Communicating on A Global Stage


Justin Kerr-Stevens is an Account Director in Portland’s International Advisory team. He has extensive experience in government communications and country branding, including projects for the UK and Australian governments.

Two days after the volcanic eruption on the island of Krakatoa the New York Times carried a five line article on the volcano. A telegraph line, recently connected to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies enabled the news to be transferred via successive relay stations until it arrived in New York.

Most people think that the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa was the largest volcanic eruption in the 19th Century; they would be wrong. That honour goes to the Mount Tambora eruption almost 70 years earlier.

The difference in perception is partly due to how the events were communicated: aside from the effect on global climate the Tambora eruption went largely unnoticed, many people only hearing of it two years later when Sir Henry Stamford Raffles the former Governor of Java published his diaries of his time.

Contrast this with the impact of the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. Within twelve hours of the event Twitter was recording up to 1200 tsunami related tweets per minute in Tokyo; there had been 500 edits to the Japanese Tsunami Wikipedia page, 7000 records entered into Google’s person finder app and over 16,000 videos posted to YouTube.

Communications around these three natural disasters offer lessons for anybody considering how to manage their brand’s reputation in a digital age.

Technological development has scaled to a point that we face instant feedback loops coupled with a low cost of entry — making anyone with a mobile phone and internet access a potential commentator on the next positive or, increasingly, negative event to hit your company.

As the global reach of smartphones and near universal Wi-Fi access become almost a given, traditional reputation management tactics will need to be applied to increasingly agile environments where speed of response is key, yet the quality of response cannot be compromised.

Warren Buffett said that a reputation takes a lifetime to build and only five minutes to destroy — in today’s social media environments five minutes could often be considered a lifetime. Reputation managers need to consider what they would do in a short window to protect their companies’ reputation and capitalise on an opportunity that could be critical to brand positioning and market share.

They need to start thinking well before that five minute clock starts ticking. Planning for a crisis is the most crucial and often overlooked step in reputation management — it is now even more critical given every business is visible to global audiences. The three basic rules of reputation and crisis management remain unchanged: knowing where you want to end up after the event; making sure you understand your target audience; and deploying supporting strategies and tactics to reach your objective.

Whilst most people would scoff at the concept of the luxury of time when managing a crisis or reputational disaster, it is increasingly the one thing that cannot be changed and can be relied on to diminish in traditional campaigns.


Where Sir Henry had two years to craft his definitive account, today’s narratives are continually contested in traditional media and in the digital space. It is more important than ever that organisations are equipped with the right channels and competent teams empowered to make quick decisions and respond.

When the lights went out at this year’s Super Bowl one company seized on the issue as an opportunity. Oreo immediately rallied its entire communications staff to achieve a single objective: find the opportunity to enhance Oreo’s reputation and capitalise on it online for a fraction of the cost a traditional 30/60 second spot.

By the time the lights came back on in New Orleans, the team at Oreo had deployed a new ad that was being distributed across multiple digital channels. Thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook shared the new advertisement, turning the Superbowl audience into Oreo’s broadcasters. Oreo was widely praised for ‘nailing the Superbowl’: using real time creative techniques that most traditional marketers hadn’t even considered.

International reputation management demands active and on-going engagement with customers, constituents, peers, supporters and critics. It also requires an awareness of current events that can be used to actively manage and promote your online reputation and interact with your audiences. This responsibility cannot just rest with the intern managing your Twitter channel; it needs be the job of every communications team member and be instilled within the culture of your wider organisation. Oreo is not the first to pioneer real-time responsiveness but they may well be 2013’s current leader.

As communication increasingly moves towards real-time activity it will be increasingly important for staff to be enabled and empowered to respond quickly to breaking events. Without the right teams working together in an organisation chances are you will miss an opportunity to enhance your international reputation — worse still you could make contribute to a crisis instead of solving one.