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Gilles Hilary


Gaining Influence in a Crisis

Stakeholders’ perceptions and opinions are invaluable

Published: Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 14:23

In March 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared on its way to Beijing. To this day, the fate of the plane has not been established. The tragedy of the aircraft’s disappearance was exacerbated by the images of distressed relatives herded into hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and being drip-fed information, initially via text message.

The cold approach was ill-suited to the situation. The media also mixed with the relatives, and some of them, desperate for information, stormed a press conference. The scenes made for top news around the world, and the effect on the company’s image was disastrous.

Malaysian Airlines had followed a “managed communication” approach. It was designed as a one-to-many strategy. The company was supposed to be an indisputable source of information and fully in control of its dissemination. Its traditional press conference approach proved to be challenging in an environment that was extremely fluid, involving a complex web of stakeholders from families to various national governments and search agencies.

An alternative to a managed communication approach is an “influence” one. The organization that uses it does not claim to have all the answers. It realizes that it is only one of many voices and exerts a more fuzzy sense of control over its environment. For example, in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines’ website quickly expressed sympathy for the victims, assured stakeholders that the company was collaborating with the proper authorities, and provided contact information for relevant third parties such as the FBI. In some cases, the company dispatched employees who took up residence at victims’ families’ homes.

This approach is naturally pertinent in the midst of complex crises. For example, 80 percent of Americans expect that emergency responders will monitor social networks, and one-third assume that posting or Tweeting a request for help during a disaster will get them assistance within an hour. This has become routine with the decentralization of news reporting. Although most people still receive their news from conventional media, close to two-thirds of Facebook and Twitter users now receive it from those platforms.

Building influence

So, how do you structure an influence crisis-communication strategy? The general idea is to leverage assets that have been developed during quiet periods by using the following few tools to allow the identification of emerging crises and the rapid implementation of a coherent response:
• Monitor: Be aware of current developments. Ensure online media oversight, in all languages, especially when your business is global. For example, Dell is able to monitor conversations in 11 languages around the clock.
Mark: Identify communities and networks. Identify communities of interest that have emerged. After-sales support, for example, is usually a topic that generates a lot of social media activity. Being routinely involved in this discussion will help to build a relationship with your customers, which will be particularly valuable in times of crisis. Identify opinion leaders and then treat them like the most important journalists in your business: Provide them with relevant information, and invite them to visit your plants or to attend product launch events. Understand that directly engaging individuals will raise their status and visibility.
Measure: Understand critical relationships, and know your ROI. Prioritize incidents. For example, Cisco identifies up to 7,000 online mentions of its brand each day, but only about 3 percent are directly actionable. Measure the results of your campaigns. Metrics such as the number of viewers, followers, or posts (classified as positive, negative, or neutral) can now be easily tracked.
Manage: Build credibility, and stay humble. Ensure that your team is constituted of both web technology managers (i.e., geeks who can make things happen) and content managers (i.e., sector specialists who know what should happen). Give preference to indirect channels, then direct talk online. For example, more than 10,000 Dell employees have completed Dell’s Social Media and Communities University program to be brand advocates online. Adapt the tone of your messages by staying positive but not too formal. Be courteous, honest, and sincere. If a crisis arises, stick to the facts. Try to go viral, and be emotional. Use images and music to address all dimensions of your communication. Do not use an assertive tone while investigations are still in progress.

Setting up

During a crisis, it helps to have an integrated center of activity, which naturally involves a digital media component. News, bad news in particular, can easily go viral. The picture of BP’s CEO on a sailing trip just a few days after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill hurt the already damaged company.

To do this, more and more organizations have set up a social media command center. On a normal day, a small crew of community managers with dedicated Internet bandwidth for a few workstations monitor evolving trends. Electronic platforms such as Netvibes or Radian6 provide dashboards that conveniently summarize the social media landscape and complement traditional media analysis. Centers are best located in highly visible spots to ensure that everyone in the organization feels connected to them. They can expand quickly and assist in the implementation of crisis management plans if needed.

For example, Cisco’s center is staffed by only five core team members. However, a large network of employees identified as subject matter experts willing to engage interested parties and to report on their experiences, provides a significant presence on social media. The center also has representatives embedded within each business unit, as well as support and technical services in case of emergency.

The financial cost to implement an influence strategy is often modest. Salesforce Customer Company Command Center, staffed by a relatively small team of community managers and social customer-support reps, manages more than 50,000 brand mentions a month. Cisco has reported a 280-percent return on investment on its center. However, an influence strategy requires an adjustment to the mind-set of many organizations. People have to relinquish direct control, which is not easy.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2016.


About The Author

Gilles Hilary’s picture

Gilles Hilary

Gilles Hilary is an INSEAD professor of accounting and control and the Mubadala chaired professor in corporate governance and strategy. He is also a contributing faculty member to the INSEAD Corporate Governance Initiative. Hilary regularly teaches courses on corporate governance, risk management, financial analysis, decision making processes, and behavioral finance. He has an MBA from Cornell University, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a French professional accounting degree.


social networks

I am one of the minority that refuses to get on any social network.  I have three email addresses, plus mine at work.  To try and keep up with any of the other networks eg. FB, Twitter et al, is too much.  I can't keep up with my emails!

If I need news, the radio or TV is my source.