x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Facebook friends make it all better when disaster strikes, PR gurus say

Public relations experts, including Lord Bell, who runs Bell Pottinger Group, discuss how companies can engage with consumers online to turn PR nightmares into success stories.

Lord Tim Bell, the chairman of Chime Communications. Christopher Pike / The National
Lord Tim Bell, the chairman of Chime Communications. Christopher Pike / The National

The world's top public relations executives gathered in Dubai yesterday to tackle one of the thorniest challenges facing their industry - how to turn reputational disasters such as the BP oil well explosion into PR success stories.

Unfortunately, the best they could come up with was setting up a Facebook page and signing up lots of friends, as you might need them when things start going badly.

After the public backlash against BP for its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some of the energy company's competitors started looking for ways to lessen the damage of attacks for similar PR disasters, or even those on a much smaller scale.

Last month, Royal Dutch Shell set about creating a page on the social networking site to attract a solid base of fans to help the company "be protected against attacks that come potentially out of the middle of nowhere", said Herbert Heitmann, the executive vice president for external communications at Shell, who spoke yesterday at the Public Relations World Congress in Dubai.

The company's Facebook page has already attracted nearly 300,000 fans, although in this day and age a bigger buffer may be better. That is why Shell said it aimed to have a million fans within three years.

"If [attacks against our reputation] run into a group of fans and supporters that are so strong, that's when the impact is much more limited," said Mr Heitmann.

In some cases, PR agencies themselves have come under criticism for representing certain clients.

For Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime Communications, which oversees the PR company Bell Pottinger Group, the most recent controversy started when some of his employees altered details about their clients on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

"I got in terrible trouble for changing them," said Lord Bell, who noted people were just doing their job in wanting to protect reputations.

For organisations needing damage control - whether companies or governments - Lord Bell recommended taking credible, tangible steps and relaying that message to consumers or citizens.

"Good public relations needs substance," he said.

"Reputation is about what you do, as well as what you say."


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