Wednesday, October 19, 2011

RIM: how long should a response wait?

There have been plenty of articles and blog posts blasting Research in Motion (RIM)'s decision to wait before talking to its customers (and investors, and the watching world) about the major outage its BlackBerry service experienced last week. An October 12th article in PR News summed up what many were saying with a quote from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former head of communications:
 "Explain while you fix. Apologize when you have. Recompense after. Handling so far woeful," he tweeted. 
If you Google "BlackBerry crisis communications" you'll have a wide choice of links, many of which pointing out how RIM ignored one of the basic principles of crisis communications: talk to your audiences and stakeholders and give them the facts (or whatever facts you can) before others shape the story for you.

It sounds easier than it is.

Having spent more than a decade in a telecom corporate communications department, I have to say I had some sympathy for the folks at RIM. It's easy for us to sit back and say "you should be out there telling your customers what's going on," but sometimes it's not that simple. Sometimes, even the experts aren't exactly sure what the problem is - and no-one wants to go out and make it sound better or worse than it actually is. I remember getting briefed on network outages that initially looked like they were going to take hours to fix, but were actually repaired in minutes. Hindsight is 20/20, and your in-the-thick-of-it statements will live on long after the crisis does; natural instinct is to want to be sure you have it right before you say anything at all.

There's also the problem of explaining what the issue is when the audience can't possibly understand it. The communicator needs to be accurate, but can't use the technical language the engineers use: our customers aren't engineers. That translation process takes time, too (and, often, debate).

The communicators have their hands full: even if the higher-ups are on board with the idea that the company should communicate publicly about the problem (and this isn't a given in every company), they have to find out what the issue is; get agreement from all the experts on what the problem is, its scope, and what will be required to fix it; and translate it all into their audiences' language. It's not something you can do within a few minutes.

But it is something that needs to be done, and as quickly as possible -- because as the RIM example shows, the story will build with or without you.

A quote that caught my eye

A story in The Globe and Mail Monday about the RIM issue attributed the following statement to RIM co-CEO, Jim Balsillie:
Mr. Balsillie defended how RIM communicated the outage to the public, saying every minute doing public relation is time not spent fixing the problem.
Unless its communicators do double-duty as engineers, I think RIM could likely have communicated without jeopardizing the repair time by too much. The communicators would need access a tech expert to formulate and help with "translating" the message, but any time lost by techies would, I'd argue, be well-invested in showing your customers you're working to fix it.

Customers don't really expect everything to work perfectly all the time, though it may sound like they do when they're complaining online. But they do expect the company to show that it "gets" their frustration and is doing everything it can to fix it. 

On Thursday, RIM uploaded a video to YouTube featuring Mr. Balsillie's co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis, talking to its customers about the outage.

A message like this one (which still doesn't tell us much about the nature of the problem) could have taken down the temperature on the criticism of RIM, had it come out a few days earlier. 

Every crisis is also an opportunity

Your audiences are listening... you might as well say something you want them to hear.

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