Amidst the frenzy of March Madness coverage, many Americans have noticed an intense global focus in newscasts lately. Not only does the eerie disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 remain unsolved, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin is working fast to complete his annexation of Crimea and is now trading economic sanctions back and forth with President Barack Obama. Then yesterday, perhaps thinking his reactionary move would fly under the radar, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey attempted to purge his country of Twitter.
In case you missed any of the action, here’s a breakdown, plus our take on how to best move forward:
The communication mismanagement since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 has, from the first day, been erratic and disappointing. From initial attempts to downplay how long the jetliner had been out of contact, to the recent forcible removal of desperate, irate Chinese family members from a press conference, the airline’s crisis communications efforts have displayed a serious lack of empathy and clarity.
To be fair, amid intense criticism, Malaysia Airlines has made some attempts to turn their strategy around, providing real-time digital updates that have been crucial to media coverage of the disappearance. They also activated a Dark Site, a bare bones webpage designed to solely provide updates on the missing jetliner.
Our Take: Executives and officials in a crisis situation, especially one in which 239 people have vanished, must realize that public relations is no longer just media relations. Malaysian Airlines officials, having secured good channels for providing updates to the media and the public, should now focus on positive interactions with family members and the public, and show a company that is unequivocally committed to search efforts and
Smarting from last year’s anti-government protests and nervous in the face of local elections on March 30, Prime Minister Erdogan has banned Twitter. He called Twitter “a menace to society” and claims that social media users are trying to smear his government ahead of the elections.
In a region where mobile technology is inextricably intertwined with civil society (please see: Iranian presidential elections in 2009, the Tunisian revolution in 2010 and the Egyptian revolution of 2011), this move has backfired spectacularly. Not only is the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey trending globally today, but Twitter itself quickly responded:
“Shortly after the Twitter ban came into effect around midnight, the micro-blogging company tweeted instructions to users in Turkey on how to circumvent it using text messaging services in Turkish and English. Turkish tweeters were quick to share other methods of tiptoeing around the ban, using “virtual private networks” (VPN) – which allow internet users to connect to the web undetected – or changing the domain name settings on computers and mobile devices to conceal their geographic whereabouts.” – The Guardian
Our Take: Countries, companies and PR agencies in a crisis situation should go ahead and try to control the message, but within reason. And they should never try to control the messaging platform. In the digital era, governments, like companies, must meet constituents where they are (in the case of Turkey, on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms), whether they like it or not. I strongly believe there they will find valuable opportunities for two-way conversations between government and civil society, without squashing free speech.
Russia is currently finalizing its annexation of Crimea, a semi-autonomous region in southern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been stoic in the face of EU and U.S. opposition, standing by his assertion that the move is justified in order to protect Russian interests and Russians in Ukraine.
Domestically, Putin’s personal mastery of PR is dubious yet effective. This is a man who is famous for his PR stunts, among them: shooting a whale with a crossbow, shaking hands/paws with a polar bear, strolling shirtless through Siberia and uncovering sixth-century Greek artifacts during a novice dive in the Black Sea.
However, outside of the country, these stunts don’t add up to much, and criticism is mounting quickly. Yesterday, the United States ramped up sanctions, prompting Russia to do the same. For a country that has spent millions of dollars on PR and improving its image in the west (with American firm Ketchum, no less), this is definitely a “one step forward, two steps back” sort of thing.
Our Take: Albers Vice President Debbie Hilt is fond of saying, “PR is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m sure in his eyes, Putin views this sprint as an overwhelming success for Russian interests. However, the post-Sochi glow is zapped and the years-long “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations has been severely damaged. The full geopolitical implications remain to be seen, but Russia has resumed its role as a bully, and its image will ultimately suffer for it in the long-term.