Last summer, holiday rental company Airbnb mitigated the fallout from a damaging situation, when a booking for an apartment in New York was used to host an all-night, open-to-the-public orgy.
Airbnb acted swiftly, sending a locksmith within 24 hours to change the apartment locks, compensating the owner and offering to put him up in a hotel for a week. The company says its reaction, widely praised in the press and on social media, was down to ‘scenario planning’.
The Airbnb example is among a growing trend of brands acting without hesitation in crisis situations.
An Ogilvy PR study found that in today’s age of social media and wall-to-wall coverage, responding to controversy in the first eight hours is critical, or recovery could be hampered. "Often people or companies who are targets of crises want to wait and see," says Scott Kronick, regional CEO of Ogilvy PR. "We have found that they need to at least address the issue in public within eight hours, even if it is a statement that says, ‘We are looking into this.’"
To that end, Ogilvy’s PR division conducts crisis audits and simulations for many clients. "We need to do this more now than ever given the propensity of possibilities that have come in the digital age," Kronick says.
Online intelligence platform provider Meltwater says that the US, UK, Australia and Canada are leading the charge when it comes to strategically using data to map out a crisis plan.
"In Asia, the majority of our clients are using Meltwater’s tools to quantify media coverage, but they are starting to realise how useful a media intelligence tool can be in creating strategic contingency plans," says Ambera Cruz, Meltwater’s head of marketing for the region.
Still, some homegrown brands are ahead of the pack. Singapore-based Cerebos, a Suntory Group company, sees proactive risk management as a key element of its business strategy. The firm regularly runs social media risk simulations to test teams and ensure corporate preparedness.
"We regularly test our policies and procedures, updating them and ensuring they reflect the latest changes in communications technology, especially developments in social media," says Daniel Quek, VP of group corporate affairs at Cerebos.
The trend has prompted social media consultancy Omnifluence to develop the ‘Contingency Plan’, a social crisis training, preparation and real-time simulation programme. Partner and director Calvin Siew is keen to take the product across a variety of platforms, including traditional media.
According to Siew, these exercises are not always about a "pass or fail" result, but about enabling organisations to discover potential pitfalls in current or proposed response plans.
Brands should be aware that having a sure-shot winning crisis formula isn’t enough. Issues they might be facing today will be very different in a year’s time. Regular preparation and routine drills are key to ensuring best practice is top of mind.
Experts warn that there is no ‘model answer’ to every crisis situation — it is often about learning to balance public opinion and internal objectives.
Brands that do not have an active social media presence are not automatically immune to a social media crisis. Certainly, having an active presence makes it significantly easier to control potential damage.
"Following public opinion does not guarantee an amicable resolution," says Siew. He recommends organisations take the time to weigh all the various factors including transparency, public opinion, the rights of various parties, and shareholder interests.
EXPERT OPINION: Agencies need to listen
Tyler Kim, managing director, Korea, Weber Shandwick
Crisis modelling tools such as our Firebell allow clients to evaluate the success of their current crisis plans — if they have any — and allow them to fill the gaps. When a crisis does hit, they can be sure they are best equipped to deal with the situation.
Markets such as the US are much more established in this area, but Asia is catching up. Brands are seeing the value in preparing for a crisis, following a number of prominent crises that have recently hit certain Asian brands hard.
We are now seeing budgets shifting to allow for pro-active protection in this space. It is the agency’s responsibility to know their clients’ needs, before they need it. Agencies need to initiate that conversation. A mix of action and client feedback is needed to equip clients with the best defence for when the worst happens.
Firebell has seen a number of phases and has evolved based on client feedback, most recently adding Weibo and WeChat as simulation platforms.
A collaborative approach is the only way agencies can be sure their clients are prepared according to their specific situation and needs.
Planning before a crisis
Ruder Finn is seeing growing interest in uptake of its Sonar social media crisis simulation service. Over the course of a day, participants study and analyse recent high-profile social media crises from their own markets and internationally. The agency’s coaching teams provide reputational and digital insight into how these real-world social media threats were managed and what could have been done differently.
One offering, Bottlenose, analyses 3 billion messages every hour and reports on the specific people, emotions and events propelling trends forward in any online conversation.
"For each message, it has the ability to identify statistically relevant patterns across more than 150 critical variables, including volume, sentiment, hashtags, geography and emotion," says Charles Lankester, senior VP at Ruder Finn Asia.
Asked why modelling matters, Lankester refers to #thedress. It appeared to arrive very quickly as the top online topic globally.
"Now just imagine if #thedress was a controversy affecting a corporation or a government? That amount of negative media could be reputationally catastrophic."
CASE STUDY: Danone Baby Nutrition
Danone Baby Nutrition represents Cow & Gate, the top baby-feeding brand in the UK, and Aptamil, the infant formula specialists. The company uses Meltwater to monitor online news and track social media for reputation management and trends.
"On one occasion, we saw an article in the US talking about the chemical BPA, which was found to be leaking out of plastic containers into the contents," says Sarah Pursey, the company’s regulatory affairs officer.
"While it was not relating to our business directly we were able to learn how BPA can affect babies and train our Careline staff quickly with questions and answers, so that we were prepared when our customers began inquiring."
Another example where Meltwater helped Danone manage a potential reputation issue was with the horse-meat crisis in Europe in 2012.
"Meltwater alerted us to the breaking story that horse DNA had been found in meat products," says Pursey. "We were confident that we didn’t have an issue with our products. But, having this information a couple of hours before the news hit the UK press allowed us to thoroughly check and reassure customers."