Comms experts to Samsung: Pick up the pace

Crisis and tech communicators say the response of the South Korean conglomerate to the Galaxy Note 7 crisis was too slow to be effective.

Samsung’s response to the Galaxy Note 7 crisis has been too slow and ineffectual for an always-connected world that won’t wait for answers to come trickling down from the top, technology and crisis communicators tell PRWeek.

They blame the company’s hierarchical structure for not being nimble enough to halt the crisis in its early stages, before it discontinued sales and production of one of its flagship products.

"There were ample amounts of time for Samsung to step in and change the engagement with customers in their channels where they could control of the story," says Rich Cline, head of Porter Novelli’s global technology practice.

The "traditional, hierarchal model" of the Seoul-based company challenges its communications teams and agencies to mitigate the Note 7 crisis with speed and efficiency, adds Cline, who has worked with similarly structured organizations such as Sony’s PlayStation.

"If you had to wait 24 hours for a response, it would already be too late," he says.

Cline compares the situation to Apple’s 2010 "Antennagate" crisis, which ended when then-CEO Steve Jobs held an extended press conference at the company’s headquarters. Yet unlike Apple, Samsung doesn’t have a charismatic front man to put a face on the company.

"There’s going to be an adjustment at Samsung — after all we’re in the middle of a leadership transition," Cline says.

The recall represents the first critical test for de facto leader Lee Jae-yong, who took over the company two years ago after his father was incapacitated by a heart attack, according to The Wall Street Journal, which noted Lee is removed from day-to-day decision making.

Critics have called the company’s culture everything from "militaristic" to "intolerant of dissent." A former executive tells NPR the company was "a train wreck waiting to happen," while an executive speaking on background explains that Samsung is making overtures towards "cultural reforms."

"You’re still going to have the same decision tree, but there may be some appointments [across different regions] and different markets with a more streamlined approach," Cline says. "Most importantly, they’re going to look at channel relationships and look at their team and how they should empower comms to work faster, especially with carriers."

Samsung didn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview. Nor did Edelman, its global corporate communications partner, though agency CEO Richard Edelman confirmed the firm is working on behalf of the company on the Note 7 issue. Representatives from Allison+Partners provided press releases the company has issued about the Note 7, but did not respond to requests for comment.

Crisis timeline
Samsung’s first voluntary recall generated praise from communicators as being "bold," comprehensive, and fast. However, everything changed after a Note 7 caught fire aboard a Southwest Airlines plane and the company claimed to have "improved safety measures" without consulting the Consumer Product Safety Commission. By early October, several replacement smartphones had also caught fire, exacerbating the crisis.

Recalls are messy by nature, notes Brian Ellis, EVP at PadillaCRT, who contends its comms function performed well under crisis, saying, "I can’t fault their comms response because their engineers didn’t know what the problem is."

"Urgency is a function of time, so go back and look at the timeline of how quickly they got [information] out there," Ellis says. "You can nitpick a word or two. But to me, urgency is a matter of speed — how quickly you got it out there and how well you distributed it. The beauty of Samsung is it didn’t take much to get it out."

The Federal Aviation Administration also played a role in the more-than-a-month-long crisis, urging passengers and crew to refrain from using Note 7s in early September. Carriers Verizon and Sprint also temporarily halted sales of the devices last month. Samsung ceased production of the Galaxy Note 7 on October 11, more than a month after it began its voluntary recall.

"If you have an urgent safety message, you need to use all channels – website, social, retail, direct, channel, paid, and earned," says Morgan McLintic, founder of Firebrand Communications, via email.

He adds that Samsung’s second recall was confusing, and its communications haven’t kept pace with the crisis by using social channels that are "outdated" and guidance on its website that is "vague."

"If the issue is serious enough to spark a recall, the communications need to reflect that," he explains. "If not, it can seem disingenuous; placing the brand before the customer."

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