Palm oil and the slippery issue of online crisis management

By Julia Ruane,

When an issue starts trending online a good PR team gets creative fast, finding ways to maximise its popularity to build engagement with their audience. Remember Oreo and their Superbowl blackout tweet?

But the best PR teams do more than that – they don’t just look at how the rising trend could bring opportunities to engage, they also know where things could go wrong. These are the crisis experts.

Iceland’s ‘banned’ Christmas advert is a good example of this. Apart from being some superb PR for the supermarket brand, the issue itself caused some interesting problems for completely unrelated brands. Unrelated that is until you look at the issue under discussion – palm oil.

So what happened?

Well, in case you missed it, Iceland (the frozen supermarket chain, not the country) wanted to use Greenpeace’s animation about “Rang-tan” (a little Orangutan that won over a little girl’s heart with its sad story around the environmental impact of palm oil) as its Christmas ad. But it was deemed to be in breach of political advertising so wasn’t allowed to run on our TV screens. The result?

Well, banning things rarely works (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Clockwork Orange, alcohol during prohibition…) and immediately people wanted to see what could possibly have caused an ad by a supermarket to be banned. Latest stats show that it has generated well over 30 million aggregated views across social media. 10% of these were on YouTube and the rest on Twitter and Facebook.

But that’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is how the issue, which trended very suddenly and consistently over a short intense period, has impacted on other brands.

Palm oil isn’t an issue that is ‘owned’ by Iceland. It’s something that bubbles along quite steadily for a range of brands that are known for using palm oil in their ingredients. Two of these are Cadbury and Mars.

So we took a look at how a spike in this issue could have affected them.

What we found was the online chatter about the banned ad, linking Iceland to palm oil, rocketed on the day the ban was announced and lasted for two days before mostly dying down.

Then we looked at the conversations that took place online linking both Mars and Cadbury with palm oil.

For both Cadbury and Mars, the data shows that, during the initial story, the chatter was all about Iceland still, they were pretty much unaffected. But, once the discussions had died down, about four days after the initial story hit, that was when the issue hit them hard, with calls for boycotts of the brands, concerns for the public (who were previously unaware of the link) and concerted efforts to ‘call out’ brands linked with palm oil. (see tweets below).

For both brands the chatter lasted for four days – a longer period than the original issue!

Much of the reason for the increase in interest (and shocked response from the public) can actually be attributed to a number of activist groups getting behind the issue and keeping it going. We see this a lot at Crisp – when activists target a brand they tend to do so en masse.

Research we conducted in 2017 found that activists post an average of 9,000 items of user generated content on a target brand’s social media page during an attack, 80% of which will be focused over a four-day activity spike. The idea being to either drown a brand in mentions, boycott demands and negative comments, or to rally the call amongst other groups and influencers to pile the pressure on instead.

Added fuel was thrown on the fire here by the use of the timely hashtag #PalmOilFreeChristmas. This hashtag started gaining traction in connection with a range of Christmas ‘staples’ (not just chocolate but items like gravy too) being highlighted by consumers as ones to avoid.

So how can you gain control in a crisis?

It boils down to being aware of an emerging issue fast. That’s not a simple task. ‘Fast’ means being prepared, having clear plans in place, the right people on board and the fastest systems in place to spot the issue as it emerges (not when the media starts calling).

Here are some top tips on how you can get ‘fast’:

  • Have an open mind: monitoring for mentions of your brand online is essential, but so is looking for wider trends that you know can impact you if they escalate (such as palm oil). Take the time to think about how you could be connected to these wider trending issues.
  • Plan for the best: develop good links with other teams in your organisation to root out where your biggest risks could come from, then be clever about how you monitor them. To spot real issues you can be canny about looking for issues that combine multiple elements.
  • Prepare for the worst: If you can be connected with anything that is a highly emotional subject (think #metoo, #brexit, #animaltesting etc) then consider how you can protect your staff. Time for PR teams to develop stronger relations with their security teams.
  • Think processes: it may not sound super sexy but having the right processes in place will make the difference between crisis chaos and crisis control. You need to know about an issue fast, and be able to react fast. That means having a rapid response crisis system in place that works 24/7 and only makes you aware of what’s important. You then need clear pre-prepared plans of action in place, with teams who are on board with the process, to be able to react quickly. Setting this up can be time consuming, but will be time well spent when the actual crisis hits.

The bad news is that it’s unlikely you will escape experiencing an online crisis. But the good news is that the way you DO handle a crisis will make a major difference to your future brand value.

Recent figures show that being seen to handle a crisis well actually builds your brand value in the longer term (by about 20%). The flip side of that? Handle it badly and long-term your brand value can dip up to 30%. If you need any help convincing senior teams that crisis planning is time well spent, that should certainly help.

That, and not spoiling Christmas for everyone.

Julia Ruane is Head of PR at Crisp Thinking, the risk experts who work 24/7 to help brands avoid a PR crisis online.

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Image courtesy of flickr uer Eric Kilby

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