We all watched in horror as the Zimbabwe version of the #datamustfall campaign went ballistic.
Much of it was played out in the social media space.
public relations with Lenox Mhlanga
People were shocked by the sudden increase in the cost of data and voice, via a Post and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) directive on floor pricing.
While we expressed our collective shock, Econet launched a flurry of press statements in a vain attempt to clear itself of any wrong doing. If it were not for the wording of the said statements, they could have retained a fraction of the sympathy that remained after their rash decision to comply.
Now that we know they were not the first off the blocks (Telecel was first), their reaction to being “thrown under the bus”, by ICT minister Supa Mandiwanzira remains most stupefying, at least among the communication professionals who exchanged tweets at its height.
Our first reaction was, what had got into the executives at the network in question to “slap a lion in the face,” to paraphrase a vernacular proverb. Some things are never done, especially in this country.
They played right into the hands of a minister who was itching for a fight who then turned the whole thing around to score political points.
As the network lurched from one PR booboo to another within a short space of time, the communications community tore their hair out in frustration and “felt the pain”, as every rule in the crisis management manual was shredded.
Colleagues immediately pointed to a deficit in crisis decision-making.
Good decision-making at the strategic level can steer a company out of crisis and onto future success while bad decision-making will almost certainly exacerbate an already difficult situation.
Crisis response involves making decisions based on the best information available and turning those decisions into direction and action to achieve control over events and minimise the impact of the crisis.
Any decision made has consequences.
Unless there was malice aforethought, in other words, that the statement was intended to provoke reaction, it was ill-advised.
Such decisions may affect lives, assets, performance, reputation and the very existence of an organisation if wrong turns are made.
Accountability is high and the uncertain, complex, fast-paced nature of crises often accompanied by intense media attention and unlimited potential for comment on social media, creates a highly challenging, stressful and extraordinary environment in which to make clear and calculated decisions.
The challenge of crisis decision-making is frequently underestimated, ignored or unknown — except by those with the benefit of hindsight. Evidence from past crises and observation of strategic crisis teams at work has demonstrated the psychological impact that uncertainty has on the efficiency and effectiveness of decision-making.
Even the most clear-headed and decisive senior executive in day-to-day settings can be overwhelmed in a crisis leading to uncharacteristic errors, decision avoidance or delays. In this case, the decision to react to the minister’s statement was hasty.
Another issue would be the efficacy of the professional advice that the executive has at their disposal. The selection and composition of the crisis team becomes a critical aspect.
Studies of decision-making theories and crisis teams in action have highlighted an approach that can help crisis leaders get it right:
*Honesty: no lies or half-truths; this only compounds the problem; apologise
*Transparency: no roadblocks or trying to hide facts;
* Accountability: no finger-pointing or shifting blame; take responsibility;
*Consistency: do what you say you will do and say what you’re going to do; communicate regularly and come back with answers.
The worst things they can do? The opposite of the above.
Another aspect that came out of the crisis was the temptation to engage in a public spat. Social media opened the whole conflict to a world of criticism. Sometimes, the criticism wasn’t even based on facts, just consumers with a grudge and, now, a voice and platform on which to vent their spleen.
Social forums may not be the best place to resolve complex issues or to win sympathy. And being in a public forum may make it hard for an angry customer to soften their stance.
What does one do about negative comments in social media?
With the network in question, their reaction brought out a whole lot of skeletons. Many of the people who posted negative comments online did so because they claimed they were not listened to, so they lashed out.
Some did this just to warn their friends off using what they believe to be a bad service. This caused a trek to competing networks as the crisis raged. The others, the more social media savvy ones, did it to force the network to pay attention.
For the most part, customers don’t know or care about the issues that have caused them problems. It’s irrelevant to them that your supplier let you down or a delivery was sent to the wrong office. All they know is the inconvenience it caused them and, potentially, their customers.
Too many companies begin the process of engaging with irate customers by listing all the excuses for why it happened. But the customer won’t care. All it looks like to them is that the company is trying to shift the blame away from itself. In social media, this can be a red rag to a bull.
It is far better to begin every interaction from the viewpoint of the customer — what happened to them, what it meant and, ultimately, what can be done to make it right.
Lenox Mhlanga is associate consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants. He has experience working for the World Bank and is a part-time lecturer in public relations at the National University of Science and Technology. He can be contacted on +263 772 400 656 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @lenoxmhlanga