Last week in Singapore, a “software bug” caused the details of more than 280 customers of a reputable airline to be leaked to other customers. This is the first public digital incident in the country for the new year, and it adds to a string of high-profile digital security incidents in 2018.
Aside from the IT gaps, coding and patch-management vulnerabilities and weak password protocols, we learned that the handling of human-to-human communication is a vital skill in the CDO’s arsenal of soft skills.
In the most recent case, a casualty of the data leak claimed she received only a “standard email” downplaying the risks, and her membership number was changed without further details. In the end it meant that she could not log in to check which leaked personal details could potentially cause problems. It also implied that she could not book new flights on the airline even if she had wanted to.
In last year’s crisis, a committee of inquiry unearthed many aspects of mismanaged communication in senior management, lack of failsafe reporting frameworks, and even in the face of discovering the hacking, a lack of timely accountability arising from shortcomings in staff empowerment and morale.
Customer Obsession Equals Communication Obsession
Following the playbook of the corporate communication or branding director (CBO), a CDO in crisis:
It would be natural to assume that CBO bears the brunt of the communication duties to allay public complaints and media “circus-ing”. The CDO should only do what a CDO does – handle the problem and its aftermath, right? Maybe this worked five years ago, but in today’s fast and furious socially-networked world such silo mentality may lead to unintended consequences.
What lessons can be gleaned from the recent digital incidents? In the most recent case, a standard (non-personalized) email was sent in a downplaying tone. It also did not cover all the bases for the affected customer.
In other cases, the affected organization did not divulge the gravity of the incident until weeks later. In the case of recent flight delays in a budget airline, the compensatory measures were issued in a take-it-or-leave it manner. One of the affected customers, Stacy Wong, mentioned in the media that the airline did not stick to briefing timings, and she reiterated that “communication and compassion are key when there are extensive flight delays.”
Just as the power of social media can wreck an established brand in mere weeks after a public relations disaster, so too can organizations leverage on social media communication to contain reputational damage and gain empathy from netizens. The key is to play safe with obsessive, forthright communication rather than to be seen as downplaying, under-communicating, evading and obfuscating.
Disrupting with Honesty
Every organization that suffered serious crises in the past year were counseled by top-name firms and had the best-practice playbook and resources to guide their response. Yet, the social media metrics showed disapproval and loss of trust. Here are some lessons CDOs can learn:
In the disruption era, crisis management has to evolve -- fast. Mere technical competence and customer obsession are no longer the only skills required for strong crisis management. The days of smooth PR doubletalk and canned responses no longer cut it. And no, it is not the social media phenomenon that has changed the rules of the game – societal expectations and irrationalities just get expressed more quickly and impactfully now.
At the end of the day, only visible diligence in displaying empathy, humility, honesty and timeliness can salvage corporate reputations. As they say in public relations, optics is everything.