Crisis communication is attracting more interest in the modern world of communications. Digitalization and the advancement of Internet has given consumers the privilege to respond to brand’s messages. Sometimes, these responses go out of control and escalate into a communications crisis. Social media, where the public can freely express their opinion and share the latest news, has found itself at the core of many brands’ crises. Just a public post is enough to blow the whistle on a brand’s misconduct to millions of online users. This article will focus on analyzing the attitude that a brand should have during a crisis, the pros and cons of applying social media in moderating the crisis, and how to utilize this channel effectively.
I. Approaching the crisis:
William Benoit’s influential “image restoration theory” identified five methods by which organizations and individuals attempt to correct their image. These are denial, evasion of responsibility, reduction of offensiveness, corrective action and apology. Benoit states that the best action to take depends on circumstances, but some are more effective than others.
Denial, for instance, is only advisable for the truly innocent. Otherwise, it can backfire and cause further damage when the truth is revealed.
If an organization is at fault, most experts agree that a sincere public apology, followed by an expression of remorse and regret, should be the first option on the table. Afterwards, corrective action goes a long way. That can mean a number of things, from promises of changed behavior or policy, to removal of offenders, to some form of restitution for those harmed by the company’s actions.
One company had a crisis due to milk contamination. Experts assessed that: “They resolved the root cause because they apologized to the consumers sincerely. At that time, the consumers were angry, but later they saw the honesty of the brand. The brand also regularly updated the press even though the information was negative. They regularly reported to the media how many products they had recalled.” It’s this transparency that allowed the company to regain stakeholder trust after a potentially devastating disaster.
In 2014, a drink manufacturer found themselves in a bind when a shop owner discovered a dead insect in a sealed drink and demanded money in return for his silence. Rather than take accountability and address the issue, the company offered money then called the police to arrest the man. This resulted in the story of the insect being amplified by the story of the man’s arrest and imprisonment, creating a major fallout. The company lost control of the message, failed to apologize adequately, and soon faced a consumer boycott that cost them $89 million in losses over the next year.
Somewhat predictably, experts also say that such an apology is the least-used strategy among Vietnamese organizations, who tend to ignore crises hoping that they will fade away on their own. This approach may work for a minor incident (and if they are lucky), but in the modern world where information is easy to share online, it’s just as likely to fail spectacularly. Surely, it is ideal to avoid a crisis entirely, but crises are not always predictable. When they do occur, organizations should be prepared to respond with honesty, dignity, and respect for their stakeholders.
II. Implementing social media in handling crisis:
Crisis communication as a subset of public relations is a fairly young practice in Vietnam. Just as companies and PR firms were beginning to learn out how to handle themselves in a crisis – using press conferences and official media statements – the rise of social media has left them scrambling, with some attempting to embrace social media while others stick to what they know. With that in mind, here are some facts that should encourage them to make the change.
1. Social media is winning the favor
Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing countries for social media usage, with over 57 million social media users, and 81% of young people getting news from social media. Moreover, unlike some countries, the Vietnamese don’t have a particularly high level of trust in traditional media. Some even trust social media more, believing it to reflect less filtered interests. All this means that a social media response will gain a wider audience than in traditional media, and – if properly handled – companies won’t lose any trust because of it.
With the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media, it’s no surprise that companies believe that the platform is corrupt, and nothing they say on it will be trusted. But in facts, stakeholders indicate that they are well aware of this and will usually double-check news shared or claims made on social media before choosing to believe it.
The significant influence of social media in Vietnamese people’s lives has been confirmed during COVID-19 pandemic outbreak at the beginning of 2020. Even before the virus started to spread in the local community, news and updates on the pandemic went viral on social media exponentially, dragging along the fear and anxiety across the country. However, if we compared it with SARS, a respiratory disease with a much higher death rate occurred in 2003, then SARS received much less attention. Besides the daily news coverage and headlines on mainstream media, life was pretty much normal for Vietnamese. Everyone was aware of the fatality of SARS, but it did not consume our mind and mental health like COVID-19 does. The answer was simply because social media was not available when SARS happened. The only channel to update info was through mainstream media – television news and print newspaper.
It is social media that allows crisis information to escalate and go out of control. Many companies even find themselves caught up in the situation unexpectedly. In particular, on the night that a new COVID-19 positive case was recorded in Hanoi, there were pictures of a woman believed to be this patient joining a brand opening of a famous Japanese fashion retailer. This brand name was immediately associated with negative information and faced backlashes by the public. However, it is also thanks to social media that the people who got involved could quickly justify the fake news, and clear up the misunderstanding on the brand in just within 24 hours. This incident is proof that social media could ignite a crisis, but it could also help to put out the fire quickly and effectively.
2. Stakeholders prefer a social media response
People are more likely to sympathize with a company and accept their crisis response if the response is sincere and personal. Because social media is perceived as a more direct form of engagement than traditional media, using it to address issues makes the company seem more caring, concerned, and committed to the interests of its stakeholders. This will give stakeholders a more favourable impression during and after the crisis.
A YouTuber had shared an unwelcomed experience at a resort in Binh Thuan province, Vietnam. Right after the clip was uploaded on the Internet, many were furious with how the resort treated customers, and left 1-star ratings with negative feedback on the resort’s Facebook fanpage, Google Maps reviews, and even TripAdvisor. Once a crisis breaks out, the audience would first go to the brand’s social networking sites. This demonstrates that social media is the most direct channel between a brand and its audience, and people look forward to receiving a timely response on this platform.
Oftentimes, companies believe that by staying out of the fray, they can ignore the controversy and it will die down on its own. But in fact, information avoidance is the least effective method of crisis management. That’s especially true in this age of social media posts which don’t just vanish into the ether but catch on and spread, gaining more interested followers (and bandwagon jumpers) as they go. Not only does attempting to ignore a crisis make it look like a company doesn’t care about its stakeholders, but also social media users who don’t receive a response (or receive an insufficient response) are more likely to stage campaigns and boycotts against the company. Sincere, open communication is exactly what stakeholders want, and it’s what will allow them to forgive a company and move on.
3. Speed vs. Control
One of the main reasons people use social media is that it tends to get information out faster than traditional media sources. This is especially true in the instance of a crisis, when stakeholders are hungry for information about the incident. Companies are now expected to respond to a growing crisis faster, and may be criticized if they don’t, which usually means making a statement directly on social media. Failure to do so can mean letting the crisis escalate faster than it can be controlled.
The speed of social media is one of its key advantages, but it can be a curse for the under-prepared business. A crisis that is rapidly unfolding online leaves no time to form a task force and create procedures to address it. Businesses should already have a team who knows their duties and has guidelines on forming and spreading the company’s message long before a crisis occurs.
In some ways, it’s true that print media offers greater message control: organizations can craft a definitive response to a crisis and direct all attention there, and there’s no chance of it getting taken over by hostile voices. Where it fails is timeliness and public perception. While the company is asking people to wait for their official word, the crisis may already be spiralling to uncontrollable levels. And if the stakeholders believe the official message fails to address their concerns, the company can look cold and out of touch.
4. Crises that begin on social media should end there
Bringing a crisis that’s based on one platform to another in an attempt to end, it is like trying to put out a wildfire by carrying flaming branches out of the forest: it does nothing to quell the problem, and only spreads it further. These days many crises start with posts on social media, so the wisest thing companies can do is be prepared to respond to them on the same platform. If they’re lucky, they may be able to isolate the fire and put it out before it spreads.
Social media has given a greater voice to the public. Many business crises began with just a few clicks of mouse. A café franchise was accused of discriminating a disabled person on a Facebook post. The store uploaded an official apology two days later on its owned website, but the public only cooled down after the victim updated the situation on his personal Facebook account. Most local Vietnamese companies would give their statement through a press release or on the brand’s official website, but forget to upload their response on social media channels. Mainstream media would create a formal and credible vibe for the brand’s message; but social media make it friendlier and more relatable to stakeholders, allowing the message to spread faster among the community.
On Oct 2, 2019, Bamboo Air flight QH212 from Ho Chi Minh to Ha Noi entered a turbulence area that shook the airplane violently, created a free-falling sensation in a few seconds that frightened the passengers, and threw in-flight food all over the place. A video recording of the distressing experience was uploaded on social media soon after. Within that very day, Bamboo Air released an apology and reassurance to the public on its social account, along with an official press release addressing the incident on other media. The netizens were impressed with Bamboo Air’s good reaction and quickly shared the information in a positive manner while praising the brand on its professionalism. The whole incident was wrapped up nicely in an afternoon.
Less-tech-savvy companies may believe that using social media to control a crisis will require a lot of extra effort. But PR experts generally believe this is not the case. Especially if the company is already engaged in social media platforms, crisis management can become an extension of this, and potentially prevent a crisis from ever occurring.
5. Social media can warn of a crisis before it happens
Speaking of fire, remember the saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? When a company has a significant presence on social media, stakeholders will often use that outlet to engage the company or get their attention. By taking notice of and responding to complaints and trends in social media commentary, companies can often address a potential crisis before it really gets going.
During Covid-19, the local pizza franchise Pizza 4Ps launched its delivery service to satisfy market demand. However, against consumers’ expectation, the newly developed delivery system met many problems, causing the delivery to be late, or food was spilt during shipping. Many customers complained about the brand’s Facebook page to give feedback on these problems. Instead of ignoring the feedback, the brand replied to every comment to improve customer’s experience, and from there on, prevent further scandals that could damage its reputation.
III. How to develop a social media crisis management plan:
Many corporations have a solid social media presence, with a high volume of engagement between the company and its audience; but engaging widely does not mean engaging wisely. Especially during crises, a good social media crisis management plan directs the company’s effort to the more relevant people, using the more influential channels, to achieve the more concrete control. This social media strategy can be categorized into three groups: people, platforms, and preventative actions.
Connect the people
Managing an organization’s social media networks requires more than one person. A crisis management team is the first thing to consider in a crisis plan. Since it is like representing the company to a large and dynamic public, the social media task needs to be a joint effort from the management, the marketing team, as well as the digital experts.
Besides the crisis team members, it is also helpful to include internal communications with other employees in the company into the plan. It is a two-way relationship within an organization, enabling an exchange of information with its employees. If reporters or other people ask an employee for opinions, and the employee does not know what happened or what s/he can or cannot say, a misstep can sensationalize the story. Therefore, a company should keep everyone in the loop at all times.
Identify the platforms
This is one of the most overwhelming steps in social media planning, as there are so many networks to choose from. Crisis managers, or social media managers, must first identify the target audiences, in order to determine which platforms are preferred by the targets. Target audiences are the many people that matters to a business – investors, shareholders, suppliers, customers, employees, and even the government. A single message cannot be suitable for all those audiences. The company must decide which target audiences are of higher priority, or are more likely to use social media so it can customize the broadcasts accordingly.
Much research suggests that it is better to use an “owned channel,” such as a blog, forum, or organization-generated community than to apply a third-party platform, such as Twitter or Facebook. An owned channel was believed to be the more effective way to build an authoritative and meaningful social presence than relying on the communication flow and audience of an existing platform. By having its own channels, a company can make it easier for readers to find and get the information they want. Moreover, if the crisis is minor, it is easier to broadcast the response on these channels, as the company can control the statements, tone and material.
However, communication channels dimension does not include only the owned channels. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and YouTube are among the most chosen social networking platforms for businesses. They are also the platforms that require the most monitoring, as more and more people are using them on a daily basis. Further, while it is easier to control a message on a company’s newsroom, if the negative discussion starts on another platform (for example, Twitter), it is best to respond on that same platform instead of moving it around. Conclusively, there is a plethora of channels out there, and a company must always ask itself beforehand which social media channels should be used and why, and how it will use these channels effectively.
Work on the preventative actions
The first preventative action to consider is pre-draft updates. While an online crisis can hardly wait for a response to be approved by many levels of management, crisis managers can pre-draft templates for Twitter messages, Facebook posts or blog entries, with blank sections for the case details. The templates can be approved by the legal team beforehand so that the crisis team can disseminate the message on the appropriate platforms as soon as the details are confirmed.
The next action is creating a terms-of-use policy, which is outlining how people can or cannot behave. This is a way to guide the conversations and prevent people from taking the issue too far on the company’s owned channels.
Scooping up the negative domains and usernames is a proactive way to control the easy to remember names that can share destructive stories about the company. Norton (2013)’s example was if a hateful party owned the ihatestarbucks.com domain and started distributing negative stories about Starbucks, people tend to remember the domain and spread the stories more effortlessly. If the company gained control over the names first, they cannot be used against its campaigns.
Another action is dark sites, which are online hubs that remain in the dark until a crisis breaks out. They contain pre-made resources, such as message from CEO or hotline contacts, and the blank parts to be filled out with the crisis details. These sites are used to respond to a crisis in the most timely and professional manner.
The last preventative action is targeted advertising, which is used to control search results to make sure Google or Bing shows the correct and suitable messages when a searcher types in a relevant keyword. Beside its preventative characteristic, this action can also be used for responsive purpose. This tactic has been employed by BP during its Deepwater Horizon crisis, when BP tried to use PPC advertising to tone down the news of the disaster. Crisis managers should consider a list of potential keywords, as well as a search landing page (such as a dark site) to prepare for the upcoming crises.
The application of social media during crisis is still a debate. Those with supporting opinion believe that social media would help them approach stakeholders and respond quicker during a crisis. However, the majority is still wary of this new method and afraid that the crisis would go out of control if they incorporate this platform. The main reason behind these opposing ideas is that Vietnamese PR practitioners are inexperienced in using social media as a tool to interact and connect with consumers during crisis. The advice for companies is that they should prepare a plan in advance to manage the information flow when a crisis happens effectively. With the fast technological advancement, social media would become an essential tool for companies to keep in touch with their consumers, and they should proactively find ways to utilize the advantages of social media instead of being passive in front of this change.
Author: Dr. Clāra Ly-Le, Managing Director of EloQ Communications. She is a professional PR consultant with many years of experience in executing successful PR and IMC campaigns in Vietnam and international levels. Her research interests include crisis management in the social media landscape and new media communication. As the public relations industry in Vietnam is considered somewhat behind in the region, Clāra always aims to apply her multinational knowledge to strengthen Vietnam’s public relations standards.
Co-author 1: Hanh Le, Managing Assistant at EloQ Communications. Hanh supports EloQ in connecting and maintaining relationships with more than 10 partner agencies in Asia and other global PR networks to execute global projects, as well as to leverage service quality in the communications industry.
Co-author 2: Su, a British shorthair cat. Su acted as a source of comfort during the conduction of this article. *just kidding*