by Candice Luis (@candicedl) A new age of crisis is upon us — it’s social, it’s political, it’s ethical — driven by changing ways of doing business. Is South Africa ready for the fundamental ‘epic-ness’ of brand fallout? Have companies considered their potential crises and are they truly ready to deal with the biggest crisis trajectory of all time: the court of public opinion?

The truth is that you can never be ready. Prepared, yes, but ready… never!

Years ago, planning for crisis was simple really: a key media list, a tight spokesperson policy and a comms team that was methodical in its approach. Today it’s a different story. While the same fundamental principles apply, we’re dealing with the apocalypse of crisis communications, the reality that ‘everyone is a journalist’: the court of public opinion.

A practical look at business in crisis

A brand finds itself with dodgy business dealings. It has one or two key media channels unpack this and delve into the system. Fact-finding and legal consultation begin and, without hesitation (despite critical scrutiny on what to say), a very direct, fact-based statement is released. What this brand hasn’t considered is what will people say, how will it make them feel, what are the reputational consequences and, most importantly, what emotion will it evoke? It’s these very questions that are often unanswered before responding and, right there, the social brand fallout begins, creating a compelling read and setting the tone for what the market believes.

The court of public opinion is out on this one, with their views, their opinions and, most damaging, their influence. Whether right or wrong, what they set the rhetoric to be it will become, if the initial voice of the business weren’t considered at the outset. Yes, you have facts; yes, you have legal risk; but so, too, do you have an obligation to the very people that your business serves to speak with compassion, empathy and heart — backed by clear facts and balanced with legal risk.

How is social media changing opinion polls and rhetoric?

South Africa’s court of public opinion is driven by some citizens who’re fed up, ignited around humanitarian issues and aren’t about to let ‘another corporate’ get away with wrongdoing. This means a few things: they’re emotional and sometimes revengeful, and social media may intensify their ability to voice their opinions. There’s no longer room for brands to do wrong — only for the right type of ‘apology’ and, while it doesn’t have to be a “sorry”, it does have to be transparent, authentic and relevant to SA’s current climate and culture.

Without a strong thought process behind what a brand says, in that very first communication to market, the court of public opinion won’t let go of you. I find many brands saying, “No matter what we say, they’re going to attack us”. Yes, this is true: a company can no longer get away with wrongdoing but there’s definitely a way to better weather the storm, to manage the rhetoric in your favour and to get the real hard-hitters in your corner — the ones who have power to form a collective public opinion.

Fundamentals to more effectively weathering the storm

No brand in crisis today can ‘make it go away’ unless they’re willing to play dirty. So, while upholding further ethics, brands need to keep a few fundamentals in mind:

  • Transparency is critical: Provide as much information as possible at the outset, remaining transparent and ensuring that what you are saying is aligned to not only your side of the story but also with public requirements
  • Take ownership: Accountability is critical. Recently, a brand made a less-than-favourable t-shirt. It took a public knock, apologised unrefutably and took immediate, decisive action. This type of response demonstrates ethics and provides a level of comfort to the public that the brand has taken it seriously.
  • Balancing facts and empathy: By now, the legal folks reading this are cringing! I’ve had my fair share of legal interaction when it comes to crisis and I get it… legal consideration is critical. However, when dealing with reputation, you need to balance the risk with the heart — but more about this next time.
  • Don’t try win all favour: Not everyone is going to agree with what you say. This is where authenticity, transparency and accountability play a key role — to balance the opinion, to ensure that the public see you in the most-favourable light possible. Second to this, you should defend your most-important base first. Whose opinion matters most? Make sure that you’re tapping into these audiences; the rhetoric that you want to portray to this audience is what you need to consider as your way to market.
  • Not everyone who speaks matters: Brands get so tied up in what everyone is saying online that they try and meet expectations and set agendas around the ‘all’, instead of around the ‘important’. Don’t break your back over random comments that people make who’ve no real influence over your business, industry or future — decide who matters and evolve your strategy around the most-important sentiments.

Crisis management today is more of a fine balancing act than ever before and, while these are a few key guidelines to navigating the court of public opinion, there are larger, strategic areas that need consideration. But, for now, let’s just consider what a whole country on your shoulders can feel like as a brand and then decide how important this court of public opinion is.


Candice LuisCandice Luis (@candicedl) is an experienced crisis specialist, marketing and communications consultant and business director who is digitally inclined and strategy-prone. She has spent the better part of 13 years harnessing the power of communications, and brand crises make her tick.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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