Let it boil over or over-communicate: What should you do during a PR crisis?

Let it boil over or over-communicate: What should you do during a PR crisis?

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Having a crisis framework and ensuring it is constantly updated is crucial for PR and communications professionals. At the same time, brands also need to be aware of the various stakeholders they need to manage and customise key facts and messaging for different sets of stakeholders, from consumers, brand partners, and vendors as well as the media.

"Having a framework will save you a lot of work along the line," said Izad Ismail Abdullah (pictured second from left), Air Selangor's head of PR, during MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's PR Asia 2022 conference. The water utility company has had to handle its fair share of water disruptions over the years and planning for various types of situations, whether it is water pollution which Izad said is beyond their control, or a burst pipe, can help it determine what type of response plans the company should execute. "We can either do a targeted or mass communication because we want to ensure that the information we share with our consumers will help them manage the crisis well. We want them to be an advocate for us also," he added.

That said, not all crisis situations are always the same some might even pan out differently from what was planned. As such, Izad is a big advocate of communicating. "There is nothing wrong with over-communicating during a crisis because you can find an opportunity to strengthen your brand or even get advocates," he said. A few months back, Air Selangor had a scheduled water disruption in Hulu Selangor which was planned two weeks in advance with approval from regulators. The company issued a press release about it and although it received plenty of comments, 70% were neutral and more than 20% were positive, with many thanking Air Selangor for informing users in advance.

"This is the kind of opportunity we relish. While we used our own platform to communicate, we somehow gained advocates who stood up for us saying that Air Selangor is telling everyone in advance now and that this is actually for the users' own good since it involves upgrading and maintenance works," he explained.

At the same time, over-communicating also helps when, for example, the narrative of the situation has already been set by the media due to misinformed first coverage. 

Control the narrative, use your own platform, take advantage.

For Air Selangor's emergency response plan, the team is required to post on social media every three hours to keep consumers informed. "The information comes from us and consumers will eventually understand the situation. You as the brand can set the narrative [by over-communicating]. Don't let others set the narrative, just go all out," he said.

At the same time, it is also crucial for PR and communications professionals to not get too comfortable with existing procedures. Sime Darby's head, group communications, Tan Yee Pheng (pictured in the middle) said a brand's crisis manual is not the be-all and end-all of everything.

From my experience, a lot of common sense needs to come into play and sometimes you do need to skip a couple of steps.

In fact, there are times when brands do not need to react but instead, just monitor the situation and it might eventually boil over without the company having to do anything. Citing an example from 2021, she said that at the height of COVID-19, a prominent figure dropped by one of its dealers and test-drove a car, which was not allowed then. This news was eventually covered by media outlets and also went viral on social media.

While the Sime Darby team initially panicked, they monitored the conversations closely and realised that most of the mentions weren't about the brand but rather about the prominent figure himself. A few weeks later, the chatter died off. "What was really important was for us to stay calm and monitor the situation. Don't panic. Track how the posts on social media are doing, for example, and see how many mentions are actually made about you," Tan explained.

Honesty and transparency are still key

It is also important for brands to be transparent and honest during a time of crisis. In Air Selangor's case, the team chooses to leave its comments section on its social media platforms open during crisis. "During a time of crisis, social media might be the only platform that the consumer has to reach out to us. That's why we take the comments seriously and we do our best to respond to them. We continue to communicate whatever is needed and be honest and transparent," Izad explained.

Also sharing her experience about the need for honesty and transparency was Velle Lee (pictured second from right), Sunway Medical Centre Velocity's head of business development and corporate communications. It is crucial for all internal stakeholders to be aligned on the messaging and Lee brought up an example from two years ago when COVID-19 first hit and it had its first case in the hospital. 

"At that time, [the team] as not very ready, to be honest, and even our government hospitals as well. We were thinking if the case should be announced and what the potential business risks were," Lee said. While the team was evaluating the situation, they felt that there was a need for the patients to be informed, hence, they crafted the releases. 

"But of course, with a crisis like this, you need to know the action plan well and align it internally. The doctors and nurses as well as our management and spokesperson need to know what to do if there are any questions from the media," she said. It was tough for the team since it was barely one-year-old but Sunway Medical Centre Velocity decided to take the risk and announced the news of its first COVID-19 case. "What we learnt from this incident is that we got coverages and it still panned out well for us," Lee said.

When should legal come into play?

Aside from having a crisis framework, it is also important for PR and communications teams to take advice from legal teams, be it crafting a press release or FAQs. Amanda Chong (pictured right), VP corporate communications and branding at Wasco Energy Group of Companies, said legal's expertise is required because some words used might put the company in a situation for another crisis to happen after the message is sent out. "Lawyers would normally know what type of wordings those are. You can either seek legal advice from either your head of legal or an external law firm," Chong said, adding:

But there needs to be a balance in how you communicate what you want to say, which has to be authentic and relevant but at the same time safeguard the company from any other liable repercussions.

The C-suite also needs to take accountability during times of crisis, Chong said. According to her, it is important for PR and communications teams to advise them so that the C-suite will be prepared with the necessary skills for when a crisis happens. That said, is there a right time to apologise? Chong said it depends on circumstances. Citing her previous experience as a consultant, Chong said she was handling a well-known health and retail brand in Malaysia which published racially insensitive content. The company apologised because the criticism got out of hand and the content also touched on cultural and racial issues.

"We advised the brand to put newspaper and online ads as well as apologise in hopes that consumers would forgive them and it actually worked. People actually felt good after that but that's because you admitted your mistakes," Chong explained.

Aside from preparing C-suite and knowing when the right time to apologise is, brands also need to look internally and guide their employees on how to act to prevent information or images from being shared on social media. To prevent this, Sime Darby's Tan said employees should be informed first of the situation because they are the company's most important stakeholders.

"Get the information out to them first before communicating externally. Keep them well-informed and always update them on the situation," she said.

Additionally, Air Selangor's Izad said there should also be social media guidelines for employees so that they are aware of what they should or shouldn't do during times of crisis. "We want them to be a brand ambassador [during times of crisis] and not a hater," he added.

Related articles:
Quiet quitting in PR: It isn't new and it isn't so bad
Struggling with quiet quitting? Here are 3 tips for PR professionals
Kenanga's comms head on every PR practitioner's nightmare
PLUS Malaysia's comms chief on what PR folks can do when the brand is under fire

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