By GABEY GOHbytz@thestar.com.my
KUALA LUMPUR: Remember the four-day BlackBerry service outage? And the hacking of Sony's PlayStation Network? Well, it's one thing to watch a public relations disaster explode online. It's quite another when it's your company and brand in the line of fire.
In a bid to prepare its clients for such incidents, public relations firm Weber Shandwick has rolled out its social crisis simulator - called Firebell - in Asia.
The proprietary software was developed in-house by Weber Shandwick software developers and social media strategists in Minneapolis, in the United States and was launched in North American markets in late 2010.
Jon Wade, Head of Digital Practice for Asia Pacific at Weber Shandwick, said the delayed introduction of the software into this region was due to the need to adapt the software for Asian markets.
"Especially in the case of China, where the most popular social media platforms differ from those in the rest of the world," he explained.
Firebell offers brand managers and stakeholders exposure to the real-time experience of being under attack on social media channels in a secure, offline environment.
The simulation begins with a plausible crisis scenario devised by the drill team, but not shared with the client.
From there, the team builds functioning and fictional offline versions of the client's social media properties including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
Simultaneously, the team builds offline versions of outside social properties, such as anti-fan Facebook pages and opposing blogs.
During the drill, FireBell projects images that look like the organisation's social media profiles and the client is able to witness and respond to the crisis unfolding in those channels.
At the end of the session, a transcript of all posts is saved and used for a post-mortem with the client to highlight weaknesses and to fine-tune crisis preparation skills.
"It's not just a matter of mechanics, Firebell is the tool which we use but the real skill lies in the preparation of these scenarios because the nature of and possibilities surrounding an online crisis is highly variable," said Wade.
Depending on what a particular brand is most concerned about - from backlash over a product promotion to a case of its web properties being hacked - consultants are able to prepare specific scenarios to run through.
"The most striking thing our clients take away from these sessions is the realisation that they are not geared up for an online crisis. It fills them with dread and in some cases, halfway through the drill they reach for the crisis manual and start flicking through it for help," Wade said.
According to Weber Shandwick, 63% of a company's market value is attributed to reputation and the first 120 minutes of a crisis can determine the public's perception of an organisation.
"What brand managers must understand is that when it comes to ensuring your key messages get across during a critical moment, the nature of the platform must be considered.
"It's not a case of condensing a press release down to 140 characters and is also something best not done on the fly," said Wade.
The program currently runs over a local area network but Wade said that in future, the software will offer access over the Internet for clients with a presence in multiple markets to execute cross-border scenarios for training.
Firebell is already a hit among Weber Shandwick's own community managers and consultants. "They love it and spend hours practising and exploring the limits of what the simulator can do," Wade said.