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Community public relations – Managing crisis


Carpet bombing tactical aid

Carpet bombing tactical aid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are in India, or even elsewhere in the globe, you would have sure heard of Koodamkulam, which sometime back was the epicentre of brewing trouble, with the protests by the local populace snowballing into a mass movement. While what and who is propelling and catalyzing this people aggression (and any such community driven flare up anywhere) are complex questions, the only savior in such occasions can be a very pro-active communication/PR strategy by the authorities, and all PR professionals involved in containing any such ‘citizen movement’.

While the in-situ circumstances can differ from place to place and country to country, there is some amount of standardization in the communication strategy that can be followed with rigor. These are essentially aimed at not muddying the situation in the run up to the final citizen flare-up and also in the course of any such agitation.

  1. Communications committee – This committee shall draw people from all the stakeholders and various interest groups – a judicious blend of experts to with the kind of plant/industry, with equal representation by the locals, who perceive them as the affected community.
  2. Isolate the non-stake holders – Any agitation or public movement gets precipitated and turns rudderless when people who are not connected with the local interests move in to garner some political mileage, and in turn hijack the entire local movement. A prudent strategy would be to keep watch for such vested interests in any public agitation. In handling such agitations, isolating the non-stakeholders by consistent means of ‘direct’ engagement with the locals is the key. The goal must be to earn trust, address the genuine concerns, and get all the fringe elements out of the game.
  3. Form locals committees – It’s never too late to completely involve every bit of the local community, when the situation looks like it might spiral out of hand, even remotely. The authorities and communicators must use every tool in the communications armor to reach out to the locals. Communicate to them that the authorities are willing to address every single concern/fear that may be in the mind of every one, who thinks he or she may be affected. This must be a sustained exercise, with no timelines, and the intent must be to understand what exactly are the perceived fears that loom large in the minds of the people in that area. Those which are well founded must be answered with facts, and those ill founded and planted by miscreants can be quashed to the dustbin.
  4. Unleash a carpet-bombing local PR campaign – This might sound too aggressive – yet, in situations of public agitations, there is no rescue other than to communicate more and more. A crisis in the best time to speak out must be the PR mantra – while the opposite in reality causes incalculable harm to success of any well laid communication strategy. Make use of not just the national media in that place, but make sure every local reach to communicate is made use of – vernacular media, local radio, community radio, billboards, leaflets – just every possible tool to reach door-to-door in the region. Remember – if the fringe can manage a perception that there is a massive opposition to the plant or public amenity, the authorities can plan a turnaround in that perception with a well planned and executed strategy.

This is a broad communication template – a  combination of all these above will make sure that a space is created for a people centric dialog, which would lead to a solution to any citizen agitation.

Earning trust, end of the day, is the result of a sustained PR effort, with a conscience.

Online activism, India et al


Online activist... can you ignore me??

Online activist… can you ignore me??

My country, India, has seen a spur of online activism in the recent few years, thanks to the growing disillusionment of the much touted urban middle class, and a perceived failure of the present country administration on a whole range of issues – from corruption, which has swept the carpet under the polity to law and order – where my sisters do not feel safe to step out late evenings, right at the heart of my national capital.

Some notable examples of recent online activism

  • The movement, India against corruption which sprung into existence thanks to the moral leadership of Anna Hazare, has used online tools in a big way, to spread the message across, gather people, and consolidate views and crowd source protest ideas. On twitter, they have mad e of numerous handles, the primary one being @janlokpal, and successfully built opinions.
  • In the protests against the recent moral assault and subsequent death of Delhi girl Nirbaya,  by a gang of rogues on a moving bus, many groups and individuals used the social media to spread their angst against the establishment and the police, protesting consistent inaction. Some notable handles in this episode were activist @tajinderbagga who was the target of police action, and a girl activist who was arrested for joining the protests.
  • Online activists crowd sourced strong protest against a Gurgaon hotel hosting a singing even of notable Punjabi singer Honey Singh, whose lyrics provoked anger for their lewd views on women, in the light of events after the death of brave girl Nirbhaya.

(just to illustrate a few; twitter handles selective and not exhaustive)

The increasing spread of information through social media, and a large number of concerted online and offline activists spreading information to garner support for any cause that affects the common man is a new trend that is catching up swiftly in India and neighboring countries as well.

The establishment and the stakeholders who are the target of such activism, either out of compliance and deference to the views of people, or out of the fear that a cascading effect of the information on them from online to offline to the houses to the streets, will impact the credibility – are partly giving in to some demands as a result of online activism.

While the measurement of the effects of online activism will be a bit farfetched as of now, the day is not far when social media mavens will also find out means by which the on the ground impact of such efforts can be quantified and the impact measured.

While in India, online activism has only sprung into action only in more recent times, globally, the trend is in place at least for the past decade, and is only increasing/bound to increase by the day as the social media has proven to be a platform for swift dissemination of real time breaking news and events, and in many countries where democracy is nonexistent or in peril, where mobile devices in the hands of the affected, disgruntled and victimized, are the only means by which they make messages go viral – and for the global media to take note.

There’s also a raging debate that’s been going on since a while on whether online activism is really a cause for worry across the globe – questioning the likely effect isolated groups can have on ground realities.  Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The Newyorker of Oct 4, 2010 http://nyr.kr/ap4hO1 stirred a social hornets’ nest, inviting a flurry of responses to the statement “ Social media can’t provide what social change has always required”.

Amongst the many interesting debates as a reply to Gladwells story, Erum Haider from neighboring Pakistan made very relevant and sort of ‘local’ responses to why social activism will make an impact and will stay on, and gain more power if used appropriately, for the right causes too. http://bit.ly/arngfb

With a fair amount of confidence, and the emerging nature of polity and demography in this part of the globe, one can say, with a fair amount of confidence that ‘social activism’ is indeed here to stay, and gain more strength as the clock ticks.

If you are a social media maven, ‘social media activism’ making J must be in your armor as well.

By the way, is it in the things to watch for in 2013 in your trend-watching list?

You can also see a brief history of online activism here http://on.mash.to/qYMYUU  

Media briefings… some greatly useful notes for communicators


Communication professionals in any organization constantly have to face the media, on a litany of ongoing issues. They could be at any level – be it the Corp Comm executive, right up-to the CEO. Media briefings are regular pressers are just a couple of communication tools that have yet retained the charm, despite the arrival of a barrage of social media tools, which are at the disposal of any right thinking public relations professional.

If one looks around, its it such media briefings and pressers that communication professional are at the risk of exposing themselves and in turn make their organizations image vulnerable – not by mistakes in facts, but by failing to address questions in the right manner.

More so, in times when crisis hits at the heart of an organizations PR armor. Under pressure, its very natural that the communications professional however well equipped, reacts to the situation, as the media event goes astray by the volley questions lobbed in by the media. Faced with this barrage, even the best communicators wilt under pressure, reacting with their emotion laden language – all leading to a perfect recipe for an ‘image disaster’.

Yet, such situations can be better handled, more deftly, and to the complete ‘image advantage’ of their organization.

  • Lay down ground rules – At the beginning of the presser, make sure you lay the ground rules – state it  in clear terms that the intent of the briefing is to address such and such specific issue, and any question shall be around that issue only. Any query that does not pertain to the issue on hand would be taken to be answered later.
  • Better, begin with a written statement – The simple step of circulating a well written media note, detailing the views and facts on the topic would serve well as a pre-cursor in setting the agenda for the right kind of questions. Make sure the facts that need to be taken to the media are mentioned with utmost clarity, and mention that questions can be around the statement. By making such a statement, you also possibly tend to take the steam away for any digressions that are planned by some members of the media fraternity.
  • Plan for complementary statements – You have in hand a written statement; but if there are some questions that can be responded to with more facts, it would be a great idea to respond verbally, and also tell the media that these responses will be typed and circulated at the end of the presser. This can be easily done with the help of the communications team; and not just that, a complementary press note at the end of the press conference is a great way to re-iterate fact, highlight your responses, and way to ensure there are no map – territory distortions at the end of the day.
  • Maintain a friendly and cool demeanor – this may sound way too basic, yet a whole lot of media face offs go astray only for this precise reason. One provocative question, and the communicator loses his cool, making a completely unintended gesture or remark – and however the presser be well armed with facts, this one spar hijacks the image of the organization. The best way to handle any unfriendly question is just a broad smile, or stating can we take it later, or I would come to back to you as soon as I can provide this information. And if the media persists with the same uncomfortable question, the communicator must persist with the positive demeanor, a simple smile, and the planned response – one of the three above. With this, in a matter of few minutes, the questions will move on.
  • Avoid a “we know all” trap – Its often suggested that communication professional while addressing the media, must know all – yes, you must  be armed with a whole lot of facts on a situation. However, that is so different from displaying or exhibiting a know all demeanor in front of the media. That demeanor, mostly leads to a tinge of arrogance, and arrogance is the last thing you need in your PR weaponry. And it is such arrogance that tends to color the most accurate facts with the yellow of distortion. So, it is in your interest and organisation’s interest that you always maintain “I don’t have all the answers, but will endeavor to get them soon” demeanor right through. In fact make it a SOP for your media interactions, and the benefits are immense.

These 5 simple practices will serve to better your image management in a big way. They may sound simple, yet it is these that most of us as communicators or PR professional fail to inculcate in our PR armor, and also educate our spokesperson.

A communications war-room?!


None of us want a crisis to strike us or our organization… but that is an ideal scenario! Many time, a crisis strikes out of the blue, making the core management team of the organization run for cover! Not just that – when a crisis hits, there is chaos all over, that adding to the already vitiated organization eco-system.

The organization eco-system includes all the stakeholders – the organization and its product and services, the market place, the positioning vis a vis competition, the employee, the financial institutions that have invested in the company, the stock market, and every single public shareholder…. The list is partial, and will depend on the size and scale of the organization.

While the occurrence of the crisis per se, cannot be predicted, the response to such a situation can be planned in advance – and this is what we call a war-room for crisis management. This war-room (primarily comprising of your internal communications pro’s) is ever prepared, and swings into action when there is a crisis – if at all there is one.

This war room will/must have people drawn from the top leadership of the organization (sales, marketing, finance, HR and so on) who will work in tandem with   the core communications professionals and will caliberate the response for any crisis.

The crisis team (the war-room) will be well prepared with all the facts pertaining to the product, service, people, infrastructure, the dynamics of the various markets it which they are present, the relevant information of the prime-competitors etc.

Apart from the communications teams which is well trained to interact and speak appropriately to the media, key resources in the organization are identified time and again (once a year minimum), and they are imparted with the communication finesse in handling all kinds of media queries, when the situation warrants.

A mechanism is put in place is such a way that once any event (crisis) occurs, all the key stake holders in the war-room are connected seamlessly and appraised of the events, the facts, the implications, and the consequences plus the actions that will e taken y the organization in the aftermath of such a situation. This fact brief to the core team – irrespective of where and when  the crisis occurs –  must all be done in 30 to 60 minutes. And post that the team hits the road in tackling the PR front with ease.

While it is the responsibility of the leadership of the organization to calibrate the response to any crisis, the ability to get the message across, in the best way, to all the internal and external stake holders is the key winner in the long term.

That happens seamlessly only if there is a war-room mechanism in place at your organization. With media staying connected 24/7/365, carrying out their social responsibility of disseminating information as it occurs, it is only a crisis war room that can save the day for your organization.

Not just that, your war room will actually impact your long terms interests in a positive way!

So, does your organization have a communication war-room?!

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