This isn’t about the lawn controversy regarding Sana Safinaz in itself. That’s been done to death on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

Saba Imtiaz‘ objective report today makes many things clear as well. In fact, this report is the reason for my post today. So no, this is not a jab at Sana Safinaz at all, it is to help understand the role of PR in one of the fastest growing social media markets in the world: Pakistan.

A year ago I had a great conversation / interview with Yousef Tuqan Tuqan and Alexander McNabb, two of the giants of digital marketing and social media in the Middle East, and one of the questions I posed was with regard to the role of PR in social media. Alexander – who works at SpotOn PR in Dubai said

The ability to keep the genie in the bottle by using public relations is very limited these days. But really, as an organisation we need to be asking ourselves, ‘do I need to be out there participating in these communities’, because really organisations don’t set out ‘to do bad’, being ‘stupid’ is not necessarily being ‘bad’, and you can be forgiven for being stupid if everyone out there is with you, believes in you. And that’s really what companies need to do, make communities understand that they’re not perfect and understand that they can make mistakes.

PR is your ‘relationship’ with the public, that is where it comes in. The role of PR is to facilitate communication and ideally to have transparent communication, two-way, so that you’re listening to customers and talking to them.

And hence arises the question of how PR should grow with the industry that is now mainstream social media. When the Sana Sanifaz issue broke out, it began with SS’ social media manager posting the offending photograph on their Facebook page. Within minutes, the comments started flooding in about how it was a class-dividing portrayal of rich and poor. Without getting into the finer points of the argument itself, the fact remains that the hundreds of comments on the Facebook page transcended into that other bastion of social awareness: Twitter.

Pretty soon, tens of angry tweets turned into hundreds and retweets abounded. As expected, there was also a small contingent that began defending the ad campaign and finally blogs started getting posted about the good, bad and ugly of the situation.

In all of this, the PR agency that manages Sana Safinaz’ public image was silent. For an entire week, existing and potential buyers as well as bystanders which make up the larger population of those familiar with the brand were having heated arguments, and yet there was no comment defending or apologizing for the campaign from those tasked – and paid, hopefully – to do this.

What could definitely be seen was friends of the PR firm as well as of the brand owners coming out in strong and opinionated defence of the campaign, yet that was not required at all.

The PR firm in question had made a typical mistake all major brands have had to face worldwide when they delved into social media: delayed response. In a world of lightning-fast communication of opinions on smartphones and tablets, smart brands have turned immediate responses into an art-form.

In the United Arab Emirates, du Telecommunications have had an unparalleled success rate with customer satisfaction: post your complaint on a blog, tweet or their Facebook page, and they’ll write to you within 5 minutes or less asking how they messed up and also how they would like to help.

All Sana Safinaz’ PR firm had to do was a) monitor the Facebook page of their client – an obvious thing to do, considering they are a ‘public’ relations firm and b) have a crisis management plan in place so that they could have responded in a timeframe of – I’ll be generous here – 12 hours.

Crisis averted.

Or so we’d have hoped. In Saba’s article today, Safinaz Munir – one of the founders of the brand whose name is part of the company’s name – says

It doesn’t matter to me that 20, 30 people are passing judgment. On the other hand, we’ve had thousands of people who’ve loved the ads and the designs.

Munir’s PR firm should have vetted that statement. It reeks of the very thing PR is meant to help avoid: that the opinions of 20 or 30 people do not matter.

Sorry to break your bubble, but those opinions DO matter. In fact, in some cases, the opinion of a single influential person can make or break your entire brand.

PR lessons to be learnt from this debacle:

1) If the client you represent plans to start a presence on social media, you need to hire an expert on social media to help form the PR strategy for your client specifically for their SM presence

2) Create a crisis management strategy. Things can go wrong anytime, anywhere. Crises don’t have wristwatches.

3) Always maintain that no matter what, the public’s opinion matters. It doesn’t matter that their opinion may be wrong, but the fact that they have an opinion does, and how you react to that opinion says a great deal – in a positive or negative way – about your brand

4) Never delay more than 12 hours on a response to a negative issue related to your brand. Within 24 hours, millions of people had already formed opinions both for and against Joseph Kony, despite not having heard of him 36 hours prior. Invisible Children faced a backlash they had not anticipated. Timing is crucial, and getting caught off-guard is the last quality expected in a PR firm. THAT’S what you’re paid to help avoid, in fact.

5) Advise your clients that sometimes a simple ‘I’m sorry’ is enough to help avert disaster and can help elevate your client’s image. Kenneth Cole learnt this the hard way, but a year on everyone’s forgiven them simply because they apologized for a wayward tweet. One single tweet.

Finally, remember that you as a PR firm exist to manage the public perception of your client’s brand. If the perception gets damaged, it doesn’t matter if the public is wrong.

*Image courtesy: http://www.toddwrites.com/