Acknowledge, communicate and engage. These are the three principles that Sujatani Poosparajah, head of strategic communications at PETRONAS Dagangan follows when there is a communications crisis situation that arises within a brand.
"Acknowledgement is linked to how you plan your response. You need to know your audience and who you're communicating to," said Poosparajah who was speaking at a panel at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's PR Asia conference in Malaysia.
She added that incidents on social media happen very quickly and that the decision to engage is a crucial one that must be decided carefully but quickly. "Once you engage, that's a rabbit hole you can't come out of easily," she said to a rapt audience of PR and communications professionals. As such, Poosparajah recommends that soon as a crisis is identified, PR and communications professionals should look at how the issue is being seen publicly and see where people stand to determine one's response.
"Look at it holistically and from a risk and mitigation view," she said. Once you get all your information in place, including legal elements, you can plan your response and publicly acknowledge what has happened.
Adding to her point, Leela Barrock, chief communications officer at Sime Darby Plantation, who was speaking at the same panel, noted that it is also important to be proactive and fast. "If you know something is going to explode in the press, you need to come out and say something first, so you control the narrative," she said, adding:
Don't wait for it to explode. Don't wait for quarterly results. Just do it.
Saying that, Barrock noted that there are times when you need to know not to engage. "You need to study the situation. See who is causing the issue. Is it an individual or a bot? Is it a keyboard warrior?"
She added that the purpose of communication is to engage with people, but sometimes, engaging someone only gives them more oxygen to their argument.
"Withdraw that oxygen and the flame will go out," she explained. "You must study the situation and decide what works best.
Getting ahead of the crisis
Saying that, both Barrock and Poosparajah agreed that even the most airtight crisis communications response won't do any good if you are not prepared before the crisis even hits.
After all, in a world where information travels at the speed of light and public opinion is easily swayed, it is extremely important that PR professionals are ready to handle all types of crises.
This, Poosparajah said, comes with making sure that you know about a crisis before the public or media does. "This is where your media intelligence providers, media monitoring tools and analysis all comes in. It's essential in giving context to your company's position in the public's eye."
She added that this will aid in reputation management, something that clients tend to overlook.
Perception surveys, employee engagement and social media are all great tools to help you understand your outcome metrics and to have an understanding of where your reputation sits, she said.
Poosparajah added that another good way to get ahead of a crisis is reputational resilience. "Post-crisis, what are the gaps and opportunities that you are identifying? What kind of messaging do you want to push out and how does that reflect your reputation?"
She explained that reputation management is one of the most important things.
How you build your reputation determines how you will survive a future crisis.
Some things that organisations can do when it comes to reputation management is to ensure that they are transparent, said Barrock. "It's important to be transparent and explain to people what happened, what they did and what they found," she said, adding that when you start building trust, customers will be more willing to wait for a company to get past the situation.
"The important thing is to not lose trust," she said.
Adding to the conversation, fellow panelist Sabrina Azmi, head of client services at Carma added that brands need to think of reputational resilience.
“Post crisis, what are the gaps and opportunities? What kind of messaging do you want to push out? How does that reflect on your reputation? These are the questions that need to be asked so that brands can survive whatever crisis they might next face,” she said, adding:
Reputation management is one of the most important things to look at post crisis.
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