The Press, March 2011

It’s often said that we are defined by how we respond in a crisis. The same is true of the way organisations reacted to February 22 earthquake in Christchurch and its consequences – it reveals something of their ‘character’.

In marketing terms the crisis has shown how some companies really think about their customers, signalling the true attitude that underlies the gloss and superficial friendliness of advertising and promotion.

While I was deeply impressed by the response of so many organisations who gave time, effort and money to help others with no expectation of return, the reaction of others disappointed.

For example, the car parking company I use is always efficient when it comes to getting their bill paid, but when it came to providing information about my car, trapped in one of their inner-city buildings, they were less forthcoming.

Apart from a glib message on their website expressing the requisite regret, there was no useful information. Trying their call centre was little better – at first it redirected me to some poor fellow in the control station at an Auckland car park, who knew nothing and wasn’t keen to help.

Once I finally got hold of a real person in head office they wouldn’t tell me anything, but took my name and promised a call. It never eventuated.

Next was the leasing agent for my building. Our company had moved in four days prior to the quake, and were enjoying the new premises.

The leasing company, solicitous prior to us signing a contract and paying a deposit, had disappeared soon after. Post-quake I suppose it is hardly surprising then we heard nothing from them – not an enquiry as to whether we were okay after surviving a massive quake in their building, no offer of help around new premises, not even a hello. Again I registered my name with their call centre, again no response.

The third experience was with an insurance company, in relation to a potential vehicle claim. Simply trying to speak to anyone about it was an immense challenge.

Calling was an exercise in call centre hell, left interminably with musak while they promised me how important my call was, but never answered. As author Laura Penny puts it “If your call is so important to them why don’t they answer the damn phone?”

Isn’t all this moaning on my part a bit tough when the companies in question faced unprecedented crisis? When lives have been ripped apart? Could anyone be expected to respond well in such a devastating event?

The frustration is that dealing with some of these issues is relatively simple, it is just about communication.

A good example, which counters the negatives, is an experience I am having as I write this from a marquee on the edge of Christchurch’s CBD cordon, waiting to recover my vehicle.

Recovery organisers the police were magnificent – friendly, relaxed and able to answer all our questions. All the way along they have been careful to emphasis the need for patience during what will be a long wait. They haven’t tried to promise more than they can deliver.

The officer in charge is relaxed, genuine and went through the process clearly. The staff know what they are doing and the process works well. The crowd are consequently relaxed and in good humour. As each car owner is announced, a cheer rises from the folding seats.  

It is just simple communication. Communication defined as ‘shared understanding’, where the sender and receiver have a common perception of the information that is being delivered. Not communication where the company simply formulates a standard message and force feeds it to the audience.

What the car parking people, the leasing company and the like don’t understand, is that simply telling me they don’t know is fine. Explaining what they do know (which may be little), and giving some idea of the process ahead is important. Expressing insincere sympathy and saying nothing is what promotes frustration.

Civil defence and the city council are suffering from the same problem. There is plenty of communication going on, I’m bombarded every day by multiple communiqués from earthquake HQ, but there is not enough focus on achieving a ‘shared understanding’ i.e. showing some empathy for the building and business owners.

Civil defence have absolutely the right intention, to reduce the potential for danger by removing unstable buildings. They have little other choice in most cases I imagine, but surely a little more care with the people and livelihoods involved, even if it is just talking it through properly, would be worthwhile?

What the advent of social media (think online communities like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or wikis) has taught marketers is that a modern approach to promotion must involve a conversation with customers, not just a one-way ‘look at me I’m so awesome’ process.

Some of those organisations coping with the reality of the earthquake could be using these tools (if in-person or phone calls are not practical), to have a two-way communication process with a large numbers of stakeholders.

It would go a long way to reducing the pain, and the damage to their brand.

Brands are built largely around the experience an organisation delivers to a customer. Companies who have not reacted well to the crisis will therefore have damaged their reputation and will have to rebuild it like the city of Christchurch is doing. And it will be just as hard.

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