Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
There’s a huge gap between the plans brands have to address social media disasters and their front-line responses to them, according to Australian reputation management expert and author, Gerry McCusker.
The growing number of social media campaign disasters has sparked McCusker’s consultancy, Engage ORM, to launch The Drill, a simulation platform that replicates trans-media crises and allows brands, companies and government agencies to practice and learn how to cope with, and counter, social media crises in real-time.
McCusker has been involved in PR issues and crises management for a number of years and he claimed more than ever before, the instances affecting business and brand reputation are happening online.
“Online is now the primary point of customer service now, so if somebody wants to challenge a brand or a bank or government department they just go online, go on social media and pretty much flame them, hoping to provoke a response,” he told CMO. “From my experience, there seemed to be a lack and a gap in the plan versus real frontline experience of how brands are being out-flanked by online disasters.”
McCusker claimed cases such as the Nanna’s Berries Hep A scandal, the Woolworth’s ‘Lest We Forget’ social disaster, Nutella’s selfie jar labelling campaign, and the Sofy Be Fresh ‘fat shaming’ viral are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital ad campaigns turning bitter very quickly. He also believes these prove that Australian businesses can be easily outflanked by online outrage.
“When we see organisations like Nanna’s Berries, the attacks on meat producers and the anti-Halal issues, we know the food sector is an area that wants to work with us already,” he said. “People seem to be very concerned about food production methods and animal safety, and those issues tend to escalate very quickly.”
McCusker’s claim that more must be done to avoid social media disasters follows new global research by AON Thought Leadership, which found brand and reputation damage is the number one fear facing CEOs and risk managers in Australia and almost every other country surveyed.
“Research in 2013 showed almost 60 per cent of global companies admit they don’t use social media in crisis response,” McCusker continued. “If you don’t use it, you simply can’t defend yourself from the new forms of viral attacks such as memes, vines and video, which can be globally circulated in seconds. Online damage can quickly reduce market share and share price.”
To add further fuel to the claim, an earlier report by Pitney Bowes Software found 83 per cent of Australian consumers have had a bad experience with social media marketing, and nearly two-thirds of Australian consumers will stop using a brand that upsets or irritates them due to its social media behaviour.
McCusker predicted that more than 75 per cent of Australian brands and businesses would be ill-prepared to manage an online crisis or scandal.
“Responding to a viral video that’s just hit 20,000 views in 30 minutes with a corporate press release that takes two days to get approval is just not going to cut it nowadays,” he said. “Every crisis, emergency and risk plan needs to be re-configured and tested to effectively handle online threats and crises.”
Built in Australia for brand managers, CEOs, emergency responders and PRs, The Drill replicates all the main social channels alongside traditional media pressures. It is a password-protected, secure platform that can be used to test and hone responses to all kinds of PR disasters; from customer service gripes, anti-corporate activism and natural disasters to brand tampering and even attacks from disgruntled, ex-staff members.
“The platform offers a training, testing and simulation environment that accurately replicates the escalation points of a communication crisis online while allowing people to practice engaging with it and testing the quality of their existing campaigns,” McCusker explained. “So typically it starts on social, it’s picked up by media commentators, it becomes a mainstream media issue, it re-populates social and we wanted to replicate all of that in a password protected environment. So we replicated that environment and added a trans-media element to the mix.”
Whether you’re CMO of a big brand like Qantas, or a food brand like Coles or Woolworths, the platform is about ensuring the launch of campaigns deepen customer engagement with stakeholders and social channels.
“If brands can learn to pre-test their campaigns, we can simulate the kind of campaign backlash that could result from the campaign tagline or promotional idea,” he said. “We play the part of devil’s advocates from a reputation point of view.”
McCusker said an unlikely sector showing initial interest in the platform has been the education sector.
“We’ve already had a fairly sizeable academic institution wanting to know how its crisis comms plan would work in the event of an incident on campus, which was a really interesting one for us,” he said.
While The Drill online simulation portal offers both prevention and recovery strategies for marketing campaigns, it offers a brand-new take on the old adage that it’s easier to protect your reputation, than lose it and try to recover it.
“Brands spend their money and don’t always think how these things can necessarily come back and bite them in the backside,” McCusker added. “With this platform, you can train your staff, you can test the quality of your launch, and try and sort out the problems before you have a detrimental effect.”
At this stage, the rollout tests the potential reaction of the Australian market only, so the platform is yet to tackle potential international ad blunders like that committed by Aussie brand Protein World, whose ‘beach body ready’ campaign in the UK received severe online backlash by aggravated feminist groups.
“We haven’t yet thought of that, but it’s a really good consideration moving forward,” he said. “With our background in public relations and brand reputation, we are currently looking at campaign ideas in a localised market and seeing how it can cause offense in more regional markets. We know when a local issue is picked up by a major newswire like the BBC, the Guardian or even Yahoo News, it escalates very quickly to a global issue.”
For brands wanting to err on the side of campaign caution, McCusker agreed the pressure is on to remain nimble and agile when it comes to content creation and completely reconfiguring your traditional marketing mix.
“Agility to really so important,” he said. “The desire to be creative in online spaces and trying something edgy might get you online attention, but it might not necessarily play well in terms of media and brand reputation.
”That age-old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity – we’ve been trying for a long time to nail that one to the cross so many times. You only have to look at the recent disasters to understand that some publicity is indeed, very bad. And what has changed it is the power of the digital search, which means today’s bad news is tomorrow’s tangible search find.”