With the proliferation of the digital era, crises management for brands has dramatically evolved making crisis management fundamentally crucial to brands and organizations of today. 

We’ve exclusively interviewed Ghada Shaker, Director of Corporate Communications and Public Relations at Egypt’s City Edge Developments, for the ins and outs of crisis management in the digital age.

BB: Reputation is considered one of the brand’s most valuable assets. One of the core areas where brands and PR cross paths is reputation management. How can PR professionals help brands build a solid and credible reputation?

GS: Despite the rise and continuing influence of digital and social media, which is a critical part of many of today’s successful media and PR campaigns, there is still a place and a need for good public relations. For new brands, public relations is an important tool for building an industry presence and established businesses, the practice can help to further their reach and reformulate the aims and targets of a new product or service.

Ghada Shaker – City Edge Developments

When done successfully, good PR can help a company generate earned media that assist in constructing brand identity and industry equity. Importantly, this can and should increase industry presence and sales. Followers, customers and potential investors want to hear a good story, and the better the story, the better the chance it will be published and the effect it will have on its audience. Public relations is an effective way to build a brand, communicate with a target market and attract further investment. When properly executed, PR can reap large dividends.

However, to return to your question the key word here is credible unlike marketing efforts, which focus on, selling the product, our focus is to sell reputation and reputation is built on a number of levels and therefore is influenced accordingly.  Therefore, building a reputation involves building it within the company, based on internal communications which is on many levels I would say more important than beginning to focus outside.  

BB: Many brands are faced with crises that can give a hard blow to their reputations. Effectively managing crisis when it arises can become a make it or break it to any brand. Can you give us some insights on what are the pillars of an effective crisis management strategy?

GS: The internet is already filled with how to manage a crisis effectively, they vary in focus but usually my experience is that to begin with, you need to have a crisis management structure in place.  So that when things begin falling, you have a predefined net to catch them. Knowing that a crisis will happen, and being prepared will help mitigate the effects. 

The second pillar and in my opinion a critical one is  “Monitor,” know what’s happening out there, see how this may impact you, and if and when things happen you can take swift actions to avert but even when they happen you are among the first to know.  Which means being proactive is the third pillar but being proactive by publishing timely, relevant content; developing detailed response plans to common PR issues; the final pillars are to “take action” and “review and learn.” When crisis hits, it is crucial to respond quickly—and with tact—, which will help, you recover and rebuild your image. 

But beyond that my advise is in a nutshell Be calm, be wise, be honest and stay on top. It is really simple experience that is the name we give our mistakes, so mistakes can and will happen. Recognizing and understanding that we accept the fact that mistakes can be made, we respect if you own up to them and seek concrete and actionable solutions.  In most cases of real crisis, this is what is important.  Of course the starting point is recognizing when there is a real crisis. 

BB: The digital transformation age has given reputation and crisis management a whole new dimension. Reputations can be affected negatively with one single social media post. In a nutshell, what are the dos and don’ts when handling virally blasted crisis?

GS: That is a good question!

Traditional crisis management follows the strategy of “owning your story”; that is, moving quickly to maintain control over how the story of an issue or incident is shared and interpreted and, by doing so, shape how external audiences assess the performance of the organization. In a social media world, it is very difficult to retain control of your own story and attempts to do so via traditional methods (controlling information access, deliberate and formal response protocols, etc.) can be counterproductive. In essence, social media has created a communication context where the most effective and valued communications have changed. People now value authenticity, human-ness, accessibility, dialogue, and engagement. The value speed, and as such, a new approach to crisis communications is required.

Think about what has changed and how this affects us. To begin with, what constitutes a crisis has changed, a customer who is unhappy with the service of our customer representative can use the internet to air his grievances and this story can become a news sensation.  

The fact is, how people express their grievances or dissatisfaction has changed and the web and social media provide consumers, competitors and others with many options for venting complaints or concerns. Twitter and Facebook,  with a direct hash tag to you, will link your brand identity quickly to any complaint and they are effective.  

Websites and fake sites airing commentary can be optimized to ensure people searching for your organization or relevant topics get pointed to their site first. It is unfortunate that most people look at how you will end up on top and never at how it can be used against you.  Which brings us to the fact that how people obtain information has changed, today stories can break from many directions well before traditional media engage or are able to assess and report.

Traditional media also respond to stories or ideas that are moving quickly in the social media world in order to capitalize on their popularity; think of the impact of WikiLeaks and you will understand that access to information itself has changed , because today a simple click of a button from one of your employees will make everything public knowledge .

Search tools, especially Google, define how the majority of people, including journalists, begin to find news and information. Third-party sources have emerged as go-to sources for information in specific categories, e.g., TripAdvisor for real-people commentary on travel experiences. In addition, the speed of information has changed, its minutes not days and as a result response expectations have changed, consumers and everyone one else wants instant responses from organizations.

And finally and this is important who people trust has changed and this is significant because social media platforms all provide a connection to real people and these connections have authenticity and therefore are often afforded high trust levels even if the content is inaccurate or subjective. In this environment, bloggers and experts or what we term as influencers have an incredible impact on your reputation. 

The one thing that is important and has not changed, is the importance of how you handle the crisis.  That is the determinant. We need to remember that experience is the name we give to our mistakes therefore we accept as part of our reality that mistakes can and will happen. The question is what are you doing about it and do I deem your response appropriate. 

BB: Brands work in different cultural contexts. Does cultural differences affect crisis management?

GS: This is actually a difficult question to answer, it is easy to say that within a globalized world, where we come closer in cultural understanding that we would say no. I personally think to begin with that cultures define a in-built ‘OMG’ function or reaction, whenever any crisis occurs.

The size and scale of reaction varies between individuals, but the fundamental is there, this is nothing new. Research is focused on individuals managing the crisis or the people directly affected, not the public, cultural, response. Perhaps this is because the business continuity industry tends to focus on those directly involved in the process rather than the indirect players: i.e. we assess impact on third parties as part of the process but not the cultural reasons for impact.

It is tempting to make some broad-brush assertions in this area and I suspect that these might be quite accurate. For example, in the face of a critical event, would the cultural norms of, say, Egypt, lead to a different public reaction than, say, UAE or UK or the Tanzania? I suspect that the answer is yes, although I also accept that this may not be just culture, but also other factors coming to play such as political, economic or environmental aspects.

I think the critical aspect about cultural differences is therefore what constitutes a crisis and the OMG factor determines this. Having said this, part of successful crisis management is building rapport and trust and this is greatly influenced by cultural nuances.

BB: In your opinion, what would be a perfect example of a brand that faced a crisis and was able to turn it into a PR win in the Middle East?

GS: I honestly cannot think of a brand that on a regional level has had a crisis.  Most issues occur within borders or globally and in that case, there are many successes.