Chude Jideonwo, Managing Partner, Red Media Africa, at the GE Customer Engagement Forum 2015.

“Our firms, Red Communication and StateCraft, have said to clients over and over again – people don’t want to know if you’re right or wrong, they want to know how much you care, or not.” – Chude Jideonwo

I joined Virgin Nigeria in 2008 as the assistant manager for media relations, and those were the rocky times when there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the company and management was fending off wolves.

Every day there was a piece of bad news. Either the federal government had kicked us out of the international airport, or our planes had to turn back due to technical problems, or staff salaries were being paid late, or 5 members of management had resigned – at once. Or something.

You now recall those days now and think ‘My goodness. So those were the good old days!’

Sounds weird, but it’s true. If Virgin Nigeria existed today, it would have had to die faster, and I probably would have been out of job quicker.

Because, in these days of vibrant social media, the cycle from crisis to a loss in reputation and ultimately goodwill of most kinds is so short it’s almost incredible. No one has time to be patient, or understanding, or even reasonable. That’s the age of the 140-character brand.

The first part of this topic reminds me of the chorus of a song by Beyonce, and anyone familiar with her recent work may have similar thoughts. Hopefully, the person who coined this topic has sent her a small amount of money.

Unlike the chorus of the song ‘Sweet dreams’, however, there are no ‘beautiful nightmares’ when a particularly bad piece of news about your business or a brand you consult for gets on the internet. If, as the saying goes, a lie goes halfway round the world before the truth puts on its boots, then a negative tweet can circle the earth twice.

The internet and the social media platforms it enables have created a whole new class of businesses and unlocked entirely new avenues for value creation, avenues which we are only at the beginning of exploring here in Nigeria. From a crisis management perspective, it also presents entirely new challenges that many individuals and businesses are yet to come to terms with.

One of the primary effects of social media and the internet is disintermediation. This breaking of barriers directly connects companies to their customers, public officers to the electorate, celebrities and sports stars to their adoring fans. It is what makes businesses like Jumia, Konga, and a multitude of others which operate in this country, possible. It is what makes Uber, a taxi service barely 6 years old, valued at around $40 billion without owning any taxis.

The disruptive potential that the internet provides in the way business is conducted, also changes the way businesses communicate with their current and potential customers. Conversations between customers and between businesses and their customers are now round the clock, and every point of interaction a customer has with a brand is likely to be tweeted, all of which is seen by hundreds and thousands of people, adding to its perception.

The result is that all complaints about the services of a business must be dealt with in a quick, professional and helpful manner, not just because the ‘customer is always right’, but because every interaction between the business and that one customer is seen by thousands of people at once. Every day on social media, those who control the social media presence of businesses, big and small, make amateur errors that harm those businesses.

Companies enabled by technology threaten existing industries and the models on which they are run. As such, some become apprehensive towards them and they become targets for criticism, some of which is blown out of proportion. Every negative piece of news is amplified.

The PR problems encountered by Uber over the past several months are a good case in point. There have been a number of high profile incidents of rape concerning its drivers, issues around its pricing, and the tactics of its leadership. As it has grown bigger, the battles it is fighting against legacy competitors have multiplied, and they had to call in David Plouffe, one of the key men responsible for Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2008, to improve the company’s perception.

Locally, OLX Nigeria is another company that has come under scrutiny recently, since a maid gotten through its site kidnapped three small children. The main perception problem of OLX is the character of the buyers and sellers that advertise on its website, some of whom are dubious.

When occurrences like that happen, the number one issue is speed of response. I cannot stress this enough. Also, this response cannot be done in a tone-deaf or defensive manner.

As experts in crisis communication ourselves, our firms Red Communication and StateCraft have said to clients over and over again – people don’t want to know if you’re right or wrong, they want to know how much you care, or not. And that’s the principle within which we have worked for corporates and governments when they are so bitter about what they call a lie and want to write 7,000-word press releases denouncing their bitter enemies.

A badly worded press release or a refusal to take some measure of responsibility, can mark out a company as only being interested in the money, and hence untrustworthy, giving potential customers one more reason to shun the service in favour of doing things the regular way.

After the crisis passes, it is my belief that businesses can do more to craft a compelling narrative around the way they operate, and turn their customers into advocates, improving perception in the process. They can also do more to educate the public about how to best use their service, and, for companies like OLX that operate on connecting buyers and sellers, do more to verify goods put on their site for sale.

If it isn’t happening to you yet, most likely because yours is new or a customer facing, well praise The Lord. But it will soon. It will for everyone.

Social media is a double edged sword, simultaneously giving life to businesses and holding the potential to damage them. One tweet, retweet, and Facebook update at a time, the perception of your brand is being crafted, but every single one of these interactions is an opportunity. And that is the excellent news.

Thank you very much.