Published in May-Jun 2022
Netflix’s The Crown gives the average viewer a close-up peek into the riveting lives of the British Royal Family. As a communications professional, the show is an excellent case study in the art of managing public perceptions and responding to crises. Moments such as when the monarchy is criticised for being ‘out of touch’ after the unfavourable reception of a speech made by the Queen, or when she is advised to modernise her communications – beginning the now-iconic tradition of the televised Christmas message – are comms gold. Every episode provides a clinical outlook into the way the palace navigates its way through both positive and negative news, fact checks and course corrections in response to external factors.
For as long as there has been the need to communicate, reputation management has been someone’s job. Every day, governments, corporations, celebrities and media personalities invest hours and resources to influence the narrative surrounding them. In communications, this kind of magic can help transform small gestures into timeless stories or, conversely, imprint the most minor of mistakes as unforgettable disasters in public recollection.
This is also perhaps where the function earns its name – public relations and crisis management. And it is my sincere counsel, through this article, that all companies which do not presently have a team working on their public relations, to hire one immediately. The job more than pays for itself in the goodwill it creates, and trust me, preventing a crisis is far better than managing one.
What separates an ordinary PR strategy from an extraordinary one is the authenticity of the narrative – and the first rule in the PR playbook is deciding when to make use of this narrative. Some opportunities are worth pursuing, while others are best steered clear of (think Gal Gadot and celebrity Friends’ rendition of Imagine during peak Covid-19).
Yet, Covid-19 also inspired some of the most human, authentic and sensitive PR efforts. During the onset of the pandemic, when people’s lives and livelihoods were threatened amid lockdowns, many companies mobilised to support the government through quick and widespread relief packages. EBM, Engro, Jazz, Nestlé Pakistan, Unilever Pakistan and many others did so through food relief packages; providing PPEs, healthcare support, and sustaining employment. These efforts created positive PR and public sentiment for those companies.
During Covid-19, many brands successfully earned positive PR, while winning consumer hearts and support. Lifebuoy soap leveraged its platform around hygiene messaging when hand washing was the best defence against the spread of Covid-19. Urging consumers to use any soap and mentioning competitor products by name brought home the fact that the brand prioritised hygiene and people’s safety over business. This had a positive impact on the public and the traction was so tremendous, it was replicated across markets.
While Lifebuoy’s message focused on critical Covid-19 health needs, the pandemic also created business-critical challenges, and the toughest of these was the loss of livelihoods. The approach of organisations to this challenge reflects on their perception management abilities as much as their responsibility as employers.
Some organisations navigated this difficult outcome with a lens of humanity while preserving the dignity of those affected. Others unknowingly created a blueprint for what not to do (remember the CEO who went viral after firing 900 employees on Zoom?). Careem set one of the better examples. When they announced their decision to let go of 31% of their employees following a reduction in business, the CEO’s open letter helped people empathise with their difficulties. The letter came across as honest, straightforward, and, most importantly, personal to the sense of loss of those affected, while acknowledging their contribution to the company.
However, this digital world with its viral positivity has also amplified the crisis of Cancel Culture – and in a crisis, everyone is fair game. To the experienced comms manager, the right narrative is the most potent antidote to the poison of a crisis, and while we may hate it, we know that no comms manager worth their salt gets there without learning the value of crafting the narrative as part of their battle with a serious crisis.
Facebook is no stranger to crisis management and its frequent brushes with some of the biggest media outlets keep the company’s comms teams busy. Facebook’s response to the The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files report and subsequent reaction to the whistle-blower’s claims attracted criticism for eschewing Crisis Management 101 – knowing when (and if) to respond, taking action and communicating progress. Facebook first chose silence, then denial, accepting accountability as a last resort rather than a sincere choice. It survived due to its scale and the promise to do better, but those missteps created a dent in its reputation.
Yet, being embroiled in a crisis is not always a result of one’s own doing. A crisis does not discriminate between the responsible and affected parties.
In July of 2018, posts calling for the boycott of Dutch companies in Pakistan started circulating on Facebook. This was in response to an announcement about holding a competition consisting of blasphemous cartoons by a Dutch politician, known to incite controversy and violence with his extremist anti-Islam stance. Although the announcement was met with global condemnation and the Dutch Government publicly distanced itself from his actions, the hurt caused to Muslims and advocates of tolerance created a wave of anger globally.
In Pakistan, the situation escalated, going from Facebook and WhatsApp posts to coverage in the mainstream media. There was a call by a religious group for action against the politician and a demand that either the Dutch Government call off the competition or face a boycott of Dutch products as well as the severing of diplomatic ties with the Netherlands. Although they had no connection with the Dutch politician in question and were genuinely opposed to his actions, Dutch companies in Pakistan faced negative sentiment, value chain disruption, dangers to life and property and loss of business.
As part of their crisis management response, Dutch companies in Pakistan mobilised a collective task force of their PR and comms teams to communicate their concerns and make recommendations to both their head offices as well as the Dutch diplomatic community in Pakistan. These efforts, along with pressure from Pakistan on the international community, led to statements by the Dutch embassy and later by the Dutch prime minister at the time, explicitly distancing themselves from the actions of the politician. The crisis management learnings, in this case, are effective stakeholder mapping; recognising the value of alliances, responding within the perspective of the local context, and active communication to all impacted groups.
These examples establish the value of a sound comms approach concerning business continuity – and it is common knowledge that good public relations can define public opinion. In a world where relevance is the new global currency, the new survival strategy is a good PR strategy.
Fatima Arshad is Manager, Sustainable Business and Communications, Unilever Pakistan.