Media Training/ Crisis Communication
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Media Training/ Crisis Communication

THE BLACKBERRY OUTAGE: HOW NOT TO COMMUNICATE IN A CRISIS

“Dear BlackBerry, I just wanted you to know that I’m writing this message with my middle finger. Best regards, angry customer.”

Ouch.

This comment, posted on a webpage listing amusing tweets about the recent global outage suffered by Research in Motion (RIM), makers of BlackBerry smartphones, is the kind of customer communication that should make any company cringe.

It takes the perceived contempt that RIM showed its 70-million fiercely loyal users, and throws it right back at the Canadian firm. It’s a far cry from the time, not so long ago, that the BlackBerry was considered so addictive (in other words, so good) that it was termed the “CrackBerry”.

The folks at Apple, Google and various other tech companies must be chuckling all the way to the bank right now, as disgruntled BlackBerry customers swear off the gadget they have loved so much. And it’s not unfair to assume that many of those entering the burgeoning smartphone market are not even considering getting a BlackBerry any more.

Failures happen with any technology-based consumer product. It’s a fact of life: things break, despite great design, systems and quality – and we are generally fairly forgiving about it. So why is RIM’s case so different?

Because, for four days after its crisis began, the company said nothing. Finally, on 13 October, RIM founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis released a short video message to the world.

In it he made the right noises, like “we did not achieve that goal [of reliable service delivery] this week – not even close. I apologise for the service outages this week”, “we let you down”, “you expect better from us, and I expect better from us”, and “we’re working tirelessly to restore your trust in us”.

But it was a case of too little, too late. People had endured deafening silence for days, both from their phone and its manufacturer, and they were not in a forgiving mood. It’s telling that the middle-finger post happened on the same day.

And Lazaridis’ video statement was vague and one-sided. It did not tell us what the actual problem was (and we still don’t really know), and it did not allow Lazaridis to be questioned about the matter.

That evening Talk Radio 702’s business presenter, Bruce Whitfield, juxtaposed Lazaridis’ grovelling with a BBC interview earlier this year, when he arrogantly walked out because of robust questioning. His video message’s apology thus came across as being even more insincere than before.

One cannot but wonder how Lazaridis’ statement would have been received, had he made it on 10 October. I’ll wager that his customers would still have been annoyed, but grateful that he had taken them into his confidence and a whole lot more inclined to be patient while the problem was fixed. And remained loyal.

Belatedly, RIM has now launched a charm offensive, offering $100 worth of apps and a month’s free technical support to its customers. In doing so, Lazaridis said RIM would work tirelessly to restore their confidence. It’ll be a heck of a mountain to conquer, that squandered trust, and take a lot more than a fistful of free apps.

Lazaridis should be worried. Very worried. A few weeks before this crisis, RIM’s share price hit its lowest level in five years. RIM’s PlayBook tablet has bombed, and the company’s smartphones – their success built first on email and later BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – are rapidly losing market share. RIM is relying on its forthcoming QNX operating system to lift phone sales, but already nearly half of all smartphones now use Google’s Android operating system, and the BlackBerry outage happened just as Apple launched the BBM-like iMessage system for the iPhone.

All this is a long way away from August 2009, when Fortune magazine named RIM as the fastest-growing company in the world with a growth of 84% in profits over three years, despite the global recession. One cannot help but speculate whether the recent crisis, and the stunningly inept way it was handled, will destroy what has been one of the brightest stars in the technology firmament.

But things could have played out very differently recently, had RIM had a decent crisis management plan in place – and been savvier about engaging with the media. Lazaridis’ walking out of the BBC interview was already a sign of things to come; it displayed an ignorance of the media and its power, and arrogance about RIM and its presence in the world. It was not the behaviour of a CEO with a handle on effective communications, especially in times of crisis.

In short, a crisis involves a situation where at the very least, your reputation and bottom line are threatened, and at worst, your company or brand faces oblivion. It can be caused by many things: an accident, sabotage, negligence, criminality of various sorts, a lapse in ethics, poor consumer relations, or good old-fashioned salaciousness (just ask Tiger Woods.) And your competitors might even do a number on you, if they thought they could get away with it.

By their very nature, crises are unexpected and often happen quickly. Years’ worth of work and investment can be obliterated in a heartbeat, hundreds or even thousands of jobs lost, painstakingly-built stakeholder goodwill wiped out, personal and corporate reputations sullied forever. And while a crisis in itself may be relatively small, its effects can be catastrophic as it undermines confidence in your brand.

Does that sound like the special kind of business Hell currently inhabited by RIM, or what?

I don’t know for sure, but it seems clear to me that RIM had not – until now, at least – prepared for a crisis. Had it done so, it would most likely have identified a global outage as a worst-case scenario, and put in place comprehensive plans and responses to deal with it.

It would also have practised crisis scenarios – and had its executives undergo professional media training. One of the most fundamentally important aspects to successfully handling a crisis (i.e. minimising your reputational and financial damage, but also striving to turn the situation to your benefit) is to nail down how you handle the media.

Had Lazaridis possessed a strong ken of the media, which he plainly did not, he could have used the industry to communicate with his customers worldwide. They would have done it quickly and, had he played his cards cleverly, in a neutral or even positive fashion, helping to keep his customers informed and generally mollified.

But for that to have happened, he would have needed proper media training. He would have better understood what media wanted in terms of a story, learned what to say (and not, and how and when), and grasped the concept of providing timely, regular and candid news updates, in so doing retaining millions of hearts and minds.

And then, perhaps, BlackBerry customers would employ all their digits while having their say.

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Public Relations

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