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Trust and Truth. If you’re talking, is anyone listening?

It’s time we talked about trust and truth.

Trust is something that is earned.

Trust is bestowed, it is not a commodity that can be taken or acquired.

Trust is – at its epicentre – the conveyance and acceptance of truth.

The truth is sometimes uncomfortable, embarrassing and outright shameful.

The truth can hurt us just as it can hurt others.

Yet the truth is always noble – a raw glimpse of vulnerability into the human condition.

When former United States President Bill Clinton said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” at his impeachment hearing in 1998 – no one cared or was the least bit surprised by his lack of zipper control. What was central to the scandal was a lack of perceived trust due to his self-interested recollections of the truth.

Trust in a communications setting directly correlates with truth. We all know that the adage “actions speak louder than words” is true yet we do nothing to further that ideation into action in real life most of the time. Those that dare to try and challenge this status quo face a chorus of opposition in favour of corporate statements spun to make decision makers feel like they are in control. The truth is inconvenient and anyone looking for it is treated like an inconvenience. This isn’t communicating – it’s broadcasting.

Those with a broadcast mentality erroneously think that “broadcast” and “communication” are the same thing. Perhaps this was true up until the 1990’s before the internet began democratizing information but when the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter solidified their presence in the 24/7 news media cycle – trying to put that square peg into a social media, issues management and crisis communication shaped hole simply doesn’t work.

Understanding how to cultivate trust via investing in your audience through constructive communication and engagement is lost on people who think just because they or their organisation talks, the people they want to receive their message will listen.

If you talk and no-one trusts you, your audience aren’t listening.

All they see is spin and validations of the rhetoric they already believe to be true.

If you talk and no-one trusts you, it doesn’t matter how well you polish those buzzwords because no-one will read them.

Instead of influencing your audience, you just fuel the opposing narrative.

If you talk and no-one trusts you, self-congratulatory vanity metrics don’t convince anyone of your imaginary success.

You’re not influencing anyone other than those on the payroll or who already like you anyway.

The arrogance of a taking a broadcast approach to organisational communications may seem obvious in 2016, yet decision makers continuously fail to recognise that without trust, no matter what they say (or do) speaking fluent corporate spin will only result in further damage to their reputation.

Building trust isn’t hard – but you genuinely have to want to.

The most important communications aspects your organisation needs to focus on are:

  1. Demonstrating ethical business practices
  2. Demonstrating social responsibility and accountability for issues and crises; and
  3. Demonstrating transparent and open business practices

With 59% of people sharing positive recommendations to friends and colleagues, and 41% of people taking the time to share positive online reviews – can you afford to leave trust and truth out of your strategic communications equation?

Need some more convincing?

  • 2002 was the year the Celebrity CEO went into decline. That’s 14 years ago.
  • The 3 top most-used sources of news and information are peer-influenced (translation: NOT your corporate statements) how is your search, tv and social media efforts looking?
  • Technical experts are the most trusted spokespersons closely followed by academic experts. If you’re clinging to a celebrity brand ambassadorship you’re the second least trusted source of information.
  • 8 out of 10 people think CEO’s should be personally visible in discussing societal issues

Don’t expect people to listen if all you do is talk

*Statistical insights sourced from the 2016 Annual Edelman Trust Barometer.

Nicole Matejic is a Managing Partner of Quantum CIQ and is trusted by Governments and Corporations around the world to build rapport and loyalty with their audiences.

Follow her on Twitter @NicoleMatejic

Nicole’s blog included in Australia’s Top 20!

Nicole was thrilled to be included in SmartCompany’s best business blogs of 2016 list!

Nicole Matejic’s blog is a must-read for those interested in marketing and social media. Matejic regularly consults with government and the private sector and writes about everything from social media stuff-ups to the marketing genius behind hit TV show House of Cards. ~ SmartCompany

You can read the entire top 20 here and Nicole blog at www.nicolematejic.com

Follow @SmartCompany for news and great business advice on Twitter.

Breaking Bad: The Art of Selling Your Own Scandal

Scandal sells news; but how do you navigate out of a public relations crisis when the press are camped on your front lawn?

Fear is a very motivating emotion.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of not being in control of a situation. Fear of your secrets being found out.

As a Crisis Communicator – I see fear on the faces of my clients regularly. I also see guilt, shame and sometimes even relief. I’m not in the business of judging situations – I’m in the business of fixing them.

By the time I’m called in: the proverbial has hit the fan, reputations are at risk and tempers are fraying. The news media are asking questions (they already know the answers to) and the social media apocalypse has begun.

But instead of running a spin campaign and making nonsensical bureaucratic statements; more often than not, breaking bad news yourself – selling your own scandal – is the best course of action.

Selling your own scandal is about controlling your own narrative. Being on the front foot gives you the opportunity to shape and define your story authentically and truthfully without appearing adversarial or reactive.

Controlling your own narrative puts you in the drivers seat of your media interactions – you choose who to speak to, when to speak to them and how to publish. It gives you time to prepare and the opportunity to ensure your workforce, your shareholders, your board members and your family ‘hear it from you first.’


Because ‘No Comment’ isn’t a policy.

It’s a shutdown. It leads people to suspect that there is more to your story.

Because one scandal is never enough for the media.

They will rummage through your closet, hoping more skeletons fall out. If they can’t find any, they will use creative license on your legacy.

And because authentic honesty gives your brand, your reputation – the best chance of surviving your crisis.

As Henry Kissinger , American diplomat and political scientist, famously said: “If it’s going to come out eventually, better have it come out immediately” — and on your terms.

Are you Crowdsourcing your own Crisis?

Nicole writes on reputation, issues and crisis management for the Firebrand Ideas Ignition blog. Here’s her May 2016 piece on why brands need to stop crowdsourcing their marketing campaigns and business decisions:


Crowdsourcing today is what leg warmers were to the 1980’s: an off-fashion peculiarity that was lauded early on for their magical properties but unsurprisingly, turned out to be less useful than first thought. Only we’re not just crowdsourcing someone’s dream or project anymore — we now crowdsource pretty much everything from decision-making to marketing campaigns to hashtags. Case in point, I crowdsourced my AFL team back in 2014 on Twitter. #GoTiges

With PR professionals quick to point out that there is an element of free market research achieved in these endeavours and large amounts of money can be saved by asking the public to essentially come up with what you’d pay an agency to achieve; handing over control of your decisions to the internet seems like a no-brainer. Until you do the math of how much a self-induced crowdsourced crisis will cost you… !

If you Google the UK’s ‘Natural Environment Research Council’ right there on the first page is Boaty McBoatface, their attempt at crowdsourcing the name of their newest research vessel. Not as dignified a name as they’d hoped.

In their long-term ‘Do us a flavour’ campaign American potato chip brand Frito-Lay has crowdsourced new flavours from cheesy-garlic to wasabi-ginger. And then there was cappuccino. Unsurprisingly after spending money in R&D the cappuccino chips tanked when they got to market.

Closer to home, we all remember how the #QantasLuxury campaign ended; Aldi’s recent “fill in the blanks” campaign encouraging people to tell the supermarket giant about why they loved the brand was quickly deleted when they got a bargain bonanza of unanticipated feedback; and Boost Juice’s ‘Name Game’ ended up in censorship territory when those tricksters on the interwebs figured out names weren’t the only thing you could type into that auto-generator.

A crowdsourced crisis is much like any other crisis: only organisations have no-one to blame but themselves.


1. Don’t trust the internet. Ever.

Would you trust your accountant with your medical needs? Your dentist to fix your car? Then why would you trust the internet with making decisions that could cost you your reputation, time and money?

Agencies can be expensive, but they are experienced professionals that will conduct due diligence on your campaign — and this costs far less than a crisis agency after the fact.

2. Give people options, not free-text reign.

Never give people the ability to dream up ideas that are outside your scope. Give them defined parameters to choose from, and not auto product generating free-text fields or the ability to label anything they want with your logo or likeness.

3. Test your crowdsourcing ideas before you go to market with a focus group.

And by focus group I don’t mean the people in your office who generally agree with everything you suggest anyway. I mean people you don’t know and who have no vested interest in your brand. An agency can help you here. Again, this is cheaper in the long run when compared with the costs of a crisis agency after the proverbial hits the fan.

4. Have an exit strategy.

Both legally and from a PR perspective. The terms and conditions of entry should always give your organisation first right of refusal for any voter-elected product and similarly, your PR plan should include a robust crisis strategy for if (when) the trickers on the interwebs start stacking the deck against you in jest or with malicious intent. Know your audience, but count on others joining the crowdsourced crisis too.

5. Give the fun police a license to thrill.

Crowdsourcing ideas in organisations that have a high aversion to risk equals a recipe for disaster. Creativity is part of the process and if you have an executive that tends to take the fun out of everything and doesn’t cope well with criticism, do not crowdsource!

On the flip side, if they are prepared to give you some creative control and communicative leeway, you need the time and space to be able to do that so agree on parameters that give you what you need to demonstrate results.

Crowdsourcing projects and innovative ideas is, and has always been, a valid means of raising capital. Crowdsourcing out your other organisational needs isn’t so clever — nor original.

With so many crowdsourced #PRfails now littering the internet, have we reached peak crowdsourced marketing? Or will we continue to see organisations crowdsource their own crises?


Firebrand Talent ignite the careers of digital, marketing and creative specialists by matching outstanding talent with great companies. Find out more about them online at www.firebrandtalent.com or follow them on Twitter @FirebrandTalent.

Why you shouldn’t attend every social media argument you’re invited to

Nicole writes on reputation, issues and crisis management for the Firebrand Ideas Ignition blog. Here’s her March 2016 piece on why individuals and organisations shouldn’t feel compelled to respond to online complaints from trolls looking for their next pen-pal:

There is a new time thief in your workplace and it isn’t a new App or social media network, not a virtual reality gizmo or wearable piece of technology. The corporate time lag that has your communications team distracted, is the ever-increasing organizational predilection for obsessing over every little thing that is said about your brand on social media.

Being situationally aware of current consumer and stakeholder sentiment across the totality of the media sphere is one thing – pouring over every tweet, Facebook mention or Google trend percentage shift is entirely another. The former is smart, the latter no so much when you let indiscrete and out of context data overrule logic and common sense.

Unless you have something to hide or are guilty of some form of malpractice, why are you so worried about what people are saying about your brand on social media?


1. Monitor ALL your on and offline media using an automated tool

Let an algorithm do the hard yakka for you and have your employees spend their time more effectively interpreting those results and taking strategic action. An app I use to monitor my own media is called ‘Mention’ – your organization may also have a similar service available through existing media monitoring contracts.

2. Don’t attend every argument you’re invited to

Deciphering legitimate complaints from trolls looking for a showdown is a skill — don’t feel obliged to attend every argument you’re invited to online. If you feel that a response is warranted, take that interaction offline straight away and manage that complainant appropriately toward resolution.

3. Pick your battles

Do a little background research on the most vocal complainants on your feeds — what are their motivations? Are they genuinely aggrieved and actually a customer, or is their social media feed littered with similar attacks on other brands? For some people, brand bashing online is something of hobby. Don’t become their next pen pal.

4. Accept that there will be people you will never be able to please

Don’t spend copious amounts of time or effort seeking to change someone’s views or perceptions — it will never happen. And the more you try (too hard) the less sincere you appear. Say your piece, then say nothing. It’s your social media account, your brand, your rules.

5. Anyone can threaten to ‘call the media’ but is their story really newsworthy?

While the idea of A Current Affair turning up on your doorstep is unnerving, what makes news is often at odds with what people think is newsworthy. Unless you have a situationinvolving a broad systemic issue, scandal or have treated people exceptionally poorly, chances are you won’t be facing a journalist and camera crew anytime soon.

6. Don’t take the bait

If you’re invited to an argument offline, remain cautious. Offline conversations can be recorded, messages captured from device screens and emails published. As a general rule, you should be comfortable with ANY and ALL communications leaving your organization being published on or offline.

7. Let it go

Most issues will be looked back upon as an uncomfortable few hours of a day in your working life. Keep in perspective all the good things that you do and what your organization has achieved. Don’t dwell over crises or over-think your responses to them after the fact. Learn from the experience and implement constructive feedback – then move on.

Cultivating a robust organizational culture with an appropriate level of resilience to what is said about it online is not only savvy from a crisis communications context, but it makes economic sense.

What will you do the next time you’re invited to your own trolling?

 Firebrand Talent ignite the careers of digital, marketing and creative specialists by matching outstanding talent with great companies. Find out more about them online at www.firebrandtalent.com or follow them on Twitter @FirebrandTalent.

Why a rogue employee could be your biggest social media risk

Nicole writes on reputation, issues and crisis management for the Firebrand Ideas Ignition blog. Here’s her January 2016 blog on why a rogue employee could be your biggest organisational social media risk:


Are you an armchair social media commentator?

An expert on everything with plenty to say?

If you aren’t, chances are you know someone who is.

You may even have one (or more) on staff in your organisation – now there is a scary thought!

Employees gone rogue on social media isn’t a new phenomena. Time and again we see organisations unable or unwilling to reign in their employees as internal issues ignite into full blown clickbait crises complete with their own hashtag, Wikipedia page and running social commentary from the twitter peanut gallery.

The unfortunate reality is that organisations become collateral damage in the ensuing employee generated crisis.

When your employee is the cause of your crisis – you need to have the governance structure in place to manage that employee appropriately so that you can get back to business.


To understand how clickbait crises can effect your organisation, let’s do a quick poll:

Where do you consume your news?

  1. I get it home delivered every morning and my dog goes out to pick the paper up from the front yard.
  2. I listen to the radio during the day or watch the nightly news on television.
  3. I pick up my phone to turn my alarm off in the morning and read the headlines on a news website.
  4. I get my news as I scroll through my social media feeds.

I’m going to wager that responses to 3 and 4 are the most popular because we’re a society primed for rapid, short burst message consumption; and the more outlandish, frightening or scandalous the story, the more we click.

The more we click, the more that story gains traction online. Clicking a news report on Facebook or LinkedIn for example will then cascade through to your friends and connections newsfeeds.

That’s right: the media sell news and clickbait headlines make them a lot of money. The higher the story’s virality, the more profitable it becomes which in turn makes your organisational crisis more intense.


Employees have rights … right?

Sure. They have the right to attend a safe workplace and to be paid for the work they do. And yes — they have a right to privacy, however they can’t argue a right privacy after a media outlet publishes objectionable photographs or commentary from any one of their public social media accounts.

Employers have rights too.


  1. Have a robust social media policy.
  2. Enforce that policy consistently.
  3. Educate your workforce on the nuances of that policy.
  4. Monitor what is being said about your organisation online in real time.
  5. Lead by example on and offline: remembering actions speak louder than words.
  6. Don’t attempt to control the media during a crisis: focus your resources on managing the employee internally in an appropriate manner.
  7. Engage with the media on your terms, in a timely manner and only when you have an outcome to communicate.

Above all: if you are going to manage out an employee that has access to your organisational social media accounts – be sure to revoke their access BEFORE you take disciplinary action.

Don’t think you need a social media policy?

Any of your employees could create your next organisation crisis just like:

Firebrand Talent ignite the careers of digital, marketing and creative specialists by matching outstanding talent with great companies. Find out more about them online at www.firebrandtalent.com or follow them on Twitter @FirebrandTalent.

You can’t fix your PR problems with a hashtag

Nicole writes on reputation, issues and crisis management for the Firebrand Ideas Ignition blog. Here’s her November 2015 piece on why dreaming up hashtags won’t solve your PR issues:

When will PR strategists stop thinking the almighty hashtag is the silver bullet to their audience anti-sentiment solutions?

If you’re a proponent of the social-media-fixes-everything strategy let me lay it out for you: if your user base is hating on your brand online about their experience with your product or service, it’s probably because there is something WRONG with your brand’s product, service or their experience!

You can’t change the perceptions of your user base without first FIXING the issues that are at the core of their frustration.

Your reputation will not improve until your product or service is on par or exceeding that of your competitors no matter how much you sugar coat it, dress it up in infographics or claim— like the Victorian Taxi Association (VTA) – that’s it’s all Uber’s fault.

In launching the www.yourtaxis.com.au website recently with corresponding social media accounts the VTA are attempting to counter the narrative with their own stories and content. A savvy move in the influence stakes without doubt, but the issue is they aren’t addressing the elephant in the crisis communications: the perceived poor levels of service from the Taxi operators they represent.

VTA chief executive David Samuel denied the negative reaction was a “social media fail of epic proportions”. “This was never about selling something, this is about starting a direct conversation with everyone who uses Victorian taxis. This is what we have achieved,” he said in a statement. “The response online over the past 24 hours isn’t anything we didn’t expect. We asked for feedback and we got it. The good and the bad and everything in between. It also demonstrates the number of people that rely on taxi services and we want to make sure our service continues to meet customers’ expectations in a period of rapid change.”

Did you notice that last paragraph? “… make sure our service continues to meet customers’ expectations…”

If your customers’ expectations are low, then that’s a metric that is easily achieved. BUT if you aren’t acknowledging that you have service delivery issues that aren’t meeting your customers’ expectations, then you’re failing to listen to the feedback your customers are giving you.

Having a Twitter account, a website, a hashtag, and a community manager at the ready is one thing. Being able to actually take that dialogue and effect the industry change needed to positively influence people’s opinions is another entirely.

A little less conversation a little more action, please

Telling your own stories forms only part of the customer experience equation. Your customers’ experiences creates broader real world perceptions for your brand, and in starting an online dialogue you need to ensure that it remains a dialogue and is audience focused — that is, it’s not all about you. Ben Motteram, of Melbourne based customer experience consulting company CXpert, defines customer experience as how a customer feels about your brand based in every interaction they have with you, and says it is emerging as a key differentiator in competitive markets.

“Everything can be copied except the relationships you build with your customers. Its not enough to have a great product at a competitive price anymore. That’s just table stakes. Today, sustainable, long term success is built on great customer experience,” he said.

In the VTA vs. Uber war, there is a distinct difference in customer experience delivery, regardless of whether you’re riding in an Uber X or Yellow Cab. These disparate service delivery tangibles are very easily remedied, yet have not been. By not fixing the issues that have brought their industry to a prolonged crisis flashpoint, the VTA are simply breathing oxygen into an already flammable situation. Until they fix the issues that plague their industry the only PR winner will be Uber.

YourTaxis Tweets

You don’t have to agree with your customer, but you do need to have a solution

By being open to having conversations that matter to your customers, you demonstrate that not only are you hearing what they are saying but that you also care about how they arefeeling.

If you don’t fix the issues that brought you to crisis point and take a combative stance against legitimate complaints, don’t be surprised when your customers take to social and online media en masse to vent their frustrations. Ignoring issues within your industry, and failing to see constructive customer feedback as early warning signs that something is amiss with your product or service model is short sighted at best, negligent at worst.

The key to success on social media (and business in general) is to create an ongoing, relatable, emotional connection. The same rings true during a crisis — what is it about you that the individual liked enough to do business with you in the first place? Get back to your core values and be authentic to your brand or watch a savvy competitor move in and do business — do customer experience — better than you, to your detriment.

Exemplary customer experience examples are everywhere from Apple to Zendesk — and if you aren’t watching what’s happening in your industry, learning and implementing… complaining about your competitors savvy social media approach won’t fix your issues.

If you think poor customer experience and crisis communications aren’t inextricably linked, let’s go back to that A-Z analogy and I’ll slot you in at Kodak.

#YourTaxis aren’t alone. Here are a few other misguided campaigns that went straight for the hashtag solution and landed in #crisiscomms instead:


What other hashtag disasters have you seen?


Firebrand Talent ignite the careers of digital, marketing and creative specialists by matching outstanding talent with great companies. Find out more about them online at www.firebrandtalent.com or follow them on Twitter @FirebrandTalent.

Social Media ROI: stop obsessing about engagement and focus on conversions!

Young businessman analyzing data information of market
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been lectured to on the virtues of social media ‘engagement’ recently. Everyone seems to be on a likes, retweets, comments and shares safari – smart device in hand ready to socially zap the next consumer into an engaged brand frenzy.

I get it. Lots of likes, retweets and comments make your social media network look busy, popular and successful. These are all important things in an online environment where akin to a popular bar or café, looking like the place to hang out online is as much about creating and sustaining positive communities around your brand as it is delivering compelling, relevant content.

So you’ve captured their attention, but what are you doing with it?

Bar and café owners know that at the end of the day, it’s the lattes they pour and cocktails they shake that pay their rent and make their business profitable (or not). They know how many lattes they need to sell each day to break even or make a profit – it’s their key conversion metric coming from their regular customers and passing foot-traffic.

Social media strategists and managers, in their obsession with producing content geared for engagement (or entertainment), seem to have lost sight of the fact that just like that bar or café, they too need to focus on that client conversion metric.

Firstly they need to know what that is for their client. Then they need to figure out exactly to accurately measure the strategic purpose of those social media activities. The call to action proof is NOT in likes, retweets, shares and comments: theses are NOT conversions.

Conversions occur when a social media user responds to your call to action. That is, they (this list isn’t exclusive):

  • Click your URL and visit your website
  • Watch your Video
  • Click your ‘Shop Now’ button (and browse, or browse and buy)
  • Subscribe to your product or service (or newsletter); or
  • Download your app

Conversions can also occur via dark social – when a social media user is influenced by your content enough to visit your website the old fashioned way by typing the URL into their browser or visiting your bricks and mortar store. Regardless, conversions are a critical metric in reporting social media ROI – and they are rarely as simple as generic social media data sets will have you believe.

Unless you are selling discrete products via a ‘Buy-It-Now’ style button, ad set or content posting cycle where correlating clicks-to-sales is relatively straight forward; the social media conversion metric is usually far more complex.


Hypothetical Case Study: Mercedes Benz Australia

Mercedes Benz Australia has around 363k fans on their Facebook page.

Out of that audience, they range from a few hundred to a few thousand ‘Likes’ on each piece of content. Similarly, comments and share rates vary.

But how many Mercedes Benz vehicles do they sell as a result of their social media marketing on Facebook?

In 2014, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reported some 1,113,224 new cars were sold in Australia.

In 2014, Mercedes Benz reported selling 31,895 new cars in Australia.

That equates to:

2.86% of all new cars sold in Australia


8.7% of their Facebook audience*.

Note the * ?

This qualifier means that not all customers who purchased a new Mercedes Benz car in 2014 will necessarily be their Facebook fan or in any way influenced by their Facebook marketing. So this in itself is not a reliable conversion metric.

In fact, the audience avatar of a new or first time Mercedes Benz buyer is explained in detail here on Stephen Zoeller’s Marketing Blog. You can see the levels of audience segmentation, paid, earned and converged media tactics in play. More importantly, this article doesn’t explore what the demographics of an existing or repeat Mercedes Benz customer may look like, which we can assume differs significantly from new, first time buyers.

So how would Mercedes Benz Australia calculate their social media ROI?

How many new cars are sold as a result of their Facebook marketing?


To find out we need to look beyond social media and toward quantifiable data sets like the kind we can see in Google Analytics.

Measuring the web traffic generated from their Facebook page for example, would give a clear idea of how many website visits were occurring as a result of this social lead. This lead can then be tracked through to sales enquiries or test drive bookings. If Mercedes Benz are clever, and I suspect they are, they would track website visitors to map their website journey (pages viewed, time on each page and enquiries made). At which point, extrapolating sales from social media leadsbecomes a much more precise piece of discrete and valuable data.

If you’re now thinking: “Why then invest, in Facebook (or social media) at all if the returns are so low?” – consider the strategic content marketing and communications spend required to:

  • Influence current and future buying decisions in the on and offline luxury car marketplace
  • Maintain perceptions of vehicle prestige and luxury
  • Raise brand awareness to target new buyers who may have previously thought the brand too expensive (especially in the lower market segment where you can get into an A-Class for example for around $40k)
  • Protect their brand and intellectual property from impersonation; and
  • Build a village of support before they need one in case an organisational crisis occurs (such as a recall).

Mercedes Benz Australia play the social media long game to convert likes to cars. More importantly their ROI on conversions can be quantified fairly accurately when you take a step away from social media and look at the social leads as a discrete factor in a broader consumer online researching and purchasing journey. The same holds true for any other company in any other industry.



Likes are nice.

Comments, and retweets are great.

But you know what is better?



Converting likes to sales, votes and/or influence should be your ultimate social media end-game.

The Crisis Economy

Nicole wrote this article for the April 2015 edition of the Australia’s Security Solutions magazine. 


Nothing sells news like a scandal, but while security companies are busy protecting their clients’ people and assets, who is looking out for them?

‘News that sells’ is the mantra of modern-day media. From print newspapers to talkback radio, social media and online news, the telling of stories is now more than ever embedded in a click-bait profit cycle that is at its best informative and educational, yet at its worst is profiteering on the misfortunes of others.

Akin to the subculture of ambulance-chasing legal firms, today’s news media profit indiscriminately from the scandals of corporations and people around the world. Social media compounds the issue, making a crisis far more newsworthy than it may have otherwise been, while citizen armchair commentators troll brands like it is a newfound hobby. News geared for profit is one of those inconvenient truths everyone knows exists but largely ignores. Everyone tolerates it, always hoping that the next big trending #PRFail is not theirs. Until of course, it is.

For the security industry this presents a multitude of challenges for those in leadership roles. Communicating during a crisis in a security incident or emergency context differs significantly from communicating with the media, shareholders and workforce during corporate crises.

For a start, management has no command and control over the media landscape. Early on during a corporate crisis, they are also highly unlikely to have command and control of the situation that caused the crisis in the first place. Worse still, despite their best efforts and investment in their workforce through stringent pre-employment screening, training, mentoring, compliance and regulatory certification, the organisation’s greatest reputational risk remains at the coalface.

Management need to consider how much the organisation’s reputation is worth and think about it comparatively; while the bottom line may dive during a crisis, the follow-on impacts to other parts of the organisation – contracting, new clients, staff attrition, recruitment – can be just as profound. During a crisis, reputational damage is felt organisation wide.

In the security industry, an organisation’s reputation is its trading currency. Its legacy of trustworthiness and operational success is the reason why clients hire and continue do business with the organisation. When scandal erupts, even the most loyal of clients will quietly reconsider their contractual position.

Guilt by brand association is a strong motivating factor in a marketplace that is teeming with consumers who have exceptional brand acuity. That means, while the organisation’s brand is being bashed in the media, its guards are still patrolling client premises in uniforms bearing the company logo. Clients and their stakeholders will not be oblivious to this fact. If the organisation’s brand will harm theirs, the organisation becomes collateral damage as contracts are withdrawn and new clients vanish.

Organisations not only need to plan for every risk their clients may face and even perhaps some internal business risks, but also for the risk of bad publicity.

From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: 3 Lessons in Crisis Communication from the Military
Developing a bulletproof crisis communications strategy to positively influence the audience during a corporate crisis is much easier than most people realise. In fact, organisations that are experts in their industry are best placed to identify and mitigate the risks that are likely to arise when their reputation is under fire.

1. The first lesson of war is to plan for it during peacetime.
Savvy nations invest in defence forces in case they need to defend their sovereignty, strategic interests or the sovereignty of their allies. For strategic and tactical advantage, they do this well before soldiers’ boots hit the ground. Similarly, organisations that invest in crisis communications planning in case they need to defend their reputation, strategic interests or perhaps even the reputation of a stakeholder, have the strategic and tactical upper hand.

While the media count on an organisation’s lack of preparedness in response to their ambush, being ready for them before they camp out on the front lawn gives management far more control over the organisation’s narrative (or the story it wants to tell) than the old escape and evade tactic.

2. The second lesson of war is to be strategic.
Know the enemy. When the media come calling, management should already have a fair idea of their modus operandi. From tabloid-esque publications to serious investigative journalism and everything in between, appreciating the nuances between each media outlet and the way they tell stories is an essential element in developing a strategic approach to response.

Never before has the how, when and who of message delivery been as important in crisis communications as it is today. Part of an organisation’s planning for reputational risk needs to include strategically providing management with options to communicate their side of the story in a way that provides as much control of the narrative as possible.

Social media gives management a range of options to proactively control their own narrative and be the creator of their own news. If a crisis is about to unfold, breaking the news themselves by calling a press conference or issuing a written or video statement takes the scandal out of the story, provided they take a mea-culpa approach. Savvy organisations may even build their own newsrooms over the longer term to ensure their ability to communicate during operational business as usual and during times of crisis. This is effective and places them in a position of authentic brand leadership.

Authenticity, honesty and strategic intent are the biggest allies in remediating reputation. Whether an organisation is on the offensive by breaking bad news first, or on the defensive in responding to media questions, management need to think beyond the press release and toward YouTube, Facebook and other social channels that provide an opportunity to proactively engage with the audience that will be online, with or without their input.

Management must answer the hard questions; do not avoid them like a politician who tries to spin the story sideways to redirect attention away from the elephant in the room. The media rarely ask questions they do not already know the answers to – do not make a bad situation worse by demonstrating a lack of situational awareness and creating a perception that the organisation has something to hide. Do not give anyone a reason to believe there is more to the story than there really is.

3. The third lesson of war is to train the army.
It is no secret that some of the best, most impressive military operators in the world come from nations that invest heavily in the development of their niche skill set. Driving a tank or flying a jet is not a skill one is born with; likewise, dealing with the media during an organisational crisis is a not a skill that comes naturally for most people. The leadership team must be able to deliver professional, authentic and on-target messaging during a crisis.

Invest in training people together as a team. This will not only serve to ensure everyone in leadership roles has the skills required to speak on behalf of the organisation, but it also provides the organisation with critical contingency options. It is tempting to think less is more in this equation, but issues such as succession planning and key employees being on leave can quickly destabilise the ability to deliver effective crisis communications in a 24/7 environment. Plan for these variables to avoid becoming a victim of Murphy’s Law.

Leaders are not immune to crisis. If the CEO or another member of the executive or leadership team is the cause of, or embroiled in the crisis itself, quickly sequester him or her away from the organisation and out of public sight while he or she is managed. This frees up the organisational spokesperson to concentrate on the crisis at hand without competing for airtime.

Social Media Rules of Engagement
Crises arising from social media can pose very different challenges for security organisations. While the news media’s publishing of the story online will certainly outrank even the best search engine optimisation strategies, the variable factor on social media lies in each network’s global user base.

If an organisation has built a social media community around its brand, when the trolls come out to play so too will the community that may actively advocate on its behalf. Organisations that are exceptionally social media savvy and use their networks as a customer service portal, newsroom or regular community engagement channel can, with the right team in place, use social media to manage the crisis effectively. Having primed their audience and built their trust over the long term, their ability to continue to leverage social media channels to manage the crisis in a transparent manner will give them unprecedented control over their own narrative. Being the source of factual information places the organisation in a strong position of leadership and demonstrates a commitment to customer experience.

Conversely, if organisations are not corporately present on social media, people will still be talking at them and about them. By default, an offline crisis will move online. Whether or not organisations track these conversations should form part of their strategy. If they choose not to monitor online sentiment, they risk missing out on valuable insights into how the crisis is developing, subsiding or worsening.

Regardless of whether it is using social media or not, the key to an organisation’s reputational remediation online lies in its authenticity, honesty and ability to engage with the audience it offended or wronged.

A word of warning: a crisis should not be the reason an organisation suddenly becomes active on social media. In fact, commencing a social media existence in response to a crisis can present more issues than solutions at a time when fewer complications, not more, are needed. Skills and resourcing are at the top of that list. Who is going to run and monitor those networks? Who in the organisation’s workforce is aptly trained and experienced in social media community moderation? Social media is a 24/7 proposition and is not a task for the intern or administrative assistant. Organisations should not jump on the bandwagon during a crisis if they do not have the expertise to manage social media effectively.

Organisations that are not present on social media should not let their absence give other people opportunity. Proactively protecting an online reputation should form an essential part of an organisation’s crisis communications strategy. The brand’s intellectual property, for example, is one of the easiest things to protect – yet it is commonly overlooked.

Securing an organisation’s brand @handles on Twitter and Instagram will prevent enterprising or nefarious individuals from masquerading as the organisation online by creating accounts in its name. Similarly, establishing official Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and YouTube presences will ensure the brand is not easily confused with that of an imposter. Of course, it is best if an organisation is active on these networks rather than becoming a corporate cyber squatter; however, at a minimum, an organisation should be the one holding the social media keys to its brand on every network.

Social media impersonation can be both the cause of and a continually damaging factor to organisational crises. Not only can imposters fool customers, stakeholders and the general public into thinking they represent an organisation, but they can also steal an organisation’s online traffic, sending anyone who clicks on links to any number of nefarious places.

The same approach should be taken toward securing variations of an organisation’s URL; whether it has a website or not is a moot point. Proactively controlling a web presence denies opportunistic individuals from causing or exacerbating a crisis.

Hearts and Minds
At the heart of every scandal lies a story with an emotive trigger. The scandal resonates with people on an emotional level and their reaction will define how an organisation’s crisis plays out in the short to medium term. Recognising what this emotive trigger is within the crisis is an essential step toward being able to communicate effectively towards remediating the organisation’s reputation.

Security officers, for example, are held to the same ethical and moral standards as other law enforcement professionals. When an incident occurs that involves a guard that has demonstrated a lack of ethics or morality, it is perceived as an affront to public confidence. Security companies should move quickly to distance themselves from employees who have demonstrated such behaviours by managing those individuals out of their workforce and publically apologising for their behaviour. ‘Sorry’ is one of the most powerful words an organisation can employ when genuinely delivered. Organisations are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. Showing corporate leadership and conviction of character by taking corporate accountability in a public way is essential; no one should be left in any doubt about management’s feelings on the crisis and the events that caused it.

Communication, particularly during a crisis, should be an open dialogue between an organisation, its stakeholders, clients, workforce and the media.

‘No comment’ is not a viable crisis response in today’s prevailing climate of 24/7 news and citizen journalism. ‘No comment’ only succeeds in sending a clear message that the organisation is not in control of the crisis and has something to hide.

An organisation that removes itself from the news media conversation is effectively giving its blessing to journalists and the general public to write the crisis narrative for it. Unsurprisingly, management are unlikely to like what they publish.

Perhaps the most fortunate aspect of crisis communications in today’s digital and social media environment is the fact that an organisation does not have to live through its own crisis to learn from the mistakes of others. A Google search for #PRFail will return a myriad of examples of how organisations have found themselves in the crisis communications hurt locker and how they navigated their way back into business as usual. It is not pretty reading, but it is educational.

The most common point of failure in every organisational crisis is a lack of preparation and training. The ‘it will never happen to us mentality’ is a negligent response from leaders who fail to appreciate the dynamics of the news and social media cycle. With most crises the result of internal issues and mismanagement, can any organisation afford to ignore planning for its known risks?

Let management’s actions in response to a crisis speak louder than their words. Do not be organisationally defined by a crisis: be defined by the response to it.

Volkswagen’s intent to deceive: crisis communications in a criminal context

As Volkswagen descends into yet another organisational scandal with the revelation it’s diesel engine emission-cheating technology has been installed in over 11 million cars globally; the lesser-told story remains in their approach to crisis communications.

I’ve read countless media articles since the scandal broke praising Volkswagens’ handling of the crisis, particularly in comparison to it’s DSG automatic gearbox global recall only two short years ago. If you need a reminder of how lack lustre that crisis response panned out: [ insert the sound of crickets here ] followed by the sound of fluent bureaucracy coming from the mouth of a faceless spokesperson after much prodding by Governments.

Yet this time around, we’ve seen their then CEO fall ceremoniously on his sword in such a deliberately scripted way, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching the latest Game of Thrones instalment. Like a Lannister scheming up yet another war to retain power over the Iron Throne, isn’t it rather convenient for the crisis narrative to be focused on how well they’ve handled this crisis instead of – you know – the actual crisis?!

Make no mistake; this is not a story about a component failure.

No engineering or design flaw.

No malfunctioning computer.

This is a story about a multi-national company who knowingly and purposefully built and installed technology in their vehicles that would detect when the vehicle’s emissions were being tested with the sole purpose of cheating globally legislated environmental regulations.

This was a crisis that was always going to happen.


Crisis narrative by chance or design?

Volkswagen’s engineered crisis response is a smart, yet dirty, play. By making their crisis narrative about their corporate legacy and comparing their crisis communications to the debacle of 2 years ago, they are successfully retaining control over the lesser of two narrative evils.

Delivering a text-book crisis response with a perfectly timed CEO resignation enabled Volkswagen retain control of both the media narrative and by default, their SEO rankings.

The reason why controlling the lesser of two evil narratives is a smart play is simple: the hit is less damaging. They have a fall-guy. He fell on cue (don’t feel bad for the outgoing CEO he is likely to walk away with an estimated 60 million Euro in severance). The decks are cleared with a soft-corporate- reset. A few days pass so that ‘important deliberations’ can be made before the new guy is paraded in and what do you know! The media are still reporting on the musical CEO chairs at Volkswagen HQ instead of focusing on the actual crisis.

And it’s a strategy that works!

Taking a quick look at the online sentiment around the keyword ‘Volkswagen’ shows audience neutrality toward the brand on social media.


* screenshot taken at the time of publication.

This is good news for Volkswagen as the ‘care factor’ at a consumer level appears to be low.

Sales and share prices however, tell a different story. At the time of the scandal breaking shares in Volkswagen plummeted:


And at the time of publication, they had failed to rally back at a loss of more than some 30 billion Euros. This is bad news for Volkswagen as investors lose confidence and the market devalues their stock as cars sit unsold in yards and warehouses around the world. Worse still is the bleak financial outlook that will last beyond the fines, investigations and loss of sales – meaning investors will not turn a profit in their now-devalued shares over the long term (optimistically years).

While consumers don’t have much of an appetite for this scandal (yet- sales data figures won’t come in for at least another month) shareholders certainly do; making targeted crisis messaging to audience segments extremely important. In this context, Volkswagen have seemingly appeased the public while losing ground with their investors.


Criminality is the actual crisis

As some European countries ban the sale of Volkswagen diesel cars and regulatory investigations are launched around the world, proving the intent to deceive is paramount in this criminal case.

Arguably, how else a technology that was designed, built and installed with the purpose of deceiving regulators (and customers) can be explained is yet to be seen. The reality of “We 100% intended to deceive you” has broad ramifications across the entire business.

What we do know is that years will pass and the battle for narrative supremacy will rage on. Residing in a protracted state of crisis communications will become situation normal for Volkswagen, presenting further challenges to the organisation as they try to “rebuild trust” in a hostile environment. If criminality in this case is proven, it could spell the end for Volkswagen – particularly if they have promulgated a long-term counter-narrative in the interim. Winning back trust with more lies is a strategy leading nowhere.


The lesson

If you’re up to engineering technology to cheat the world’s environmental regulators, a contrived crisis narrative is a piece of cake. After all, when your audience’s recall point is to an earlier crisis why override that to remind them of your potential criminal culpability?

See how experiential audience recall can work in you favour there?

To be clear, I am not a proponent of deceptive conduct during a crisis or business as usual. In fact, most of the time my advice will be to take the moral high road, apologise, mean it and then start picking up the pieces of whatever remains. That only works however, when an organisation recognises the issues that brought them to their crisis point in the first place. In Volkswagens case, we can recognise the same patterns of crisis deceit and corporate misbehaviour over the long game. 2 years ago instead of issuing a recall on faulty DSG gearboxes, Volkswagen remained silent until Government investigations in countries such as Australia and China led to recalls being enforced.

Which begs the questions:
Why don’t Volkswagen have a solid history of good corporate citizenship?

Why is it that they need to have their hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar (again) before they take action?

For crisis communicators the latest Volkswagen scandal is a timely reminder that during a crisis, perceptions are paramount and fighting fair, is only ever one of many options to consider.


UPDATE: 28 September 2015

VW Scandal: company warned about test cheating years ago (BBC)