Wikileaks in the world and RadiaGate in India have suddenly exposed the world to a new set of possibilities. And a new set of vulnerabilities.
Conversations, be it on phone or in other electronic formats, and which one assumed to have been private and secure, can actually become very public and embarrassing for the people involved! While the legality of the public appearance of Wikileaks and RadiaGate conversations may be open to judgement, another form of conversations that are clearly legal and yet equally potentially damaging are the kind that are happening in various spaces of Social Media. For a brand or an individual, there is as much damage to fear in Wikileaks or RadiaGate mentions, as it is in damaging Social Media conversations!
Considering a certain parallel between these situations then, I would like to share some learnings from a RadiaGate situation, which can in turn be useful, in tackling Online Reputation Management challenges, for brands, via Social Media.
The bigger story of Nira Radia’s taped conversations, the 2G telecom scam, the role played by corporates and politicians, and many more of those issues, will take a long time to become clear. This post is not about RadiaGate or its fall out, per se.
What this post strives to attempt, is to relate the early response from Ratan Tata, in RadiaGate and map it to a possible ORM challenge for a brand, and see what learnings we can take from the same.
So here is what happened, in this context:
Nira Radia happened to be officially appointed by the Tatas, as their PR representative, and would have been looking after many corporate matters related to the Tatas. As a part of such management, the Chairman of Tatas. Mr. Ratan Tata, would also have need to talk to Nira Radia, sometimes. Now since the phones of Nira Radia were tapped, and those tapped conversations went public, what also went public, were some of her conversations with her client, Ratan Tata.
Considering the stature of Ratan Tata, this was extremely embarrassing, to say the least. Similar small bits of conversations that Mukesh Ambani (another client of Nira Radia) had with Nira, also went public, likewise.
Well, Ratan Tata was angry. As anyone in his place would. But unlike many others, Ratan Tata chose to go public with his feelings, condemning the leaks. It took everyone by surprise, as first of all, Ratan Tata is not one to go to the media ever so often, and secondly, on account of his direct involvement in some of the leaked conversations! Both, the extent and the manner of his response, surprised everyone.
Whether he should have gone public in this manner, with his thoughts or not, could there have been other, better options are all a matter of conjecture.
But visualize the same kind of dirt flying on the Social Media space, instead of publicly accessible tapes. Then, from an ORM point of view, would this have been a right thing to do? What could have been the best means to handle a crisis of this kind?
Recognize first, that there was indeed a crisis. The goodwill of the Tata name had got shaken. It was made to appear that Tatas, like any other group, also use lobbying, to get favors for themselves. And because you hold a person and a group in such high esteem, therefore, it hurts even more. For the hero to have fallen, and seem like an ordinary mortal after all.
It was in the backdrop of such feelings that the public harboured, did Ratan Tata’s protests came. Here then, are some views on this, from and ORM perspective:
1. If as a company or a large brand, you are attacked by far smaller entities – the bloggerati and all – the last thing you want to start doing, is to show how powerful you are. If you come out like an elephant willing to trample them all away, it can only backfire. As the first reactions to Ratan Tata’s strong response showed. In spite of the great respect that the country has for Ratan Tata and the Tata name, when Ratan Tata himself chose to come out and show anger, it appeared as if reality had stung him. That his group had also tried to manipulate (in their own way) for spectrum etc. appeared to question the lofty standards of the Tata group.
Besides everything else, when Ratan Tata takes the fight to the open, it indeed becomes an open fight! And people like MP Rajeev Chandrashekar chose to also take him on, in public, and suddenly it appeared to a lot of dirty linen out for everyone to see!
2. So if one does not come out strongly, does that mean that one takes negative press (and negative social media) lying down? Surely not. There IS a need to act. And act fast too.
In the recently concluded Click Asia Summit, after my talk, I was asked this question. Whether in the totally unpredictable world of Social Media, a company can at all plan its footsteps?! Could the Tata group have “planned” for a situation like RadiaGate?
No, you cannot PLAN for an exact situation. In this very open world of electronic information, Wikileaks and RadiaGate WILL happen. You just don’t know what the next one will be like. And what damage it will cause. So while you cannot plan the exact nature of response, you CAN prepare a protocol and be ready. And not have to be randomly impulsive, and potentially put your foot into your mouth!
Companies need to have a plan, and genuine training to the team, to deal with these new media related challenges that can come any day! A key starting point is to have a Media Monitoring plan in place, especially a Social Media Monitoring one!
3. As a part of the plan, empower the frontline team to respond! I remember the live coverage of 26/11 and the various authorities in whose face, media was prepared to stick a mike. And how they had no clue what to really say. There was no coordinated response, neither was there a preparation at most places, about the ways to deal with situations of this kind. Where 26/11 was television, worst is the case with social media, where any kind of negative news can come, for your brand, and can potentially snowball. Before a Ratan Tata intervened, there would have been lots of questions posed to the frontline folks in Tata Communications. Were they equipped to give any kind of response at all?
4. Play in the same field. So, if someone has put a strong message against you in an online forum, and you choose to go and call a press conference in response. That does not work. No can do. The biggest conversations – at least in open forums – about Ratan Tata and Barkha Dutt and Nira Radia were all happening on Social Media. Ratan Tata, writing a letter in mainline press, or doing a press conference, was fine. But he let the tongues continue to wag on Social Media.
It was important to respond in this space also. Whether it was by posting a YouTube video and then have a team responding back to other queries, or whatever.
5. Strengthen your team with external forces! Yes, you can shout yourself hoarse with your side of the story, and there will always be people who will doubt it. And the more you say, the more questions will be raised, and the more risk of being perceived as guilty! However, can you get force multipliers in terms of external support? Consolidate third party opinions that agree with yours, and give your point of view, that much more credence. Instead of just Ratan Tata fighting the lone battle on behalf of the Tata group, including taking on Rajeev Chandrashekar and the Congress government, could there have been other credible sources who could have been brought in, to strengthen the Tata story? And give it better credibility?
Same approach works in Social Media as well!
6. This is the time when all your earlier good work comes to help. Yes, all those testimonials and your credentials that you have been building up. This is the time to go out and leverage those. Used in a subtle way, the testimonials and credentials now need to give additional credibility to your view point, and make people question the allegations against your brand. Tata might have done it in some measure and could have done a lot more. And you can do it too, in the possible face of any negative mentions against you, on Social Media.
In summary, I would emphasize that there will be more Wikileaks and more RadiaGates. There will also be more of the Dominos cases or the Nestle Greenpeace attacks. This is the new world, the world of new media as well.
It is not about hoping (praying??) that it does not happen to you. But about being aware of the possibility first, and then about having preparation for such eventualities.
Yes, we can learn from what Ratan Tata did right, and also from what he did not do so right.