Guest Column: Leverage social influencers in your crisis management plan: Varun Tyagi, Qoruz

Mitigate adversaries with information and transparency in times of crisis, says Tyagi

e4m by Varun Tyagi
Updated: Aug 2, 2017 8:33 AM

Public relations as we know it is changing. Until a few years back, PR teams would essentially focus on securing media coverage for their brands. Their efforts were concentrated on either keeping the brand in the limelight or out of it, through carefully crafted strategies, media relationships and clout. Public relations and corporate communications have typically worked with a high degree of control on the messaging and response and a proactive reputation building plan.


Not anymore.


Today, with hundreds of social media platforms, billions of people logged in and terabytes of online content uploaded every minute, all it takes is one wrong message to create a storm that will blow years of carefully crafted brand image to smithereens. Think Nestle and the Maggi MSG content revelation, British Petroleum and their environmentally hazardous oil leaks, Volkswagen and the emission test fiasco, Uber and its ill-fated and now ex-CEO Travis Kalanick’s series of mishaps, Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel and his misplaced remarks about India… the list goes on. In the ever-so-open and hyper-connected world of social media, no fact escapes the public scrutiny and no truth is hidden for too long.


The ripple effects of the above mentioned and many such other crises were felt by brands for months and in some cases for years. Today’s well-informed consumers have the platforms and the voice to share opinions and take collective, morally and socially conscious decisions against a brand if it is deemed to be involved in wrongdoings or even wrong sayings. Besides reputation, balance sheets suffer as well.


The thought of a social media crisis hitting their brand gives PR teams sleepless nights. There are no protocols that can guarantee a quick and minimal-damage solution.  Forget that, there is little help available to pre-empt the damage in the first place. Chances are, by the time your team assembles in the emergency room, your brand is already trending on Facebook or Twitter for all the wrong reasons.


After carefully examining the nature of social media crises, I was able to draw parallels with something equally unexpected, unforgiving, and uncontrollable – forest wildfires. Both need a spark to start, spread in every possible direction at a furious speed and wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem. 


Brand custodians have much to learn from wildfire response teams when it comes to controlling and eventually dousing the fire. Through years of data-collection and trend-mapping, wildfire teams have developed ways to pre-empt the times of the year when forest fires are more likely to start, along with identifying other causes of nuisance. Unfortunately, for all the talks about the big data revolution, marketers have been able to do little to replicate this model successfully.


Secondly, whenever there is a forest fire, the response teams immediately get down to identifying the most critical areas of the forest. These are the spots where the wood is the driest and hence most susceptible to catching and fueling fire. While taking on the fire from all sides and directions, the response teams ensure that they get to these critical spots first, and prevent the fire from getting to these spots and turn them to their advantage by dampening the wood there. 


The key takeaway for PR and corporate communication teams here is that the critical spots in a social media wildfire are social influencers. These are the people who hold tremendous power to sway public emotions, opinions and decisions. Any media crisis management plan that does not involve a strategic focus on these influencers is bound to fail. 


Time is of essence in a social media crisis and the usual approach of pasting the same message all over your brand channels and handling each conversation on a one-on-one basis (or worse, ignoring a lot of them hoping they’d die down on their own) is time consuming, unappealing and ineffective.


There are multiple benefits of having a strategic focus on influencers during times of crisis:


  • Authenticity – When real people with no hidden interests or agenda speak for your brand, instead of a designated spokesperson, the message feels more authentic and resonates more with the audience.

  • Transparency – Being forthright in sharing actual information with real people goes a long way in positioning your brand as transparent; remember, anybody can go wrong, but only the righteous can own up and correct their mistakes.

  • Higher Degree of Management – There’s only so much heat that your internal, customer-facing departments (PR, communications, customer support) can handle; engaging influencers for crisis management reduces stress and puts more hands on the deck.

  • Team Building – Influencers feel like they are a part of the team and this goes a long way in building stronger relationships and garnering support that you’ll invariably need in the future.


At any given point and in any given scenario, any brand’s audience can be classified into three distinct segments – adversaries, agnostics and advocates. This classification becomes the source of our wildfire response management plan for social media crises. 


Audience Type


In times of crisis do this


Individuals who are openly hostile about the brand

Engage productively, apologize (if needed) and act with transparency about your plans to make things right


May or may not have a strong opinion but keep their opinions to themselves

Supply with information and use advocates to influence positively


Die-hard fans of the brand

Deploy as unofficial spokesmen/women and let them speak on behalf of the brand

Usually it’s a good practice to keep building a list of influencers that you can count on during times of crisis. Go through your NPS, CSAT and CRM databases and you’ll find quite a few customers and advocates with considerable social influence. 


Besides discovering influencers and proactively building a list, it is also important to keep a watch on the prevailing sentiment for your brand. If you can spot a crisis before it becomes a disaster, that’s half the battle won.


Remember, social media thrives on peer influence and crisis management can be made more effective if your consumer facing teams start involving social influencers. Here are a few take-aways:-


  • Proactively build a list of influencer advocates that you can reach out to for help during crisis.

  • Nurture relationships with brand advocates with a long-term view and keep your engagement authentic and transparent.

  • Monitor topics of potential concern – track conversations about your brand, areas of weakness, general industry challenges and the likes.

  • Follow the wildfire response model to identify influencers on a priority basis - engage advocates and prompt them to work with you; mitigate adversaries with information and transparency.

  • Once the crisis is over, analyse the conversations. Identify people who stood up for you and add them to that list of influencer advocates (and send out a thank you card as well!)


(The author heads marketing for Qoruz)


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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