Is your company prepared in the art of digital defence?

Business Reporter Shoshana knows her way around Europe and the Middle East with a notebook and video camera. She has worked as a multi-media journalist for Channel NewsAsia, Ruptly video news agency, the UN, and most recently, with 7Days in Dubai. She speaks Arabic and English and has degrees in Middle East History and Political Science.

A new frontier in social media has emerged, and given rise to a digital battleground of cyber-bullying, trolling and brand-bashing. At the center of it, US President Donald Trump has weaponized Twitter, sending hordes of his 25 million followers in a single tweet after those who have incurred his wrath.

Companies are woefully unprepared and untrained to face this new threat,  says Jennifer Hardie who runs a PR firm and training college in Dubai specializing in ‘Crisis Communications Management.’

“Most companies, anywhere in the world, not just in the Gulf or the Middle East, are unprepared for a Twitter battle with the President of the United States,” she says.

“If a communications team is well-trained and prepared, they will be able to operate like a well-oiled machine in a crisis and successfully handle all of the media
engagement.”

A public skewering on Twitter retweeted and ‘mentioned’ hundreds of thousands of times can be ruinous to a company’s reputation, Hardie warns, adding that cadres of social media advisers at Hardie’s firm Pinnacle Public Relations, and their International School of Communications (ISOC), train and prepare companies to windsurf over attacks launched at their brand.

“Poor communication during a crisis or issue that might turn into a crisis can cause serious damage to an organization, impacting a company’s bottom line,” Hardie says. “And this is definitely quantifiable,” she says, citing research by multinational law firm Freshfields, that found 46% of companies hit by a crisis see shares fall from day one, while 21% of the global companies saw a 30% drop in their share prices in the space of one year.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ crisis response, Hardie says. “It depends on the company, the issue, the size of the crisis.”

The intensity of the crisis can depend on loss of life, significant damage, the market environment, and what other news is topping the news agenda that day, Hardie explains. “The best rule is to have a crisis communications plan embedded as part of the overall corporate crisis plan and test it.” Test it regularly, see where there are weak points and fix them.

The jury is still out on how much damage a Trump attack causes to your brand, says Alex Malouf, an Inc. Arabia columnist, and regional corporate communications and reputation manager at FMCG giant Procter & Gamble.

“If you’re attacked by Trump it’s almost as if you’re becoming a darling of those who oppose him, like with [American apparel retailer] Nordstrom. And people will actually support you for it.”

Nordstrom’s shares jumped 4% after Trump lobbed insults at the American retailer for dropping his daughter, Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.

“It’s not even just US organizations. Look at Airbus, which has a lot of supply chain in the US,” he says of the French civilian and military aircraft maker.

Malouf says that “its large footprint in the US,” means it risks falling into Trump’s crosshairs, especially in the light of Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric and the large aircraft order Airbus has landed in post-nuclear deal Iran.

Companies like Dubai-based developer Damac that do business with the Trump Organization may also need to tread carefully, he says.

What you probably shouldn’t do is take Trump’s advice. “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life,” he tweeted in November 2012. 

THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Crash Course in Crisis Management

PREPARE FOR BATTLE The most important thing when responding to a social media attack is preparation, Crisis Communications expert Jennifer Hardie says. “That means having a crisis strategy and testing and training the team to ensure that they actually know what to do if a crisis should hit. We often find that companies in this region have a business continuity plan surrounding a crisis, and that they’ve even tested it, but communications will be forgotten, when it should really be a key part of it.”

PRACTICE WAR GAMES Hardie’s teams also run crisis simulations for training clients in crisis management. “We’ll have a realistic crisis scenario play out throughout the day, typically with mocked up TV, radio and print news reports that are made to appear in real-time and social media updates live streaming. This puts the pressure on the team and allows them to make mistakes in a safe environment before facing it for real. We also advise clients to conduct regular media training with their spokespeople to ensure that they have people who are ready and able to engage comfortably with the media. “

THE THREE R’S In a crisis we would always advise our clients to remember the three Rs, Hardie says.

Recognize: The situation and provide as much information as you can.

Regret: Express regret for the situation. It is absolutely fine to offer condolences to those affected and their families. Sympathy is good; it is not a sign of admitting guilt or taking responsibility.

Resolve: Whether that is cooperating with authorities or creating your own investigation, you need to show that you are committed to resolving the situation.

Most importantly we would always tell our clients that they need to respect the three Ts—Tell The Truth. Always. If you don’t know, don’t make up facts, especially in a sensitive situation.