February 24th, 2012 / 9:42 pm
February 9th, 2012 / 9:37 am
June 18th, 2011 / 2:03 pm
I have just finished doing an e-mail interview for a major Asia-Pacific marketing publication, and here is what I submitted (they’ll selectively use some quotes, but seeing how I spent all this time jotting the answers, figured I should post the whole thing here on my blog):
What is accounting for the growth of crisis management as a PR service?
The demand for crisis communications consulting is going through the roof right now because social networks are creating so many additional touch-points for risk and reputation. Companies that in the past may have been reluctant to admit the dimensions of a mistake now realize that digital creates such radical transparency it is pointless to be defensive and try and cover things up and conversely profitable to be proactive and engage people with the facts of the matter. Some folks falsely believe that PR is just about brand promotion but these days its role in reputation protection is more important than ever.
How is digital and social media changing the crisis management landscape and are in-house and agency PRs equipped to cope?
Worldwide the PR industry has been quickly retooling its factory to capitalize on the new possibilities of digital for crisis communications. We have always been in the relationships business where conversations and engagement come naturally, so we’ve really been able to turn on a dime in a very short period of time during the social media revolution. The fact that PR firms are themselves in the process of becoming social businesses helps us counsel clients on social media with an assured confidence. We’ve been doing a lot of development in digital storytelling, programming and weaving repurposable content across platforms into streams.
On the client side, some in-house teams are modernizing fast but others are mired in the assumptions of another era. In Asia a lot of companies are making excellent progress but all too often, corporate communications remain centered on one-way, top-down monologues where ‘face’ can sometimes seem more important than Facebook.
Is there significant difference between crisis management in Asia and the West?
It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations, but I find the role of lawyers in a crisis is far stronger in the West, especially with respect to the making of an apology, which comes more easily to corporations in the East which may be less concerned about how saying sorry for making a mistake somehow constitutes an admission of guilt with liability implications.
Do Asian governments and corporations take PR seriously enough as a way of handling a crisis?
It depends which government we are talking about. I think the Chinese government takes PR very seriously and it has demonstrated crisis communications prowess in past, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Japanese government, which has famously not taken PR seriously enough in the wake of the country’s recent triple disasters. In terms of response speed, decisive leadership communications and use of social media, China has generally evidenced a better command of communications. Then there are the Koreans, who are very advanced on digital crisis communications in particular.
How do cultural and geographic differences in Asia impact responses to a crisis?
The diversity of Asia between and within countries makes it challenging and yet critically important to master the nuance and tonality of the language that is used in highly sensitive issues management and crisis communications situations. To some extent we have a ‘lingua franca’ in the world of PR, but what works in English doesn’t always work in other languages so a tailored and not just translated approach gets the best results. English can be so direct and subject-centric and ‘conclusion first,’ whereas some Asian languages can be quite the opposite, so knowing this can make all the difference.
I think especially in East Asia the transcendent importance of ‘face’ is such that companies are reluctant to engage in peer-to-peer communications with their communities online, with fear of losing control and thus face having the effect of dampening the kind of dialogue that might help defuse a crisis situation.
Is the PR industry in Asia sophisticated enough to adequately provide this kind of service and where can improvements be made?
The premise of this question underscores the work we need to do in Asia but also the biases we need to correct and update. In my view, there is plenty of sophisticated crisis communications consulting capacity in Asia, but it overwhelmingly resides in the international PR firm ‘ghetto.’ There are some excellent domestic in-market independents coming along but there are many others who suffer from development challenges.
What I have noticed is that there are too many crisis communications poseurs out there, ‘experts’ who can deliver a decent training seminar but then haven’t the foggiest when a real situation explodes. I also see this tendency with social media for people to share information about crisis communications with others online and then to overestimate the extent of their own expertise. There are those who seem to feel that to Re-Tweet the thinking of others is to become an expert themselves.
What specific training are brands doing in this area? Is it enough?
What we’re seeing is accelerating demand for full-scale digital crisis simulation training. The old analogue crisis simulations were heavily scripted, but to those participating the format presented them with some daunting if unlikely dilemmas. Now the new digital training moves at warp speed and confronts trainees with a bewildering array of wildfire stimuli that simulate real-life social media conditions.
What are your top tips on the best ways to handle a crisis?
There is no doubt that speed is a key factor in a crisis, but responding accurately is equally important. Better to refrain from speedy and sloppy glib statements and instead take the time to transparently communicate the verified facts of the matter.
Times have changed and the rules of the game have evolved. It used to be that crisis communications were defensive and reactive, with holding statements used like protective shields to keep critics away. Nowadays I think crisis communications need to be aggressive and proactive, where we invite people to participate right from the start and then communicate continuously.
Passively waiting for the crisis to pass and then rebuilding reputation is arguably an outmoded approach because in these digital times by then it is too late. It makes more sense to actively prevent the storm in the first place by engaging people, listening to what they have to say, apologizing for mistakes and humbly asking for ideas to help ensure continuous improvement. Brands used to act like things; now they are expected to act like people. This is especially true in crisis communications situations which are golden opportunities to showcase a company’s character at its finest, with personality, humor and gravitas ideally on conspicuous public display.
March 23rd, 2011 / 1:59 am
Channel NewsAsia, the Singapore-based Asia-Pacific TV news network, interviewed me in this segment on March 19th for my thoughts on the situation (as of that date) concerning Japan’s leadership communications in light of the country’s recent national disasters:
[sorry the video quality from the source file I received is not high resolution]
December 20th, 2010 / 5:00 am
Guest post by Christine Jones
I had probably my worst travel trip last week. It took 50 hours to get from Shanghai to Brisbane, Australia where I live. Yes, I was travelling by plane – though I forgive you for thinking I was on some kind of mission to get there by other means of transport. And no, there were no stopovers, hotels or beds involved. Just a catalogue of delays, missed connections and unhelpful airline staff at several airports along the way.
It’s a test of human nature when these unexpected incidents occur. Seeing how people react. Some get angry, some get upset, some just sit, some sigh with a kind of helpless resolve. We see it all the time on the news when airlines go on strike or get delayed due to bad weather. It’s just it usually doesn’t happen to me. So I started to think of my situation as an issues and crisis management case study. Yeah right, you say? But hey, I had to sit in three different airports for an aggregate total of 30 hours, excluding flying time, so I had to do something to stay sane.
So here’s what I observed:
First, communication is key. At all three airports – Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, no-one kept us informed so we had no idea what was going on. Even if the news was bad, or if they’d told us they were not sure what was happening, it would have been better than saying nothing. This is what people were grumbling about the most. This is the first rule of issues and crisis management – communicate quickly, regularly and accept responsibility. It builds credibility. Strike one to the airline.
Second, customer service is critical. Unhappy customers today equals no customers tomorrow. The airline did everything it could to minimise the cost of dealing with the situation. We were not given a hotel and had to sleep in chairs in a lounge for the night, we were not given anything to eat or drink until we got to the lounge (which took three hours), and no extra staff were made available to help us. This is the second rule of issues and crisis management – how do you want to be remembered after the crisis is over? Clearly for me and the scores of other disgruntled passengers, we won’t be flying with the airline in question again. They forgot about building or maintaining relationships. Strike two to the airline.
Third, focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. No matter how frustrated I was, getting angry was not going to help. Some passengers kept going up to the counter. They hovered, they complained, they kept asking the same question – what’s happening? Clearly this wasn’t going to make the slightest difference to anything other than their own blood pressure. Although they did get answers, mostly made-up by the staff to fob them off. I chose to sit with a few other passengers – ok we grumbled amongst ourselves – but we knew the situation was out of our hands. But, the airline kept promising things they couldn’t deliver. We will board shortly, we will be underway soon, we will help you. None of which was true. Third rule of issues and crisis management – stick to the facts and don’t make promises you will later regret. This builds trust. Strike three and out to the airline.
If you have a travel story – funny, frustrating or fabulous – send it to this blog. Or, email me as I’d love to know what happened to you and how you reacted.
Christine Jones is regional managing director at Burson-Marsteller in Asia Pacific and is based in Australia. Travel is one of the most rewarding parts of her professional and personal life. Her favourite airline is Singapore airlines; favourite public transport is the tram system in Basel, Switzerland and the London Underground ; and her worst trip (until this one) was on a public bus in Uganda which used bamboo shoots to keep the wheels on when the bolts flew off in an “incident”. Email your travel stories to Chrissy on email@example.com
January 15th, 2010 / 4:00 pm
When I moved from North America to North Asia in 2002, South Korea was roiled by the horrible death of two young school girls who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle (gruesome pictures of which were posted online). Afterward there were mass anti-U.S. demonstrations around the American Embassy in Seoul, located right next door to the Edelman office where I then worked. Feelings against America were running so high, I made a point of wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey when I went to the office, wading through what at times was an angry mob.
One reason why the anti-American passion was running so high? What some felt was the slow speed of the apology for the deaths from President Bush, pouring fuel on the cultural fire in a part of the world where a timely and appropriate apology is de rigeur.
Compared to the West — and especially to America, where I lived for several years — one of the first things I noticed living in Asia is how rapidly and frequently apologies are offered across a wide range of circumstances. At first, this seemed too quaint and maybe excessively ‘weak.’ Why apologize for something that’s not proven to be your fault? That was my attitude then. But over time, I came to believe that the generous Asian approach to apology ensures more harmonious and friendly relationships between people, contributing to civility in society and helping prevent angry public outbursts that one sees more often in Western societies.
Indeed, I increasingly found my own culture’s approach to apology callous and calculating; a tactic of last resort if there’s no other way out of a situation. I had reflected on this issue before, because in my role as a PR consultant to clients experiencing crisis situations, I have repeatedly fought battles with lawyers who always seem to insist that there should never be an apology if a company does something wrong, lest there be legal liability as a result.
All too often, the lawyers win the ‘apology war’, but it’s a pity because simply saying that harm has occurred and showing that you feel bad or sad about what’s happened evidences human empathy and does not constitute an admission of guilt. The Asians certainly appreciate that, and because the lawyers do not reign so supreme in their societies, PR people don’t need to ‘induce’ public apologies that are already a natural cultural response.
Thus, for example, the reflexive bowing at Japanese news conferences if ‘mistakes have been made,’ which even if sometimes reluctant and slow to happen — often a problem with foreign companies in Japan such as Schindler — is such a humble admission that public acceptance usually follows and the media is likely to move on to something else. Indeed, the media ‘pile on’ that happens to organizations or people who have erred often seems like society’s way of extracting an expected apology.
Does that thinking sound familiar? It should, because during recent years — and I have noticed this change since I returned to North America — the spectacle of public apology has become far more frequent in Western countries. There certainly have been many media stories about this tendency lately and the whole area of ‘apology communications’ has become very trendy in PR circles. In an age when so many people fashion themselves as ‘PR experts,’ the apology as the fast way to ‘get the media off your back’ if something bad has happened is now a commonplace theme.
On both sides of the Pacific these days, if you are slow to apologize, then people are less likely to trust the sincerity of the apology when it finally does come. Just ask Mark McGwire or any of the executives bowing at Japanese news conferences who are especially sorry that they got caught doing something wrong (which in many cases they could have sincerely admitted much earlier had they been proactively transparent…).
Early in my PR career, I learned about the ‘CAP formula’ for crisis communications. Show Compassion, take Action, provide Perspective. Nowadays, in Asia and worldwide, I think it has really become the CAAP formula: Compassion, Apology, Action, and Perspective. There are even websites now that specialize in apology techniques.
For so many years, there has been this cultural condescension towards Asia; this sense that Western communications are always more advanced and thus American and European PR methods have been widely imported and adapted. In the area of apology communications, the reverse is true and I think the export of Asian apology sensibility is likely a change for the better.
[If you are interested in the apology element of professional communications, check out this excellent article by my former Hill & Knowlton colleague Boyd Neil. If you can read Korean, one of the top Asian thought leaders in this space with significant material online is the brilliant Hoh Kim, my successor at Edelman Korea who is now doing his PhD thesis in this area at KAIST].
December 3rd, 2009 / 9:44 am
This graphic dissection of the latest Tiger Woods media statement (which I clipped by hand from today’s The Globe and Mail newspaper) illustrates some of the key elements being discussed in the news this week by PR people around the world. Like many industry colleagues, I generally think that the key to success in such situations is to communicate the facts of the matter in a fearlessly transparent fashion right away, without delay, as soon as possible, even though it often feels counter-intuitive to do so. At Edelman, I learned to call this the ‘paradox of transparency.’
Turning on a dime with a nimble response, taking responsibility while showing genuine concern and apologizing sincerely from the get-go together secure what some have called ‘temporal command’ of the news cycle, without which an ‘information vacuum’ arises, with critics and speculators filling the gap with often inaccurate rumor and gossip. When that happens, it’s hard play catch-up and achieve credible believability after the fact (related: see this story from The Washington Post on ‘the persistence of myth’).
Here’s a video where I talk about my own approach to crisis communications:
- Visualizing the rise and fall of marketing monikers
- The climate change PR disaster
- Humanitarianism in the network age
- The marketing might of modern public relations
- Guest lecture at SMU on Asia social media
- An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’
- climate change
- crisis communications
- guest post
- media relations
- national brand
- PR industry
- social media
- speaking platforms
- A shocking example of how a vile regime uses online media to communicate propaganda: http://t.co/MXkmAaUXLH http://t.co/K3y7Q2f0R7
- The power of collaboration [video]: http://t.co/niIlK38hYT | The rising peer-produced economy - and culture
- @neilclevine I look forward to seeing your blog post about photographs, videos and memory
- This looks like fun for fellow students of 'mass persuasion:’ http://t.co/FTLq3tuFAB | The Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai
- RT @dorocren: six practical tips for producing killer brand journalism: http://t.co/At6N0LPsTC | Hint: more journalism, less brand
- Why the cult of hard work is counter-productive: http://t.co/8FtehQiRpq | A subversive yet bracing take on the folly of constant 'busyness'
- RT @CampaignAsia: Congrats to all the Agency of the Year winners: http://t.co/kPtrtI79yq | An excellent evening with many deserving awards
- A timely presso on the instant ‘messaging wars:’ http://t.co/JiisrblY2s
- How Instagram alters memory: http://t.co/VJrASDxRIH | Our cameras now remember for us