This is a clear public relations(PR) disaster and I aim to suggest options which can help one handle this better, and possibly prevent it in the future.
Samsung tried to force two Indian bloggers attending the IFA trade show in Berlin, to operate as Samsung representatives against their will. Essentially telling them, “Promote our products at IFA or walk home”. Yep you read that right, a blogger was told by a PR representative from Samsung India allegedly over the phone that “you can either be a part of this and wear the uniform, or you’ll have to get your own tickets back home and handle your hotel stay from the moment this call ends.”
Note: Every story has multiple sides, I’m sure Samsung has its own story as does the blogger, however, I hope to highlight things which one can learn.
This is a PR Disaster
I think the correct place to begin is in understanding and acknowledging that this is a public relations disaster. Samsung and it’s agency were clearly not geared to handle this. The story has become quite popular and Samsung’s competitor Nokia has definitely gained some good PR due to this, by helping the stranded blogger. As you’ll learn thru this article, Samsung isn’t a stranger to such a debacle. This isn’t the first time Samsung has trended up the social media channels for the wrong reasons.
The rest of the post is dedicated to answering two questions:
- How could this Public Relations nightmare been handled better?
- How can one avoid such a Public Relations nightmare ?
How could this Public Relations nightmare been handled better?
- PR 101 would teach that you cannot threaten people. It’s so obviously lame, that one would think that Samsung obviously needs to make a public apology. However, nothing seems to be out there.
- PR 101 would also teach that you can’t have separate messaging which will be publicly displayed. In an email to the blogger they expressed apology, but in the public release claimed that it was a misunderstanding. This was a mistake, they needed to come out and apologize in public not just in a private email.
- Escalation of online articles and tweets could have been reduced if there was an immediate (in couple of hours) response by the Samsung team.
- Ideally this response can also be made on the same forums / places where the issue is highlighted with additional publicly available response on one’s own social channels. (Responding on the same channel(s) can at times be difficult and hence the suggestion to move the conversation if possible.)
- The most important part being responding to the story in Internet Time (couple of hours). This is necessary to prevent others taking advantage of the situation.
- In this case looks like Samsung got to know about Nokia helping out the blogger after the incident was publicly published.
- Samsung could have publicly done two things; offered to compensate for the inconvenience. I’m not saying that they need to spell out how, all I’m saying is specify that you’re willing to take action, in this case compensate. Secondly, they should have expressed regret, not try to pass it off as just a misunderstanding. You obviously can’t avoid the competition from taking advantage, though you can work on negating the effect.
However, there is more to this story, it appears to be that Samsung’s marketing and PR have faced a similar issue in the past. It seems to be a systemic issue and answers to the next question will help address this.
How can one avoid such a Public Relations nightmare?
I’ve listed the key challenges in this story and below that taken each challenge and listed possible resolutions, some obvious and some not so obvious things:
- Code of conduct.
- Multiple differing communication.
- Response time and system
- Crisis Management System
- Response System
- The one idea that can turn the tide
- Leverage Social Media.
- Leverage Brand Advocates.
- What kind of people need to handle this? What skills do they need?
- Response System
- Long term solutions
- Brand Advocacy programs
- Communities & Independent Associations
1. Code of Conduct: Samsung and it’s agencies need to take a hard look at the guidance provided to employees as well as to their agencies in regards to dealing with brand advocates/influencers/reporters. There are some things which are a strict “No” and people need to be made aware of that. They need to get this revised code of conduct ratified by some of the senior members in their advocate/influencer/communication programs and also via a suitable external consultant.
Rectification? In this particular case Samsung needs to show that they are apologetic. There are multiple things they need to do:
- Samsung needs to take action right away against the erring personnel(I’m not saying one needs to single out the supposed person who asked the blogger to figure his own way back alone).
- Make sure that this message is publicly communicated via relevant public social channels. This isn’t just a matter of doing justice to the person concerned, it also reaches out to people who’re reading these stories across various channels.
2. Multiple differing communication: Ensuring that unified messages go out, is a function of the systems and processes you have in place to handle communications and PR. In this particular case I’m willing to give Samsung the benefit of doubt that they meant to apologies however, in handling this challenging situation they messed up by not apologizing publicly.
Rectification? I think an apology and compensation would have gone a long way in placating people. However, in order to do this effectively they needed to communicate in near real time and leverage the same channels which were causing the bad PR. More on that in the next points.
3. Response time: I can’t overstress the importance of responding fast. Unlike traditional media where one typically had a day at least to respond to a breaking story, Social Media necessitates that one responds in as close to real time as possible 24/7. There are two parts to this and you really can’t do this without having both these parts in place:
Monitoring: One needs to monitor conversations in real time and have systems in place which auto-notify one in case certain pre-set conditions are met. For e.g. if you’re suddenly becoming a trending topic on twitter or are appearing on multiple blog posts, news sites, appropriate personnel within your company/agency need to be notified automatically. I’m not debating here whether an organization should have an in-house or external agency to handle monitoring, but suffice to say there needs to be a system in place and that brings me to the next point.
Response System: People will be people and stressed out as most communication personnel are, without a system, communication plans will go haywire. Additionally, communication happens at multiple levels: Strategic, Operational and Tactical, and you’ll have program specific variations, for e.g. what is alright in terms of communication with the press v/s brand advocates etc. Your response system can help you determine how you need to react in different circumstances. Oh there is the people factor in terms of who is appropriate for such a role as well and I’ll talk about that in the next point. Below I’ve highlighted certain elements which can be part of your Crisis management response system.
Rectification? I would imagine a company the size of Samsung has a monitoring system in place. However, there seems to be a lack of a response system. At the time of the writing of this article, I couldn’t find significant indications of an adequate response system.
4. Crisis Management System: In the social media age, you need a crisis management system in place no excuses at all.
In terms of a system you might have the following process/steps (note this is just for illustration purposes but I hope you get the picture.)
Step 1: Acknowledge the problem if there is one publicly and describe what steps you’re taking to uncover details. Apologise publicly if it’s an obvious mistake.
Step 2: Establish communication Channels: Provide a publicly visible landing page where people can be made aware of the issue and how you’re handling it.
Step 2: Communicate about rectification being done: … etc..
4. A. The one idea that can turn the tide: Ask your audience how you should rectify the issue basically moving the discussion away from talking about the problem to how to solve it. You’re killing three birds with one stone here:
- Moving the conversation to a solution mode.
- You might actually get some good ideas
- You will be looked at positively
Note: You can’t do this just for the sake of doing it, just to put up a show that you’re concerned. You need to mean it else this will boomerang on you.
Winning people over: Once the crisis begins to die down, create a best practice guide for internal consumption and one for external use highlighting the issue, and the way you’ve solved it and how you’re ensuring this doesn’t repeat in the future. Basically providing closure to people.
The key idea here is that your people need to have a step by step system which guides them on how to handle and respond a crisis situation. You’re obviously not going to cover each and every situation, however, you’ll enable saner responses and possibly ending the crisis in a swift manner, dissipating peoples anger.
Doing the above would help, however if you want to turbo charge your efforts two more things need to be in place.
4.B. Leverage Social Networks
You need to be ready to respond and leverage the same social media channels which are spreading the bad blood. So for instance if twitter is where the conversation is happening, respond out there in real time, share your side of the story, lead people your landing page where they are informed about how you’re fixing this. Just having a press release or an isolated blog post might not suffice, you might need to go down in to the trenches and be able to avert the crisis on those social networks. Needless to say the faster your participate in the conversation, the better the chances of dissipating the crisis.
4.C. Leverage your Brand Advocates
Your resources to handle these crisis are limited to your staff and agency. However, if your company has a good brand advocacy program in place this helps extend your reach. It enables you to literally turn the tide by leveraging your brand advocates to help spread the word and provide your side of the story. You’d be surprised at what all they’d do to support you.
4.D. What kind of people need to handle this? What skills do they need?
Not everyone is cut out for this role. You need people who have a bunch of new competencies:
- Understanding of Word of Mouth Marketing
- Reputation Management
- Community Management
- Influencer/ Brand Advocate Management
- and a level headed cool personality to go with.
Additionally, they need to be comfortable with multiple channel, two way, instantaneous communications.
Rectification? This section on Crisis management just covered an amazing amount of stuff… oh there’s just so much Samsung could have done… I hope I’ve given you some things to think about… (let me know your thoughts in the comments below). There was only one lone other blogger(a Samsung advocate) who I found, who tried to give a neutral picture. There is just so much Samsung could have enabled out here.
5. Long term solutions: The volume of conversations, the number of social media channels on which these conversations happen and the limited resources you have means that you need to really think hard in terms of long term solutions beyond your individual capabilities.
5.A. Brand Advocacy programs: Brand advocacy programs give you the reach and third party validation you need. However, they are not just as simple as reaching out to a bunch of people and expecting that just because you’re giving them an exclusive peek or extra privileges that they’re supposed to do what you say. Watch this video to learn about how to build a brand advocacy program (or read)and avoid some of the most common mistakes in engaging with brand advocates. Moreover, a well developed Brand advocacy program might have indicated to Samsung that maybe this blogger was not the target profile they wanted in their program. There are so many different sources for discovering your brand advocates, you need to really think hard in terms of who are ideal candidates for inclusion in which program.
Rectification? My analysis as an external entity with the limited data I know, indicates to me that the root problem which Samsung needs to fix is re-defining who are ideal candidates for which of their programs. Also executives of the program need to undergo training to effectively understand how to manage expectations and secure acceptance from their brand advocates. Most importantly what is evident is that the executive interacting with the blogger in this case didn’t have a relationship with the blogger. This is probably the Achilles heel of any brand advocate program. A brand advocacy program is extremely dependent on the relations built between the company, the managers of the program and the brand advocate. In Samsung’s case it seems that there was no meaningful relationship, other than I scratch your back you scratch mine.
5.B. Communities & Independent Associations
Just like brand advocates, nurturing independent communities and associations is the next logical step forward and many organizations invest in building this. This is a much more advanced topic. Suffice to say communities and associations focussed around your company products and services provide another level of armoury which can help in tackling such crisis.
In summary, I hope I’ve been able to give enough ideas and pointers both in Samsung’s case and in terms of things which are applicable to your organization. Have you had or heard of similar experiences, what has worked there? Has a particular idea I’ve illustrated resonated with you? I would love to know your thoughts so please do post in the comments below.