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Why brands need to rewrite the rulebook on crisis communication

Social media has changed how the world communicates be it for a campaign, a product launch or even a dreaded crisis situation. In fact, going forward, it will change the rules of engagement in both every day communication and crisis situations even more, said Dennis Owen, group manager of social media at Cathay Pacific Airways who was speaking at the Social Bakers Engage Bali 2016 conference.

Last year, the brand faced its own terrifying crisis when its plane CX884 travelling from Hong Kong to Los Angeles had to make an emergency landing at a remote military airport in Alaska. This came after a smell of smoke was detected on board.During the scary situation, one passenger named Ethan Williams recorded a video of what was happening in the flight as the situation was ongoing. This video was later circulated online and shortly after the incident, it had over 300 000 views. Currently it has over 2 million views and climbing.

“This video came out when the world didn’t yet have live video streaming such as Facebook Live,” said Owen. These new features have changed out world drastically. Moreover, with the rise of smartphone penetration, most consumers are constantly taking videos and photos as well.

Everyone is a reporter. That’s just the reality we have to deal with in social media and crisis communication.

Explaining the procedures that followed soon after the smoke smell was detected, he said that when such a situation occurs, the first move the captain makes is to change radio frequency to squat 7700. The second thing he/she does is stabilise the airline and then depending on how long that takes, he contacts the base.

”But the moment the captain changes radio frequency to squat 7700, this hits social media because of the numerous sites monitoring aircraft emergencies. News is already on social media before even the airline operations can hear about it,” Owen said.

For this particular incident, he said, it took only 60 seconds for flight monitoring websites to pick up the diversion news and send it out to the world of social. Since the reasons were not yet known, it was tweet too carried the words “reason unknown”.

“The words ‘reason unknown’ draws a lot of interest,” he said adding that this is when mainstream media too caught on of the news.

Everyone likes to share news first. So these incidents can go viral very easily. We need to stay on top of it and communicate.

Owen was also of the view that today, communication on a social channel takes precedence over traditional press releases during a crisis situation.

“The world is very different today for communication. In the past it used to be about press releases and getting that out within the first hour. But that day is over. Today its social media first,” he said.

During this crisis, in 48 hours the brand had nine social media posts and three press releases. He added that traditional news outlets have now lost the battle to the world of social. As such, they too are on the lookout for news on social media.

I think press releases are secondary to social media posts.

But because traditional media is also under pressure to get news out quickly, the level of accuracy today can be somewhat compromised. As such, brands need to watch who the media outlets are also speaking to on social.

“It is up to us as brands to understand how the fast change in social media affects us and how it affects communication during a period of crisis,” said Owen.

“When there is a crisis, it passes. But in the world of digital and social media, the way it was handled stays on forever. So the importance of communicating factually, I can’t stress enough,” said Owen.

He added that when you have a crisis, how you communicate around the crisis can have more of a long term brand impact than the actual situation.

“How you communicate is just as important, if not more important, to the brand in the long run” Owen said.

“For us we communicated quickly and effectively. But we were also lucky that the base we landed on had no WiFi and neither did the plane. So when the customers began Tweeting and taking to social media, they knew they were safe. As such,  there wasn’t an extremely negative comment out of the hundreds out there,” he said.

“It is worth wondering what we would do if this happened today. Live video such as Periscope and Facebook Live wasn’t there in the past it is now. Ordinary people are using them during crisis situation today,” he added. As such, brands need to constantly re-evaluate their communication strategies during a crisis situation.

Be reactive and proactive

Marketing and PR folks need to be reactive and monitor live videos, social media sites and do social listening for their brands. But brands should not worry about new tools emerging every other day, said Owen.

“But just because there is a new tool doesn’t mean your community management will be completely different. You still need to create advocates to communicate on your behalf and drive consumers back to your social channels,” he said. In order to lead people back to your webpage and your own social media sites where the facts are and no speculation, brand ambassadors need to be planted and disseminated during a crisis situation.

“You need people on your behalf to lead the crowd back to the safe space,” he said.  Brands also need to actively monitor how the media shares news about your brand to the public and ensure accuracy – especially during a period of crisis where all parties are under tremendous pressure.

He also added that brands should think about holding live videos of press conferences.

“You know people are going to be watching the news so wouldn’t you rather they watch it from your end which is accurate and factual? Try to drive people to your own sites to get the most accurate information,” he said. On the proactive side, marketers and communicators need to watch how other brands handle a crisis.

“When there is a crisis go on Periscope and Facebook live and see how other brands are reacting,” he said.

Creating policies that suite your brand is also a must.

“Don’t wait or say I will think about it next year. Go out there and create your own policy around live feed and how to handle it,” he added. Currently, Cathay has its own digital toolkit of crisis communication.

“In my view, 99.5% of crisis will hit social media first and during a crisis you will be very busy. So you need to have a checklist in front of you. If you don’t have a crisis plan around digital and social, you should create one. Have this in place,” he added.

If you have a crisis and you don’t handle it well in terms of communication, you will then have two problems in your hand. The crisis right now and the one going on in social media.

“But if you handle social media well, it can actually help you in the current crisis. So make sure you are doing it well and effectively,” he said.

“You will never be fully prepared of a crisis. But the best way is to be prepared for that time. Test and learn. Test and learn. Test and learn.”

Social Bakers paid for this journalist’s trip to Bali Engage 2016.

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