Own up, and please make it quick!



In a connected social media world, time is of the essence when brands have to tackle a crisis

TS Eliot was right when he said, “April is the cruellest month.” It is really turning out to be a torrid month for some of the world’s most well-known brands.

Earlier this month, PepsiCo had to withdraw an ad on YouTube starring Kendall Jenner after it was accused of trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement. Then American company United Airlines stepped into a PR catastrophe when videos of its staff dragging a passenger off its flight surfaced.

Last week, messaging platform Snapchat’s founder Evan Spiegel’s purported “India too poor” remark didn’t go down well with Indians. Many uninstalled the app and rated it a poor one on both PlayStore and App Store. The company, however, came out with an official response almost a day after denying the allegations. In today’s era where action and reaction can move at the speed of light, a day’s delay in response can have a major impact. It took United 48 hours and three statements to say “we will make it right” only after the company’s shares took a beating at the bourses. Snapchat chose to speak to the media but does not seem to have clarified or denied its founder’s comments on its Twitter account or website.

The need for speed

Ashish Bhasin, Chairman and CEO - South Asia, Dentsu Aegis, believes brands should word their statements carefully. “This (Snapchat) was a very insensitive remark, if he (Spiegel) had made it. An upfront acknowledgement from the company could have helped. You can’t wait for a situation to go from bad to worse and then take action, especially in an era of fake news and social media.” As for United, Bhasin believes it made matters worse by issuing an “arrogant statement”. He cites Cadbury’s handling of the worm infestation controversy – within two weeks, it launched a campaign featuring Amitabh Bachchan to speak about superior packaging and regain customers’ confidence – as an instance of deft damage control.

Brand strategy expert Harish Bijoor, recalls Silicon Valley veteran Andy Grove’s, “Only the paranoid shall survive”. “Brands need to understand and appreciate that a brand never sleeps. CEOs and brand managers need to live more connected lives than they do today … Managing what goes wrong with speed, panache and humility is the need of the moment. Big brands just don’t seem trained to do this,” he adds.

Brand consultant and social commentator Santosh Desai says the era when a brand could bluff its way out of a controversy is long gone. “Brands have many resources for social listening/analytics. But if they live in denial about a negative point of view about their brand and fail to react quickly, they will be able to do very little to save face,” he said.

Keep a constant watch

“There has to be constant media monitoring to determine whether the official statement is working or not. Take stock of what is working for you in terms of gathering positive sentiments and continue with the pattern to control the damage,” Manveer Malhi, Partner and Digital Head, iGenero, says.

Nimesh Shah, co-founder and Head Maven, Windchimes Communications, says empowering employees at the front end goes a long way in ensuring that the customers aren’t getting short-changed. “All brands should have their own social media monitoring mechanisms in place to constantly track the chatter on their brand. And in case of an incident, this tracking should go into overdrive where top management should assess the situation and get into damage control.” Companies should not allow the matter to be prolonged, but end it quickly. “Ensure that all suffering parties are adequately compensated and own up to your mistakes,” he advises.

Ahmed Naqvi, founder of digital media agency Gozoop notes that despite being condemned for racist statements he did not make – a controversy that is over 20 years old – Tommy Hilfiger is still a popular brand. “Controversies do impact the image, but not for long as consumer’s memory is very short lived,” he says.

Some brands and products become habits in the long run, making it difficult for people to get rid of them, says Naqvi. Also, controversies often give the brand much needed publicity.

When Aamir Khan, then the face of online marketplace Snapdeal, said in 2015 that he and his wife felt insecure amidst increasing intolerance in India, consumers started giving its app bad reviews on Playstore and App Store. A former executive at Snapdeal who prefers anonymity says there were about 5,000 negative reviews in just two days asking the company to distance itself from the actor. Ṭhis, in fact, helped the company move up in searches as app stores do not recognise “good or bad” reviews, he adds.

Published on April 21, 2017

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