June 18, 2011
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Digital crisis communications in Asia

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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