audience and how. Not every crisis deserves media attention, irrespective of how well you handled it,” she concluded.


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