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THE IMPERFECT SNOWBALL: In Today’s Social Brandspace, Silence isn’t ALWAYS Golden

As I write this, the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad is creating a flutter of the wrong kind.

There are reports condemning the brand. Corrigendums are being published. Stands are being taken. Even more interestingly, 5 out of 10 people I ‘casually’ discussed this with today said “Oh yeah, the COKE ad!”

In the world we live in today, social media is not only the amplifier but increasingly judge, jury and executioner. Consumers are not only closer to communication than ever before, but also endorsers and advocates of what they perceive the communication to stand for. And this advocacy can happen in the 30 seconds it takes for them to read and comment. I choose to call it the Imperfect Snowball.

Brands often face crises even before they know it. A simple comment on someone’s insta/snap/facebook often leads to a chain of comments that soon becomes a debate and often ends in a complete organically created crisis that brand communication can neither contain nor curtail. What can we, as new-age PR professionals do in such a case? The ‘A’s of crisis management are my recommendation. Acknowledge. Answer. Act. Administer.

The best way to deal with a digital social media crisis is to acknowledge that something has happened. Answer customer comments. Act on what the sentiment is. And administer methods to ensure that someone is keeping a ‘listen’ on consumer sentiment at all times. Gone are the days where brands would keep quiet for days and even months, as an absolute storm broke out all around them.

Let me give you an example of a hotel brand that recently did something in support of the UAE Year of Giving. This video was put up on their social channel by the Sheraton group last month.

The accompanying blurb read, “In Dubai, business never stops. Neither do the people. See what happened when Sheraton set out to delight late night workers at the Dubai International Financial Centre. You spend up to 1/3 of every trip in travel—whether on the plane or in the airport. And in the busiest seasons where delays are common, you spend even more. So we set out to bring a little delight to your journey. See what happens when we surprise unexpecting travelers with moments of joy in the midst of the journey.”

However, when this campaign went live, it soon became a public relations nightmare. It all started with a prominent UAE influencer posting this:

The celebrity had identified the ‘Sheraton Employees’ featured in the video as actors. Not only was this now a reputation management issue, it soon became a free-for-all with the post being shared, reposted and commented upon.

Unfortunately, the brand has decided to stay silent. There have neither been apologies, or clarifications, nor even an acknowledgement.

The snowball continues.

In my opinion, all that is needed in this case is a simple shift in the slant of the communication. I would have advised the brand to add an introduction to the video absolutely owning it as a social experiment. It could have started by saying they cast actors to surprise late night workers with delights. The INTENT should have been made to take precedence over the execution.

Next, in case of negative sentiment, they should have had their communication team engage the person that shared this sentiment into a dialogue. The moment a conversation would have opened up, the brand’s altruistic frame of mind would have been instantly vocalised. For all you know, this ‘celebrity’ may have become an endorser of the brand’s efforts.

And finally, the brand would have benefited from an official statement that would have assured customers that the human touch was real, in spite of the medium being ‘actors’.

What do they do next? I am not saying an action as in the case of the Pepsi ad, which was unequivocally withdrawn, is the prescribed solution to this communication crisis. All I prescribe communicators to do is to abandon the ‘could’ve would’ve should’ve’ and BREAK THEIR SILENCE.

I would love to know how you think social media crises should be approached. Write to me at jamal@cbpr.me and let us open a conversation.

Jamal H. Iqbal is Director – Brand Outreach at Cicero & Bernay Public Relations. An independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai and offering new-age public relations consultancy to the UAE and across the GCC. | www.cbpr.me