PR in the time of social media – a Murugappa Group case study

A tiny piece in The Economic Times’ weekly section called Suits & Sayings caught my eye yesterday (this is a weekly Monday section).

Hmmm. Clues?
Chennai-based.
Keen to display gender diversity.
Chairman tweeting.
Responses called on Group’s Board to be showcase diversity too.

Too simple, if you are clued into the news.
Murugappa Group.

A quick glance at the recent tweets of M.M.Murugappan, Chairman of Murugappa Group confirms that.

But what is interesting is that the responses seem coordinated!

Notice the use of the same hashtags – #genderdiversity #genderequality and #genderbias in many responses.

Plus the fact that besides direct replies to Murugappan, the actual replies is to 3 of the most prominent responders – Anuj, Haricharan and Nikhil.

Anuj’s response:

The replies to Anuj:

Haricharan’s reply:

Replies to Haricharan:

Nikhil’s reply:

Replies to Nikhil:

Plus, there were some direct replies to Murugappa too… without any hashtags!

However, within the context of my post, it doesn’t matter whether the replies were coordinated or not. That’s a different subject altogether, on engineering social media reactions, for whatever purpose/objective.

The specific context of my post is about corporate communications and PR in the time of social media.

Murugappa Group’s Board has been under fire for at least 2-3 months. The issue has made it to the front page of The Economic Times too. Amidst such a scenario, to demonstrate the Group’s (not the Board’s, specifically) gender diversity is a fairly decent communications idea. But what is not so smart is not to think about how the responses would be.

Is it too difficult to imagine that on a platform like Twitter, responses pointing out to the irony of the Chairman’s tweet would be swift and scathing? And if you, as a member of the corporate communications team or the PR team are fully aware that such responses would absolutely land and question the Chairman’s tweet, how should you plan for it?

Corporate Communications with select people from media is one kind of performance. Corporate communications with the public, on social media, a many-to-many platform, is a completely different kind of public performance. With the former, the corporate could expect a semblance of control – there’s always the friendly editor to go to and influence the narrative. On social media, there is no editor to fall back upon. It’s just the raw opinions of people (even if they are engineered as a coordinated counter-point, in this case).

To manage the corporate’s reputation, the teams (both internal and external PR teams) need to handle it like a game of chess, fully anticipating counter-questions from the public. This is simple, scenario-planning – a PR 101 for any kind of interaction with any kind of public. Trouble is, most corporate PR teams or agency teams do not consider social media as an interaction with the public at all. And worse, they assume it to be a mere broadcast where they can get away with what they want to communicate.

Here’s a step-by-step planning process:

Step 1: Chairman tweets. What is the wording? Can it be contested?

Step 2: Question the Chairman yourself. How can you challenge what he tweets? What vectors will you take it to, using only facts and recent news?

Step 3: How will the corporate/Chairman react to the replies? What kind of data points and numbers can you showcase about the overall Group’s gender diversity to counter the replies? Do you have justifiable data ready with you?

Step 4: Who will respond to the counter-points on Twitter? Ideally, it should someone other than the Chairman himself, IF you have your points and data ready. It could be someone reasonably active and known on Twitter, from the Group. He/she could be made the face of the responses.

Step 5: Fully anticipate the media to latch on to the whole engagement and write about it, shaping the perception of the corporate/Group far removed from what was intended originally by a harmless tweet by the Chairman. Now, if the team had planned a response, with facts, then that would also be part of the media coverage, instead of merely talking about what the corporate/Chairman said and what the reaction was, overall, puncturing the corporate’s claim. But since there was no counter-point from the corporate, the media report stops at the point where the original claim has been punctured by people.

PR and corporate communications in the time of social media is a constant 2-way communication. It cannot remain a broadcast.

Oh well, it can, if the person broadcasting is all-powerful, like the Indian Prime Minister (and his broadcast on radio, called Mann Ki Baat).
See: The Mann Ki Baat marvel.

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