This article was first published in Nairobi Law Monthly June 2016 edition.
Today’s businesses have learnt that life and death are a click away. Whatever you say online will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Philippines boxing champion Manny Pacqiao learnt this lesson the hard way after his ratings dropped following a homophobic tweet which he had posted. His mistake cost him an endorsement contract with Nike.
When Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) Governor Patrick Njoroge placed Chase Bank under receivership after it faced liquidity problems, he cited inaccurate social media reports as one of the causes of the bank run that led to panic withdrawals. The Inspector General of Police later issued a statement that a blogger had been arrested and would be charged for misuse of social media to disseminate falsehoods against the sector.
The information shared during the period that the Chase Bank saga took place raises an interesting conflict of interest where the shareholders’ interests are pitied against the customers’. The bank released two conflicting financial statements, which aroused curiosity that many speculators in social media rode on. The arrest of the blogger after the damage shows how bad things can go when customers are kept in the dark in this age of information and technology.
Were bloggers really liable for the bank run?
The right to access to information has been in the minds of people as early as when the tenets of civilisation were established. Sweden is said to have recognised this right as early as 1766 followed by France in 1789 when it adopted the Declaration on Human and Civil Rights. In 1948, it was included in the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 and later the International Convention on the Civil and Political Rights of 1966.
The Constitution of Kenya in Article 35 provides the right to information to citizens as it states:
“(1) Every citizen has the right of access to—
(b) information held by another person and required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom.”
The right to freedom of speech, which is found in Article 33 has also generally been held to include the right to know or the right to information since it states that:
“(1) Every Person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes;
(a) Freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas…”
Therefore one can rightfully claim their right to information in Kenya as they are provided in Article 35(1), and Article 33(1). Business entities are obligated by law to provide their customers with information as stated in Article 46 of the Constitution of Kenya, which states that:
“(1) Consumers have the right—
(b) to the information necessary for them to gain full benefit from goods and services;
(3) This Article applies to goods and services offered by public entities or private persons.”
Section 22 of the Banking Act requires banks to publish a copy of its last audited balance sheet and last audited profit and loss statements within three months of the end of each financial year in a national newspaper. All these laws require businesses and in particular financial institutions to provide its consumers with information so as to boost consumer confidence in their product. Failure to do so can be disastrous, especially during a misinformation crisis.
In 2014, the World Economic Forum listed digital misinformation as one of the threats to our society. These digital wild fires are capable of causing unprecedented damage because of there complexity and nature of big data. Since we live in a digital age where consumers yearn for information, failure to share information is disastrous. Hence the public relations team at Chase Bank should have done more. They should have countered the lies rather than expect things to fall into place with their press releases.
How to salvage such a situation
The best way corporations can deal with a digital misinformation crisis is by preparation. It is prudent that public relation practitioners are well prepared to handle such crisis without antagonizing the company’s image;
Prepare a digital misinformation counter crisis plan
Companies need to develop a digital misinformation counter crisis plan and test it. The plan is not a blueprint but a reference. It saves time during a crisis by pre-assigning tasks, pre-collecting information, and serving as a guide. This preparation presumes there is a designated crisis team where members know what to do.
Develop a social media policy for the company
The plan ought to be used in this step where a social media policy is developed and published. This policy ought to be clear on the best practices for differentiating the blurring lines between personal and professional activities. It should also establish clear guidelines for an appropriate commentary. The end result of this will be well-trained public social media managers who can correct the misinformation and reclaim the online narrative.
Start monitoring your company’s brand.
A maxim of equity that can be applicable in this case is “Equity aids the vigilant and not the indolent”. The social media managers and public relation officers ought to monitor the reputation of their brand so as not to be found flat-footed during a crisis. There are many free and cheap tools that can be used in brand monitoring and crisis warning. They enable the social media mangers to select keywords and they record each time they are used on various social media channels.
While at it, develop your social media presence and influence
The monitoring should help a company identify social media platforms relevant to their brand. The social media managers ought to listen and engage in online conversations. Credibility will be built in the long run since content-rich social media presence and goodwill is vital during a crisis. While doing this, it is important to engage industry influencers who will most likely communicate positive messages about your company’s brand in the unfortunate event of a crisis.
Work on your story in advance
If possible, a company can create a separate website for the crisis in advance as part of their digital counter crisis plan. It will be made live when it is required as its background information, facts and figures. It is the best place for a company to promote its side of the story during a crisis and their social media manager ought to drive traffic to it at that time.
During the crisis, listen then act
The negative comments ought to be put in context and the tone too needs to be checked. It is also important to investigate the commentator’s influence on social media and if their misinformed narrative is spreading like a wild fire.
Sell your story
Since a company has its crisis website ready and team prepared, they should execute their reputation redemption plan accurately and the story should be consistent. The communication provided at this time ought to explain the facts of the situation while explaining what the company is doing to address the crisis. Showing empathy is very important. It gives consumers hope that their concerns are being addressed. While doing this, it is important that the team monitors and listens any hashtag or keyword used to identify the crisis situation while responding accordingly.
Learning from experience also includes learning from other people’s mistakes. Observe how other companies have survived or perished through the crisis storm and do an analysis on whether your company is ready. Prevention is definitely better than cure. A good experience was when O2 had a massive network outage. Their Twitter account became inundated with complain tweets from frustrated customers. Instead of issuing the standard corporate responses that most companies release, they responded directly to the tweets with an honest and light-hearted demeanor. This human approach changed the sentiments that people had at that time.
Chase Bank failed in dealing with the wild fire online and as the Governor said, it consumed the company. The company did not put much effort in countering the narrative neither did it provide another narrative that would have restored consumer confidence in their brand. It is important that companies learn from this incident and prepare for this type of crisis.