Socium consultancy paracrisis communications

Recognising Paracrises — How Social Media Communications Can Change the Game

Singapore is going to the polls on 10 July 2020, while still in the throes of  the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not here to challenge the timing of the general election (GE), however the happenings thus far have given us the impetus to revisit some crisis and communications theories that could possibly change the game for some of the candidates who have stepped forward to serve. In the Singapore political scene, the rite of passage , unfortunately, has been social media vitriol. There is no doubt that candidates standing for elections should have the substance and gumption to lead and serve, but being communications-sensitive not just to the voices on the ground, but also to the flags on social media could possibly allow them to sense a storm coming – a social media hype that is brewing into a paracrisis.

The term ‘paracrisis’, created by researchers Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay, describes an event that is like a crisis, but may not require actions to suppress it. This, however, depends on the magnitude and nature of the event, and there are ways to evaluate threat potential and how responses could be prepared.

When a social media hype becomes a crisis

Ivan Lim Incident Timeline | Crisis, reputation management | Socium
The allegations and responses on notable social media platforms during the short span of four days between Ivan Lim’s debut as a new PAP candidate and his drop-out of GE2020

Social-media hype, a concept coined by one of the most respected communications scholars in South-east Asia, professor Augustine Pang, refers to a netizen-generated trigger event that causes great interest, and is sustained by the self-reinforcing nature of social media chatter.

Pang further suggested that online sentiments should be monitored closely and with responses made in the same medium as swiftly and as tactfully as possible to quell any rising storm of negativity. This could prevent a social media hype from turning into a crisis. Marrying this with the concept of paracrisis makes social media hype a form of paracrisis.

Diving back into the happenings in Singapore’s GE 2020, the doxxing of the People Action Party’s new candidate Ivan Lim and accusations of his alleged poor behaviour led to a social media hype that escalated out of control.

How should we prepare and respond to paracrises?

A paracrisis is often a reputational threat when negative information about an organisation or individual’s behaviour surfaces. This directly impacts how an organisation or an individual (often the face of the organisation) is perceived. A study by Rozin and Royzman (2001) on negativity bias pointed out that stakeholders pay more attention to negative than positive information. Paracrisis, different from other crisis threats, is always exposed to public scrutiny. As such, while the potential damage of a paracrisis is uncertain, organisations must respond and manage the threat effectively and appropriately. We contextualise the recommendations below based on the case of Ivan Lim (see timeline above).

Researchers Heath and Coombs (2006) noted that organisational listening allows communicators to frame and put forth appealing messages. Listening actively to the public’s impression of the organisation or individual, the arguments stakeholders are making, their demands and concerns will help to bridge the expectation gap, and strengthen trust in the organisation, or on the individual. Believing every candidate would have prepared for the ‘battle’ by having a communications team or manager, Ivan Lim should have scanned the social media space for sentiments arising from his public appearances or comments so as to strategise his next communications move. 

Crisis scanning is where risk, issue and reputation management intersect. While threats are interrelated, recognising its primary danger helps with the understanding of a potential chain reaction and identifying effective methods to address that threat. A crisis communication red teaming could have been carried out for Ivan Lim by his communications manager to distill some of the possible reputational threats during the campaign – whom he had let down, any of his personal background or history which could draw flak – and prepare how he should respond to each blow as it comes. 

An organisation or individual should avoid changing its long-term strategy when dealing with a paracrisis. Evaluate the nature of paracrisis carefully and design solutions that do not contradict or compromise the long-term objectives. Managers must be clear about the desired outcomes and employ relevant communication strategies in their response. In Ivan Lim’s case, the communications tools and approaches should be laid out for him before the campaign, and the pros and cons of each tool explained to him. Strategically, preparing his family for his public role and attention on people close to him, knowing what are the potential reputational threats which could come his way, and when to tow the party line vis-a-vis his personal upholding of reputation are some of the planning which could have been done before the announcement of his candidature. 

  • Relevant platforms; appropriate response 

While social media could be the source of paracrisis, it is also an essential tool in crisis communication because of its diverse and highly accessible communication channels. There should therefore be a fit between the channels you choose to respond on and the stakeholders you are targeting. The goal is to reach the relevant stakeholders, especially through the major platforms where the paracrisis emerged. It pays to cast your net wide and be fast so that you can be where the action is. Dealing with a brewing issue on social media through the issuance of a press statement three days after the blowup will not solve the matter, but will make it worse.

  • Speak to the audience

Unless necessary, lengthy legal statements often do not speak to the audiences. While formality and professionality are valued in responses, the stakeholders usually look for direct, genuine, well-composed responses. Avoid inconsistency in tones, basic semantic mistakes or other informational errors when making any statement or response, be it rebuttal or acknowledgment. An emotive on-camera interview soon after a reputational blow to clarify the matter could have saved Ivan Lim’s candidature. That said, to pull this off, he would need to have his facts right and ready to support his statements and quell the negative narratives.

  • Beyond social media

Technology shouldn’t overshadow time-tested tactics. Listening, monitoring and analysing trends can give a headstart in preventing a reputational blow/ crisis, and  while social media is an effective platform for information dispersal, nothing beats face-to-face communication. Crisis managers must initiate dialogues or direct communications. Circumventing the safety measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a recorded video statement coupled with clarifications, or a media interview online could have helped Ivan Lim salvage some reputational points.

Through the lens of communications: The case of Ivan Lim in retrospect

Social media, with its widespread popularity and high accessibility, breaks new stories before traditional media and facilitates active discussion before the affected parties have time to respond. The activism of netizens and the force of information dispersal can be enabling and, at the same time, destructive. Destructive because when misinformation is spread, netizens tend to latch onto discussions and trends without fully understanding the  issues. 

Ivan Lim’s case perfectly illustrated the danger of social media being a space where netizens are free to judge, attack and even destroy the reputation of organisations or individuals. Public opinions, amplified by social media, have the power to crucify anyone, political candidates included. Right or wrong, this incident serves as a reminder to all: Information spread on the internet can influence and sway opinions, and minor issues can potentially rise to become a reputational catastrophe. 

Organisations and individuals must be prepared to embrace the ever-evolving social media landscape and recognise flags as they move along. It is critical to consistently monitor the public’s perception about the organisation or individual, respond promptly through the appropriate media platforms, actively engage with the stakeholders and validate their concerns and opinions.