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AfricaMoney | September 22, 2017

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Communication ExpertSpeak: Companies must minimise reaction time to tweet or post

Communication ExpertSpeak: Companies must minimise reaction time to tweet or post

International crisis communication expert Bert van Walbeek noted that, given the speed and coverage of communication over ubiquitous social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, every little internal crisis can escalate into a huge global crisis, and companies must be well prepared to face and manage crisis in order to safeguard their all-important reputation. (Image: Wazna Gunga)

International crisis communication expert Bert van Walbeek visited Mauritius and was the guest speaker at a special workshop on crisis communication where he spoke to AfricaMoney on the event sidelines. He noted how technology today allows people all the way in Bangkok to know what is happening in an island as far away as Mauritius. Given the speed of communication, every little internal crisis can escalate into a huge global crisis, and companies must be well prepared to face and manage crisis in order to safeguard their reputation, which is of ultimate importance.

Bert “Bow-Thai” van Walbeek has been a hotelier for 45 years and a marketer of tourism for 35, a motivator and a ‘Master of Disaster’ for 25 years and a lecturer for 15 years.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with AfricaMoney:

Can you please tell us how important is it to get prepared to face a crisis?

A company is judged quite often on how it reacts to problems, whether it be a small internal crisis or a downright disaster. If it reacts well and promptly, it is perceived to be a good company, or else, if the company is unable to react properly during a crisis, it risks spoiling its reputation. Thus, a crisis can have a direct and adverse impact on corporate reputation. Therefore, it is necessary to get prepared well in advance to face and manage a crisis if you want your company reputation to be safeguarded.

Can we say that crisis communication is essential only for big and reputable companies while small companies do not have to worry?

No, crisis management should also be on the agenda for small companies. While for an SME firm, it need not be an elaborate 60-page document, but all crisis management does is that it focuses the company efforts on a quick and effective recovery. Thus, whether it is a big or small company does not matter, crisis management is essential for all.

Today, the issue at an SME level is that these firms do not have a plan in place to face crisis. Thus, they do not have emergency funds that can help to survive for 1-3 months without business, therefore they are the first to feel the pinch when a crisis happens that is beyond their control, or at a sectoral level in the economy. For instance, in Thailand, the tourism industry is faces crisis on a more or less continual basis, and the big companies have enough substance to survive whereas small companies suffer the most.

Today information moves rapidly with the advent of technology. Is it among the reasons why is it necessary to get prepared well for a crisis so as to safeguard reputation?

There is the 20-second strategy which asks: Can your company react within 20 seconds to a tweet or Facebook message or will it take a week to react? This is because, thanks to technology, I can read in Bangkok today what is happening as far away as Mauritius, which was not the case till a few years ago.

So every little crisis today takes on global proportions. Thus, if something goes wrong in Mauritius, it has an impact on the economy’s image which is of ultimate importance and widespread. Previously, if something went wrong, people would tell a close circle of 20-50 people about the issue, but today, with technology, they can disseminate information to thousands or millions of people over ubiquitous social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Which company or country in the world can be an example of a successful story of crisis communication?

The most famous story is that of Thailand where till 20 years ago people would put dangerous liquids in bottles as a prank. But, it took on serious proportions as people died as a consequence of drinking such adulterated liquids. This makes a case study in itself on how the Thailand authorities were the first ones to use television as a crisis management tool and clean up and go nationwide with their success story.

Do the steps and methods that need to be adopted differ according to the company size, sector it operates as well as the country it is located?

Steps are the same for any company, be it in the financial or tourism sector, the skeletal framework remains the same. For instance, I cannot write a crisis management book for a financial management company but rather provide the company with the skeletal framework to face the challenges likely to arise in a corporate landscape. Thus, the company will have to fill in the blanks as there could be challenges specific to its business. Overall, every company has different challenges but each will have to follow the same process.

Finally, Mauritius has recently been hit by a major financial scandal, can you please tell us how a proper plan regarding crisis communication would would have better helped stakeholders.

There is a rule of crisis communication that says: ‘Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.’ In the context of Mauritius, the negative has already happened but there is no reason to cry over that any longer. Now, you have to accentuate the positive and make sure that this does not happen anymore— transparency, regulations, new rules, openness and system overhaul must be put in place.

The problem that hit Mauritius happens everywhere. It is happening not only in Mauritius but also in other countries across Africa or even Asia. Within the latter continent, Thailand, for instance, faces similar issues. It is the way that such a crisis has been set right to rebuild confidence in the destination that matters. If all cards are put on the table and proper steps are taken, then people will forget the past crisis and move on to fresh success stories.

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