The internet is the great paradox of our times. Consider what it has done to business. On the one hand, companies now have unprecedented access and influence over consumer habits thanks to the great data fields that they can pillage.
In the 21st century, because of big digital data and the willingness of consumers to hand over ever increasing amounts of personal information in return for a hassle free user experience, it seems businesses wield total control over public perception.
Then chaos arrives, like last week, when a bored teenage boy in Northern Ireland stole the banking and personal information of four million TalkTalk customers.
Before TalkTalk’s internal comms team was able to get a lid on the situation with a well-crafted message to the media (ah, the good old days of crisis comms!), a wildfire raged on social well beyond their influence.
In 1992 it might have been The Sun ‘wot won it’, but today it is social media wot loses it, and when a scandal hits, the battle for public perception is increasingly a 360-degree multichannel fight in real-time.
One need only dissect TalkTalk’s video response to the catastrophe from its chief executive, Dido Harding, published on YouTube a day after the hacking scandal first hit, to see that crisis comms is, well, in a bit of a crisis.
Dido Harding came across like a murder suspect in a police interrogation room, squirming beneath the glare of an angry public. The awful lighting, the wooden backdrop, all added to a sense that TalkTalk was helpless, like a deer caught in the headlights of a Twitter storm.
Most telling of all, was the omission of any kind of an apology. There was no ‘sorry, we messed up’, no ‘it won’t happen again’, no ‘it isn’t good enough’.
The video was so bad, that even a print columnist from The Telegraph picked up on its awful quality, a telling development of the importance of video in crisis comms.
TalkTalk had a second go at a video response, two days later. This time, the wooden backdrop and terrorist spotlight was replaced by a shiny corporate environment and decent lighting.
It was a visual improvement, certainly, but having a chief exec talk from an ivory tower complete with some cliché office props - an iPhone, a pen and paper, a desk – is never a smart move when you have failed millions of customers.
This time, Dido Harding did include an apology of sorts, but it was the kind of slippery sidestep that we’re used to hearing from politicians and bankers. Rather than an outright apology (which is what the four million consumers would have probably liked) we got a ‘I’m sorry for the frustration and concern that this is causing’.
The poor videos are not the fault of TalkTalk’s internal comms team, per se. They had to do something for social. But there is a reason why crisis comms PR services exist in the first place.