Robert Clark
Mar 7, 2014

SEM helps brands to minimise the damage

New tools allow companies to position themselves ahead of controversies and to respond to them when they erupt in real time.

Finger-clicking good: KFC responded to clip of employee punching customer by acquiring related keywords
Finger-clicking good: KFC responded to clip of employee punching customer by acquiring related keywords

Search engine management is deeply embedded in the sales and marketing process. But it is also becoming a part of that critical corner of PR known as crisis management. 

Brands and agencies are using SEO (search engine optimisation) and SEM (search engine management) to position themselves ahead of controversies before they break, and to respond to them when they do.

It used to be that companies had at least half a day to respond to a crisis, typically by holding a press conference to get their message across. 

Now crises break in real time. Last year, an executive for US internet firm IAC made a racist comment on Twitter about AIDS in Africa as she boarded a flight to Cape Town, South Africa. By the time her plane had landed, she had lost her job.

Bite Asia-Pacific president David Ketchum says his agency uses social media listening tools to scrape sites such as Twitter and Facebook and give a readout on “those people most important to your brand reputation online”.

These tools have limitations, though. For example, they don’t measure influencers who appear on TV but don’t have a strong social media presence. Additionally, the data is quantitative, so it still requires human intervention to interpret it.

When a crisis breaks, “the critical relationship is between search and social media”, Ketchum says. But he believes this approach is still not very widespread. “Many companies are still using the old crisis management playbook,” he says.

Gary Chan, Nokia’s pan-Asia head of marketing, says SEM and SEO are usually “not a big part of the strategy” for the Finnish company. “A crisis plan for a company like Nokia will be developed with key communication touchpoints identified, depending on the nature of the crisis and the audiences,” he adds.

The use of SEO for crisis management requires some organisation. 

Antony Yiu, head of search and performance at media agency MEC Asia-Pacific, says communications teams need to set up contingency SEM campaigns before a PR crisis breaks. This means generating lists of “relevant keywords ahead of time to prepare for potential PR crisis. Develop SEO guidelines for PR teams to follow when drafting press releases.”

The close monitoring of social media can yield benefits, even if the client is not directly involved.

Kelvin Lim, from ad agency Mediabrands, points to the 2012 controversy over the D&G store in Tsim Sha Tsui, where Hong Kong people, but not mainland visitors, were banned from filming. 

Lim says through his team’s social media listening efforts “we could see the volume… we knew it was getting a lot of public attention”. 

Even though D&G was not a client, it was a significant issue to competitors and all in the luxury market.

Yiu says use of SEM/SEO is not widely-used by small and medium-sized businesses, but it is prevalent among multinational corporations and in particular those needing to respond to “public outcries regarding tainted products and product recalls.” 

He says that search engine management is common in China in industries such as cosmetics, dairy products and pharmaceuticals — all of which have been hit in recent years by scandals over product safety and pricing.

Ketchum cites a client whose TV commercial offended some Chinese nationalists, even though the ad was not intended to be negative and was only run outside of China. Bite advised the client to make an open apology. The message did not satisfy everybody, but served as the company’s last word on the issue, which eventually passed out of the news cycle.

Critics of corporate use of SEO-driven responses say it can be misleading, but none of those interviewed by Campaign believe it poses an ethical challenge. 

Yiu says SEM ads and other SEO optimised content merely point to websites that provide information from the marketers’ perspectives.

Mediabrands managing director Lilian Leong stressed it was important for brands to have integrity and not “sugarcoat things”.

Ketchum cautions that while the search and social media tools are powerful for delivering intelligence on a situation, they can’t advise on what to do. “Often we say to the client, ‘why get involved’? It’s important to get ahead of the curve and think ‘what is the best response?’”

CASE STUDY Neutralising harmful searches

When a KFC employee in Malaysia was filmed punching an irritated customer, the clip naturally went viral. “When you order @KFC, don’t forget to ask for the free punch,” yukked one poster on Twitter.

But it also set in train a crisis response that was focused almost solely on search results. In the end, says agency Mediabrands, “negative sentiments were contained and neutralised as we were able to effectively use search to highlight KFC’s pro-active response to the incident”.

KFC acquired keywords related to likely search terms and the team devised fresh content to respond to their questions.

Mediabrands says online viewers were segmented into four groups. The first were ‘strangers’ — those not aware of the incident. They did not discover negative content, and so for them it was “business as usual”, Mediabrands says.

Next were ‘onlookers’, who wanted more news about the incident, and who were diverted to the updates provided by KFC.

Then there were the ‘activists’, who thought KFC was not doing enough, and the ‘propagators’, who were spreading links and news about the incident. For both of these groups KFC acquired keywords that promoted sites highlighting KFC’s responses.

Of course, for the campaign to work it was critical that KFC apologised and reached what it said was “an amicable settlement” with the affected customer.

Mediabrands says 5.5 million searches were ‘neutralised’ in the course of the campaign. In the wake of it, KFC sales were up 20 per cent and even the “staff are friendly” attribute at KFC stores improved by 71 per cent compared with the competitor.


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