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Why listening is the new talking

In the first two parts of the "Digital Emperor's New Clothes" series we tackled social-media tokenism.


Our third article, in conjunction with Nexus Communications, points out how digital advances are transforming crisis management.

People hate your brand. Even as you may bask in social community adoration, there will be some dissatisfied customer out there ready to let off steam in 140 carefully crafted characters.

Crises and anti-brand feelings rarely "brew" now, but instead come at you fast and furious through social. As such, crisis mode has been reborn as a constant. As the horsemeat scandal showed, even brands that think they are clean and well- covered can find themselves under fire from a never-imagined direction. Every business has a skeleton in its cupboard, whether you are aware of it or not.
This world is changing fast. Where once a company had 24 hours to dust off its crisis manual, get a response statement drafted and signed off and put counter measures into action, now it often has only minutes.

A crisis can be an opportunity

If this is giving you the fear, the good news is it doesn’t have to. But it does require you to be listening — all the time. Crisis PR has changed from being the "wartime" to the "fulltime", so it must be integrated into how you do business.

"You shouldn’t run away from social," says Keith Beech, head of crisis at Nexus Communications. "You can’t hide from it, or your customers, even if you’re not there yourself." Rather, he is a strong believer in social offering brands opportunities to deal with a crisis quickly and efficiently.

Social media may give you less time to prepare, fewer places to hide and more "Chinese whispers" filling in the gaps in real-time. But when dealt with smartly, it can become a business opportunity to be seen as a listening brand.

If you are saying to yourself you have a crisis-management manual, so you know where to go if anything happens, you’re already in trouble. Have you tested and updated it? Can you access it from anywhere? Is it action-led rather than corporate-led?

If you haven’t got ongoing "peacetime" activity running, you won’t be regularly revising your positioning statements.

Which social-media hat are you wearing today?

The roles marketers should be actively, and regularly, adopting:

  • The peacetime deterrent Are you listening into social-media conversation about ongoing
    issues that might affect your brand?
  • The beacon Are you tracking sentiment with alerts in place if negative conversations breach a certain percentage level?
  • The mole Are you monitoring the "everyday" influencers with views on your brand as well as official organisations that may not be its best friends?
  • The emissary Are you responding to and having a dialogue with those influencers?

If you’re not listening in to what people say online, then you’re absolutely missing the point of what digital now adds in terms of giving you more actionable intelligence.

"It needs to be seen as a living document, part of the everyday life of the brand," says Beech. "No matter how well and comprehensively done at the time, if it sits on a shelf and gathers dust, then, by its very nature, it will be out of date."

Research carried out by Nexus earlier this year among communication directors found that more than a third had not updated these plans more than once a year. With the pace of digital change, this is clearly not enough.

The critical issues lie in crisis-handling capability, as 50% felt hampered by a lack of live digital and social information to help them make decisions; 36% limited by the speed of old-fashioned processes and systems, and 44% by a lack of getting the people in the right place at the right time.

One of the reasons marketers and communications directors may be so terrified of social is that, as it’s a seven- days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day medium, they think their weekends will be spent hitting refresh to stay on top of things.

This is where alerts come into play. If you are measuring the sentiment of conversation about your brand and, say, 9% negative is an average, you can set an alert so you’ll hear if the figure goes above 15%. So the initial hard work is done by a remote system and listening tools.

In response to the research, Nexus created a digital- friendly model to reduce the pain of the process, speed up responses and allow for time to be better spent on external communication rather than internal firefighting.

"We developed a system in CORE [crisis organisation reputation] that combines ‘contact- all’ ‘panic buttons’ with live social- media feeds, share- point-style software for collaborative response-writing, clearly signed-off ‘in-play’ materials and an ‘access from any device’ platform base," explains Beech.

"Add to that videoconferencing, IM capabilities, the potential for a range of permission-based log-ins and time-prompted action lists, always bespoke for every client, and we have a system that is switched on to the way issues grow faster, more organically and with more of an attack mentality than in the past."

Give yourself options

When listening in to social media you have, on the one hand, the masses and their conversations – be they negative or positive – and on the other, the individuals who may like/dislike/hate you, be that rational or irrational. By listening in, it is possible to identify these people – they aren’t always the obvious journalists or bloggers. Once identified, you can see who they are, who their followers are,
and whether what they say matters or influences people, and so determine whether it is worth engaging with them. This requires some editorial judgement – and if you’re not listening in on the con- versation, you sacrifice the opportunity to make that choice in the early stages.

Horsemeat has moved on and a new issue will duly take its place. So for anyone with a manufacturing chain that involves provenance, ingredients, transparency, testing, claims or anything purchasers might question, be aware the rules have changed – all crises are digital, and all solutions need a digital element. Hoping it won’t happen is not a strategy.

So, listen:

– to the conversation, or what you say may miss the curve.

– to the issues as they organically grow, and you will know better where to head things off at the pass.

– to your internal systems, and if they creak, fix them before they are tested to breaking point.

– to what others have been through, heave a sigh of relief, and then upgrade your approach so that, if it happens on your watch, you are ready.


To talk more about bespoke CORE approaches, or about issues keeping you awake at night (you’ll work out the limitations of that yourself) contact Keith on 020 7052 8888 or take a look at the crisis site from Nexus, which lives at www.core-management.co.uk

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