Updated: Apr 23
Social media often becomes a breeding ground for misinformation, especially when it revolves around a corporate PR crisis. When untrue information begins to circulate on social media, people take it at face value, and it can have devastating consequences as you go into heightened crisis management mode.
On this episode of the Mind Meld PR vlog we chat with account executive Shani Kotecha. She let us know what’s up with WhatsApp and we discussed where their crisis management is doing well, and where they’ve missed the ticket.
JN: What’s the recent news about WhatsApp?
JN: It may not be entirely WhatsApp’s fault, but I'm not sure if this could have been prevented. It may be one of those things where a company is, is “caught” doing something that maybe they didn't even do. There may be other other things in the mix here. What's been happening in the days since WhatsApp started losing those millions of users.
JN: So as far as I understand, people have concerns about WhatsApp sharing the data with Facebook and potentially other third party providers, but this only applies to business users. WhatsApp is getting into trouble for something that may not actually affect most of the people who are dropping off it. But there is a kernel of truth to the problems that people are talking about. That's almost always the case when you have a case of crisis PR. You're usually defending yourself against something that is true, at least in part. That's what makes it so dangerous.
WhatsApp is doing a lot right right now too. I’ve noticed WhatsApp overcommunicating more than normal right now. They’re sharing the real information. So they're providing quite detailed summaries of what’s actually happening. They're doing this in blog posts and by reaching out to traditional media to get the word out.
Another strategy that I often see as helpful in situations like this is to change the conversation. Rather than just getting defensive, if you don't want to talk about Terms of Service, refocus everyone’s attention on another positive thing WhatsApp provides?
Shani, what's your take on WhatsApp’s response?
What they've done since then, I don’t know if it’s worked, but it was smart. They've been posting on blogs and social media, and they bought out full pages of newspapers. But what I saw on Twitter is that they're promoting a lot of graphics, usually three words and a picture of Facebook with a STOP sign over it. Looking at these graphics, you can understand the message in seconds. This isn’t a strategy that would have worked in the first place because you wouldn't want to start a new positive policy with the woods “By the way, this is the information we’re going to share with Facebook.”
I think they might have missed a step by not highlighting the benefits for businesses upfront. I think they're still missing a trick on emphasizing the good elements of this, focusing on the super positive part of this new policy?
JN: I think that's a fair point. I'm curious, how much of this do you think is manufactured by a mob looking for something to get angry about? How much of this do you think is people actually getting upset about “Oh, you're violating my privacy. This is unprecedented” versus “I'm going to stick it to the man and I'm going to show I’m all about freedom”?
SK: I don't know why but this whole situation reminds me of Brexit. All of a sudden we had a banner on a bus that says "if we leave Europe, we're going to gain hundreds of millions of pounds". It’s information that comes out of nowhere, but everyone gets hooked on it.
I think this PR crisis with WhatsApp is similar. People got attached to facts that aren't necessarily true. I feel sorry for WhatsApp because I think they’re following the playbook that Instagram used. When Instagram combined with Facebook Messenger, it affected personal and business users and was viewed as “oh my life will be so much easier now.” With WhatsApp, it only applies to businesses, yet personal and business users are seeing it as a violation.
And then to make matters worse, Elon Musk posted “Use Signal” on his Twitter, which meant that the millions of people following Elon Musk, trusted a two word tweet as opposed to a detailed 4000-word policy. They trusted the two word tweet over actual information.
JN: Obviously, this issue goes deeper than PR because you don’t have your marketing team writing legal terms of service. Terms of Service have been plaguing the tech industry for years. And not just giant companies that have been bought by even bigger companies like Facebook. We're often dealing with complicated products that integrate many kinds of technology, patents, and trademarks.
I understand the business challenge and Terms of Service covers your bases, but you also know that no one will actually read through all 4000-words of your Terms of Service before clicking the “I accept” button. So you just check the box, assume the worst, and assume you've signed away your first-born.
SK: I think it goes back to when we were talking about how to make tech make sense in the previous video blog cast. We said that we don't need to understand the ins and outs and every little bit of tech, we just need to relate the benefits. Sadly, WhatsApp has done the opposite. They've given us, all the details and little things we need to know, but they should have prefaced it by saying “This is the new amazing thing we’ve created and it’s going to make you super happy and make your life easier because...”
JN: I see analogies to this in laws and regulations. Like it's not just Terms of Service for tech companies. Generally, we're used to these long contracts that nobody can understand. If you don't know what the rules are and someone can't explain it to you, you can’t follow the rules because you don’t know. You may kinda suspect you might be breaking the rules, but at some point, you just don't care. You have to get on with your life. There is actually significant value in simplicity.
SK: Bringing it back to the WhatsApp PR crisis, I think they overlooked quite an obvious part of this whole thing. They knew there was a lot of negative press around WhatsApp to begin with. Before they released the new policy their PR team should have been involved to better control the release of information. In my opinion, they should have been able to predict this.
JN: I want to touch on one other aspect of PR, that I think Whatsapp has done well: they’re not attacking their critics. You don't want to attack the messenger. Stick to your message. Because when you get into these accusatory, defensive attacks, you're not going to come out clean. So all you can do is put out your message.
SK: Yes and they’re facilitating a discussion. Internet arguments often become aggressive and unproductive. So, WhatsApp is turning it into a conversation and saying, “We hear you and we're responding exactly to what you've asked us with this helpful graphic that you can share on Twitter.”
JN: They're trying to let the light of truth shine in from all sides. They're not blinding and distracting to other observers.
SK: Yes. Now Jonathon, I want to know, if you were working in PR for WhatsApp, what’s one big thing you would have done differently?
JN: I would have published an interview with the current CEO of WhatsApp and just have him explain what’s up with WhatsApp, using friendly, plain language. Then the news story wouldn’t have been about a terms of service change, it would be about new ways of using WhatsApp that they're excited about, or emerging trends in using the app.
After all, what’s more transparent than having the founder come out and talk, without getting overly bureaucratic, analytic, or overly technical.
SK: Yes, and doing it before an automated, unexplained message popped up on everyone's screens that just says, “Do you accept this?”
JN: This is something that comes up a lot. Because outreach to customers (like email communications) is so highly regulated now, companies are avoiding sending too many messages to avoid harassing customers and prospects. But companies have to put out these messages from time to time so they know these things are coming.
I'm sure they thought they were doing the right thing. And again, I don't know, maybe they got unlucky. Maybe it was a bad week. Maybe, you know, there was not another distraction to save them. But you know, they're doing some good things to try to turn this around. So, good luck to them.
As we’ve seen in this recent global PR crisis at WhatsApp, a PR crisis is not always your fault, but you are still responsible for doing your best to make it right. It all starts with transparency and refocusing the story to the benefits and facts of the situation.
Get in touch if you’re looking for an awesome Vancouver PR firm to help you through times of PR crisis.