Brands & Branding: Analysing the communications of Murray & Roberts
by Nadia Lotze & Kelly Duncan. Sometimes sticking to your guns may cause you to shoot yourself in the foot. We reflect on the reactive crisis management style of Murray & Roberts after a bridge collapsed in 2015.
Through the eyes of any modern-day business, we live in an inherently unpredictable world. Unprompted and unforeseen natural and manmade disasters occur on a daily basis, but disasters and crisis situations may have a devastating impact on any business. One’s brand reputation is always at risk and therefore it is important for a company to have a proactive, efficient and effective crisis management plan. You have to be highly present and active on various social media platforms and align the organisation with the communication and information it requires from their stakeholders and other members of the public. The organisation needs to ensure that the reputation of the brand is positively managed when disaster strikes.
Gordon Alan Harrison raises important reasons that a crisis has a direct effect on a brand’s reputation. First, a crisis may create a volatile workplace involving financial, legal, or management issues within the organisation. Secondly, when one’s business fosters a highly competitive nature, the signs of a crisis may be overlooked. By not seeing the wood for the trees, it is difficult to correct and prevent further disaster. Social media and all our current media advances speed things up even further, creating a ‘revolving’ information door and therefore adding to one’s organisational stress and crisis. Fast-paced and invasive journalism practices create an environment wherein one cannot lay low for very long; one has to decide rapidly and effectively. If a business does not have a crisis plan, it becomes glaring and obvious (Harrison, 2007).
Effective and proactive crisis management strategies today need to be developed in order to overcome such situations and to promote a favourable reputation. Crisis management involves proactively assessing and addressing vulnerabilities in order to minimise or avoid the impact of a crisis. When a crisis occurs demanding attention from the public, it is extremely important for the organisation involved to communicate effectively.
Pedestrian bridge collapse
Many South Africans remember 14 October 2015, when a pedestrian bridge constructed by Murray & Roberts collapsed over the M1 highway in Johannesburg. Two fatalities, numerous casualties, extreme traffic congestion, copious news reports and a social media communication rush later, it was clear that this type of event is not for a business that is faint at heart. Such a crisis demands a highly effective and progressive crisis management style from any company.
Instead, Murray & Roberts applied a traditional approach as soon as the situation occurred. It sent a spokesperson to deliver a statement, as well as releasing six other statements on 14 and 15 October. Although theoretically there was nothing wrong with its communication, analysis of numerous Facebook and Twitter texts around the event indicate that its statements were received as cold, heartless and routine.
In our time of technological advancement and globalisation, people communicate with one another differently. This expansion and evolution of communication and their media has provided many advantages, but also poses a great threat for brands. Today’s organisations reel under unexpected shifts in the reputation environment, such as the growing presence and importance of web-based participatory media. Inter-connectivity of these platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, has caused the information and communication of a crisis to become almost unmanageable. The global age, therefore, has placed increasing pressure on organisations to adapt in order to minimise reputational wild horses. An organisation needs to maintain an active social media presence to monitor what other people are saying, defend against damaging opinions and contribute real-time communication and dialogue.
Three important aspects
There are three important aspects of communicating during a crisis.
- One should gather and manage the rich and varied bodies of information coming from different sources
- Set up a centralised crisis management centre to serve as a platform for all communication during a crisis and
- Communicate early and frequently via powerful tools such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs to fill information voids.
Upon investigation into the reputational crisis surrounding Murray & Roberts, it is obvious that its crisis management strategy did not focus on any of these.
According to Timothy Coombs, “crisis experts often talk of an information vacuum being created by a crisis. The news media will lead the charge to fill the information vacuum and be a key source of initial crisis information. This implies that if the organisation involved does not communicate to news agencies or through other media platforms, other people will be happy to do so on their behalf, with the result that other parties might create opportunities for the organisation to be ‘attacked’ by circulating inaccurate information. To avoid such a scenario, a business needs to do proactive crisis management by grabbing the responsibility for being the main source of information” (Coombs, 2007). When the bridge collapsed, social media rumours rapidly spread, claiming that the construction company blamed the accident on weather conditions. Murray & Roberts denied ever making this statement. Sadly, it did not stop the information expanding throughout social media and altering the perception stakeholders had of the brand. Additionally, the lack of social media presence also hindered the brand from communicating effectively. The public expected a more compassionate and truly authentic dialogue from this organisation. Numerous negative opinions spread like wildfire via social media, negatively influencing brand reputation.
Apart from its official website, Murray & Roberts had no other form of digital media communication. Considering today’s technological and social media-driven society and the fact that Murray & Roberts (and its respective associates) did not have any other social media engagement or did not consistently comment on the crisis, conveys the sad lack of a proactive crisis-management style.
Adding insult to injury, Murray & Roberts not only fell short on conventional, as well as digital communication, during the crisis; it obliviously ignored the need for such a strategy. This is evident through that, although the brand released six media statements about the crisis on 14 and 15 October, they were only released on the Murray & Roberts official website. The company assumed that it is the responsibility of the public to search for the imperative information about the crisis and that the obligation does not stand with Murray & Roberts to communicate this through various communication media.
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Had Murray & Roberts had a proactive social media presence and communication strategy, much of the reputation damage incurred from this tragic incident might have been minimised. Although the ripple effect of any crisis is difficult to determine, it is of utmost importance that an organisation effectively plan and develop strategies which include an authentic dialogue through various social media platforms. In today’s volatile and highly opinionated environment, such proactivity will secure and minimise the negative impact a crisis might have on the reputation of a brand.
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Kelly Duncan holds a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and is currently a growth consultant specialising in SMEs. She has lectured at Vega School and supervised its honours students with specialisation in brand management and communications. Nadia Lotze is an honours graduate from Vega. She aspires to be a crisis management consultant in Dubai. Research for this article was conducted in the authors’ capacity as honours in brand leadership students at Vega School, a brand of The Independent Institute of Education.
The article first appeared in the 2017 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — which may also be accessed at the brand-new Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 2017 edition now!