Public relations is the art and science of managing the distribution of information between a business (or organization/ non profit) and the general public.A PR team can either work in house or be outsourced to an external agency. The job of the team is expose the general public to as many positive news stories as possible.A great PR team will have the contacts and expertise to be able to place these positive and brand building stories, within the relevant news outlet.

A PR professional will spend years and years building up a database of journalists, influencers, professionals and taste makers relevant to the niche of the businesses they work with and represent.The overall aim is to influence the public to take a  positive view of their clients business activities. In some cases it can be reinforcing the brand ethos such as “Eco Friendly”, “Sustainability” or it could be something along the lines of how the business is investing in their workers communities in a developing country.

As well as creating positive spin for a client, a PR firms role is protect their reputation. Everyone from a small mom and pop store to a multinational conglomerate, depends on their reputation to survive. A great reputation can be one of the single greatest assets a business can have. It can attract the best and brightest minds in the industry, this turn leads to building a great team and a great team means a great product and or services.

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Google has a reputation for being a great place to work, because they really look after their employees. Every year thousands apply for only a handful of openings  and only the cream of the crop make the cut. Having the ability to select the top 1% of candidates has allowed them to put the team together, that has redefined not just search but multiple other industries . Amongst the public, Google has a reputation for providing quality products & services that make our lives easier. As a result of their public reputation most people go to Google.com as their first port of call when they want to search for anything online.

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American investor Warren Buffet  once said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it” , in business – never has a truer sentence been spoken. In ideal world no business would ever have to worry about the reputation they have worked so hard create becoming tarnished, but unfortunately it sometimes unavoidable.

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When A reputation is under threat it is time to roll out the PR teams biggest weapon –  a Crisis Management Plan. A crisis can strike any business at any time, so planning is crucial to damage limitation.Lets look at what could be classified as a crisis, with hypothetical examples alongside each one:

 

  • Product Issue – A Manufacturing Fault/Poor Quality
  • Service Issue – Service Levels Fall Below Customer Expectations
  • Employee Misconduct – Rude To Customer/ Fails To Deliver Expected Experience
  • Director Misconduct – Make Offensive/Inappropriate Comments
  • Accident/Disaster – Oil Slick/Employee Death/Customer Accident

A crisis management plan is a living document that is always evolving, it serves as a guideline, a framework with the following objectives:

  • Minimize Impact On Operations And Target Audience
  • Minimize Amount Of Time Focussed On Crisis (Internally/By Customers & Media)
  • Regain Control Of Situation And Conversation As Soon As Possible

Once a crisis management plan is activated the PR team move into “Fire Fighting Mode”. The idea is to simmer the situation down, as quickly and as quietly as possible and return to the status quo.

So far we have talked about what  a PR team does and a few of the roles they undertake in a traditional setting. Now we will look at how the PR teams role has expanded with the rise of social media. The widespread acceptance of social media has been a double edged sword for the PR industry. On the one hand it has become easier than ever, to spread the positive “feel good” news stories directly to the target audience. On the flipside – businesses are wide open to criticism and allegations in a very public arena.

This Blog has a global readership with people from almost every continent stopping by – so its impossible for me to focus on the exact legalities of a PR Crisis for each individual country.  Instead I am going to look at two high profile case studies, what happened and how they could of avoided all together.

 

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  1. #ASKSEAWorld

I am no animal rights activist but its pretty common knowledge that water parks who keep giant sea mammals in confined spaces have questionable reputations. On March 26th 2015  a member of Sea World’s PR team had the great idea of running a Twitter Question and Answer session. A live QA is a great idea for brands looking to engage with their audience and really create a bit of real time energy around the brand.  Setting up a QA session is pretty easy it just takes four steps:

 

  • Pick A Hashtag Relating To Your Brand (In this illfated case #ASKseaworld)
  • Pick A Time
  • Tweet About It (A Few Days Before Hand – Also Post About It On Your Other Platforms)
  • Do A Mail Out To Your List

The idea is your audience locks in and ask some questions and you give them some answers and everyone walks away with a great feeling about the brand. In theory it is a great idea, however we must bare in mind that on the internet anything is possible and live humans are unpredictable. Even a brand with an impeccable track record can full foul to trolling, but if the track record is clean – this will very likely not effect the brands reputation. In the case of Sea World – this QA session was a terrible idea as Sea World has a poor track record and many, many enemies in the animal rights activist world. In short it was a PR disaster that could of been easily avoided by not being allowed to happen in the first case.

Many activists ceased the opportunity to express their concern and anger at the way the Orcas were being treated, one Tweeted:

User @AshleeCheese_ tweeted: ‘Why do you keep breeding whales when you barely have enough room for one? #AskSeaWorld.’

Another campaigner @Jennyleeisme followed quickly behind  and tweeted: ‘Do you really believe Shamu Stadium is the most advanced marine mammal habitat? Have you seen the ocean? #AskSeaWorld.’

From there it just got worse with many tweets using abusive language not suitable for repeating!!! Animal rights group PETA was not shy to makes it views known and began tweeting some very disturbing images of animals in distressed states. You do not have to be a passionate animal rights activist to be put off from visiting the parks after seeing images like. Some activists even took this a step further and bought the domain askseaworld.com  and built an entire website containing these images as a form of protest.

Two year earlier an independent documentary was released called “The Black Fish Debate” which explores the “fatal” consequences of keeping Orca whales in captivity. The creators of the documentary speak to former SeaWorld trainers who suggest that Seaworld does not treat the Orcas in the best way possible and scientists who condemn keeping animals like this in captivity. The documentary was very well received by not just the animal rights community, but the public in general and led to widespread condemnation of SeaWorld and its practices. This alone should of been the red flag that prevented this PR disaster from ever happening!

Even to present day activists are still using this hashtag and posting images of animals in distress, to raise aware of these creatures suffering.  So what seemed like a light hearted, fun idea to connect with the audience has led to long term damage of the brand. I am guessing the genius behind this stunt, probably got fired! So the moral of the story here is do your research on the brand your working with and only suggest – social media plans that fit in with the brands previous track record. Places like SeaWorld will always have very vocal passionate opponents, but PR teams can protect the brand by minimizing the risk and not leaving them wide open to attacks like this one. The tweet below is from earlier today!

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SeaWorld did attempt to fight back by stating “Hashtag Jacking is So 2014” – however by this point it was too late, people can not unsee the images that had been tweeted.

   2.Mcdonalds #McDstories

Few companies are as successful and as globally ubiquitous as Mcdonalds and ,most of this success is down to the fact they have a system for everything. A system means that a team can run effectively no matter who is on shift that day, all the employees have to do is show, work hard and follow the rules. Its a shame that the social media and PR team did not have a system in place for eliminating brand damaging hashtags. With a brand as strong as McDonalds it would be virtually impossible to do anything that would really impact their bottom line, however this hashtag was definitely the undoing of a lot of hardwork by the PR team to re-brand Mcdonalds as healthier, hygienic and inline with modern societies worldwide.

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From the second it went live the negative tweets started pouring in, to make matters worse Mcdonalds had used its huge budget to promote the hashtag on the Twitter homepage! The campaign was pulled in less than two hours, however Macdonalds quickly found out that crowd sourced, viral advertising techniques are extremely to hard to control. The PR team had created a monster – to this day the hastag is still being used. In the case of McDonalds it not being used with as much anger at the SeaWorld tag, it is has been taken in slightly sarcastic, humorous  fashion.

“As Twitter continues to evolve its platform and engagement opportunities, we’re learning from our experiences,” Rick Wion, McDonald’s social media director, said in a statement to the L.A. Times. In this incident the team quickly realized that had mad a huge mistake and were wide open for abuse, pulled the campaign and made an official state

Given circumstances its the best kind of statement anyone could give. The team have taken responsibility for their mistake, explained that this is a new technology that is constantly evolving, they have learnt from their mistake and will try harder in future. This is much better than boldly trying to keep going, pretending that there is nothing wrong – some brands have tried to do this and blame the trolls and public, it just looks totally unprofessional.

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Dealing with a PR crisis on social media is all about taking responsibility and admitting when you have made a mistake. Its also about taking action rapidly – in this case they removed the promoted hashtag on Twitter to minimize the reach and reduce the damage. For a brand of this size, with a following of 3.07M on its main account alone in tandem with Twitters powerful paid powerful promotion – the online impact of even a few hours of such a campaign is huge. It really is true with these kind of campaigns the “They bigger they come the harder they fall”.

In A more detailed statement released by E-mail Rick Wion had this to say:

Last Thursday, we planned to use two different hashtags during a promoted trend – #meetthefarmers and #mcdstories.

While #meetthefarmers was used for the majority of the day and successful in raising awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign, #mcdstories did not go as planned. We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.

Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.

With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.

He mentions that “with all social media campaigns” they include a contingency plan if “conversation does not go according to plan”. This is a great idea and probably the biggest thing you should take away from this post – have a back up plan, have a way to divert the conversation else where, when it goes in the wrong direction. Its important to be able to monitor these kind of events very closely – so you can make the change as soon as required. It just goes to show even the biggest brands in the world can have the ocassional slip up  on social media, so take a leaf out of their book and learn something from it.

I have been Gary O’Toole with Sociocaster, I hope this post has given you some food for thought and I will be back on Wednesday with another in depth post about how to re-purpose your content. Until then have a great week and please think about the possible consequences of your social media campaigns!

Have A Great Week,

Gary O’Toole With Sociocaster.

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