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Digital crisis communications infographic

February 24th, 2012 / 9:42 pm

Categories: crisis communications
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Crisis communications in 2012

February 9th, 2012 / 9:37 am

Recently Campaign Asia-Pacific magazine in Hong Kong asked me to share some thoughts concerning the evolution of crisis communications in 2012. Click here to read the piece.

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Digital crisis communications in Asia

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.

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TV interview on crisis PR leadership in japan

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]

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Apology PR: Asia’s latest export to the world?

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.

Look at what happened to Tiger Woods when his apology was slow and selective, rather than speedy and seemingly sincere.

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].

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‘Apology communications’ and the Woods saga

December 3rd, 2009 / 9:44 am

PR dissection of Woods media saga

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:

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