Learning from a PR CATastrophe
On the very day supposedly filled with love, several cats were reportedly taken out of the park they call home, in the dead of the night. The unfortunate incident broke the hearts of many and started a series of backlash on a luxury hotel and a pest exterminator company, prompted by the unified action of pet lovers.
Valentine’s day wasn’t exactly a good day for Shangri-La at the Fort, PestBusters, Cats of BGC and the thousands of pet lovers who learned about the story. When the news broke out on Facebook that the four-legged members of BGC community were collected and removed by PestBusters upon the order of Shangri-La, the news spread fast. By the end of the week, the FB pages of both companies were inundated with one-star reviews and hateful comments, demanding for the whereabouts of the cats. It did not help that the hotel issued vague, half-hearted PR statements that only fueled the anger of the people. When those who put a negative review were blocked from accessing their accounts, rage grew even more, accusing the hotel of using its resources to block these people from their page.
The power of social media
Social media has an obvious power now in making or breaking a brand. From a 4.8-star rating on FB, Shangri-la Hotel’s rating dropped to 1.1 star with over 11,000 negative reviews. The original post of Marcelle Marcelino which triggered the outcry was shared over 12,000 times, along with individual posts expressing their sentiments over the incident.
Connectedness and ease of communication in social media makes spreading information (and unfortunately in some cases, misinformation) a largely public phenomenon now. Companies benefit from this through positive user-generated content, most of the time amplified by the use of brand-owned hashtags. We’ve all seen brand content, particularly videos, that have gone viral in the past, and these brands have definitely enjoyed the extra media mileage that their efforts have reaped. However, social media’s dark side reveals itself when something scandalous or controversial happens, and controlling its spread is almost next to impossible. When the first news of the missing cats broke out, Shangri-La issued a PR statement only after a few days—which people found insincere, cold and lacking clarity. PestBusters was unreachable, and only agreed on meeting with Shangri-La and other stakeholders when the issue has magnified in the following week. By then, traditional media have picked up the story, and TV programs, newspapers and news sites contributed to an even wider reach.
PR crisis lessons
A case study research led by Larissa Ott and Petra Theunissen in 2015 looked into the effectiveness of different strategies during a PR crisis, and shared the following important points:
1. Be sincere and authentic—Sometimes, straightforward corporate statements are not always well-received by the public, as they may be perceived as “talking down.” A sincere apology and a more personal approach in the official statements should have been used by the hotel—which they did, issued by the general manager– but only after three different statements failed to pacify the anger of the people.
2. Be transparent–In a situation when an issue has already been blown beyond control, denial or diminishing tactics will only fuel more negativity. Several mistakes were committed by the hotel during this incident: the hotel gave wrong information on where the cats were released, and the company claimed that some of the cats were adopted by its employees, but upon verification, these are not the same ones that are missing. Conflicting and untrue statements to cover up for the wrongdoing only leave room for more doubts on the credibility of the company.
3. Do not censor negative posts—What irked most people is that after leaving a negative review on Shangri-La’s page, they were logged out of their accounts and had to undergo security checks to get their accounts back. They saw this as censorship, and a way to get back at the people who only expressed their disappointment. The hotel denied doing any of this in their official statement but admitted in a news article that they “do report it [negative comments] on Facebook.”
The cats were a regular source of joy in the park. People expressed how these furry creatures took their stress away, or made the concrete jungle feel like home. One person even shared how the cats prevented her from committing suicide. What Shangri-la failed to recognize is that the cats are part of its stakeholders, as cared-for members by the BGC community. People invested money, time, effort and emotion to keep the cats safe and healthy, and the hotel’s actions breached the public’s confidence and trust in the brand. The cats are still not found, and sadly, may never be. In the eyes of the public, Shangri-La is no longer synonymous to paradise. While the hotel is still operating its business as usual, only time will tell, and later on, financial reports and reputation analysis, how badly the company is hurt by their irresponsible action.
The luxury hotel, along with other brands silently watching how this story unfolded, surely learned a thing or two from this unfortunate incident. One thing stands out: animal welfare is thankfully starting to gain a strong foothold in our country. Also, do not forget that cats rule the internet (or the interwebz for that matter).
Jonna Baquillas is a Doctor of Business Administration student at the De La Salle University. She teaches marketing, brand, business, and retail management classes in Asia Pacific College. She has marketing and public relations experience in the retail industry and has written textbooks in marketing and business ethics. Her rescued cats are celebrities and brand ambassadors, and has appeared in various TV, print, and online campaign materials. She can be reached at email@example.com.