Revolutionary Measures

Brand safety on the wild internet

The internet has always had contradictory roots. The infrastructure may have begun as a DARPA-funded project to create a network with no single point of failure, but its first major users were counter-culture Californians who launched bulletin boards on the back of it. And the World Wide Web itself was created by Tim Berners-Lee when working at CERN, essentially to allow different researchers, with different IT systems to share information seamlessly.

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This contradiction is still present in the titans that currently dominate the online world. The likes of Facebook and Google may try to publicly position themselves as entrepreneurial start-ups with more in common with the California hippies when talking to users, but in fact they are now enormous corporations with correspondingly huge power.

As we’ve seen with the scandals surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, internal systems and data protection haven’t grown as fast as the need for control of user data. And this follows concerns about adverts being run next to unsuitable content on the likes of YouTube, leading to brands such as Under Armour pulling their ads.

The issue is one of brand safety – companies want to protect their reputation as well as reach the right audiences. In an always-on world with ever more complex (and opaque) ad-buying systems and increasing personalisation being sure your messages are reaching the right audiences through the right channels is vital. This isn’t just applicable to the internet – I’ve recently seen lots of adverts for household cleaning products on kids TV channels, although you can argue they are more targeted at parents watching alongside their offspring.

The latest challenge to the big internet companies goes beyond poor ad positioning though – focusing instead on unauthorised use of a brand to essentially front a scam. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and consumer finance guru, is suing Facebook for running adverts that use his image to market high risk or fraudulent services, implying that he has endorsed them. Facebook counters that as soon as such adverts are reported, they remove them, only for them to pop up again with slight changes.

Given Lewis’ whole reputation is built on delivering honest consumer advice to save people money, it is no surprise either that he’s been targeted by scammers or that he is going to court to protect his brand image. As he says, he doesn’t do adverts, and that with their image recognition technology Facebook should be able to block anyone trying to use his photo, before it goes live. Lewis isn’t alone in having his details hijacked – we’ve all had emails and calls allegedly from Microsoft, BT or our bank trying to get us to handover control of our PC or account details. But the difference is that no third party is making money out of these activities – unlike in the case of Facebook.

By coming out against Facebook so publicly, and by promising to donate any damages to charity, Lewis is adding to the concerns around Facebook and its business model of publish first, remove later if necessary. It’s a great PR strategy on his part – a classic David vs Goliath move. I’m sure it is also being closely watched by other celebrities and organisations worried about their brand safety online.

All of the current concerns around big tech are part of a wider worry – from consumers to governments and advertisers themselves, people are waking up to the fact that their data is out of their control, and that companies are making large amounts of money from it. I think that 2018 is going to be a watershed year for the online giants – it is time for them to change how they market themselves and become more humble if they want to rebuild and retain our trust. The question is, can they win us back?

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April 25, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of the Mad Men?

Advertising agencies have always exuded glamour and excitement. From Don Draper in Mad Men to more modern agencies they’ve combined mystery and the power to change how people think, act and buy. Take Ridley Scott’s 1984-themed Apple Mac launch ad, Saatchi’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” campaign, widely seen as helping the Conservative party to win the election, or going further back, the WW1 “Your Country Needs You” recruitment poster.

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All of these iconic campaigns demonstrate what advertising can do, particularly when it is turbocharged by the reach of linear television. This has led to ad agencies rising in importance to essentially command the biggest budgets and greatest influence on how brands market themselves.

However, things are changing – fast. Three interconnected factors are upsetting the status quo and causing industry titans such as WPP to issue profit warnings in the face of slowing revenues.

1          We live in a digital world
We used to spend the majority of our leisure time watching a limited number of terrestrial TV channels and reading newspapers and magazines. All of that has changed with the rise of the internet, which now takes a much higher share of our time, and has introduced new gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook into the mix. The adverts that people run online are different – they can’t be as disruptive as during a scheduled TV ad break, or as big budget. While major ad campaigns still run, they are more seasonal, such as around Christmas – and are seen as marketing events, rather than run of the mill campaigns.

2          Consumers want a personalised approach
The internet has also encouraged and enabled us to demand a more personalised experience. We don’t want to be subjected to irrelevant adverts for things we aren’t interested in – and analysing our browsing habits and demographics should give advertisers the ability to segment their audiences and target them in a more individual way. The cost to our privacy is an ongoing debate – as is how capable platforms are of really delivering a personalised approach. All of these adverts tend to be smaller, more focused and therefore lower budget – in some cases even using AI to analyse response rates and automatically tweak copy so that it best reaches target audiences. So less Mad Men, more Metal Mickey.

3          Content is king
Consumers are more suspicious of advertising, and want greater transparency from the brands that they deal with. This is driving a much greater reliance on content across the buying cycle, helping build relationships, and overcome objections on the way. This requires a different set of skills to big budget TV advertising – in fact it is more akin to the copywriting side of public relations, with more information and less overt selling.

All of these factors are shaking up the marketing hierarchy and putting the role of the traditional ad agency under threat. At the top end, consultants such as Accenture are entering the sector, buying up agencies and focusing on providing strategic business advice as well as execution. Digital-first agencies are jockeying for position, and a greater share of budget, backed up by their ability to offer transparency, value and accountability. Brands are even taking key activities in-house, with many companies now employing digital marketing specialists, or even, as in the case of Pepsi, in-house advertising studios.

So does this mean the end of the ad agency, and in particular large international networks? Not necessarily – in a fragmented world clients value talking to one trusted advisor, rather than having to juggle a series of relationships with overlapping agencies. However, to prevent that trusted advisor being a strategy consultancy or digital upstart, agencies need to reinvent themselves quickly, learn new skills and become more of a high-level partner. One way is to move up the value chain. Back in the advertising heyday of the 1980s, Saatchi and Saatchi bought analyst house Gartner. The plan backfired, with the company sold less than two years later at a loss. But the idea clearly had strategic promise. Perhaps now is the time for ad agencies to think big again if they want to retain their power for the long term?

April 11, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going direct – and the impact on marketing

The rise of the internet was meant to usher in a new, more direct way of communicating, including the removal of middlemen. We’d buy goods and services directly from their producers, rather than having to go through shops or brokers, cutting costs for consumers and opening up new opportunities for companies. It would be the end of the package holiday, the supermarket and the insurance broker, amongst other business types.

It is fair to say that things haven’t worked like that. While small companies can sell direct on the internet, the majority of goods and services are still bought from middlemen who bring products together, allowing consumers to compare them in a single place and then make their choice. Think of Amazon, ebay or insurance comparison sites, which are essentially old-style brokers with an updated business model.

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Why has this happened? Partly because people find it difficult to cope with too much choice – there is always the worry that you’ve made the wrong decision and also because these companies have ensured it is as easy as possible to buy from them. Amazon has one-click ordering, buttons to press that automatically send new stocks of household essentials, and voice ordering via Alexa.

However, this model is changing, at least in part, due to the rise of Direct to Consumer (D2C) brands. Companies like Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and a plethora of mattress start-ups are all selling via the internet without any middlemen involved. They often use a subscription model – i.e. you get a delivery of shaving products, beer or food kits on a regular basis, backed up by generous introductory discounts and strong guarantees of quality (if you don’t like the mattress we’ll come and collect it and give you a full refund). They may be relatively small in the UK at present, but they tend to target younger, more affluent consumers and are therefore likely to continue to grow and spread.

These brands are also having an impact on marketing, particularly as many are start-ups that need to establish themselves before similar rivals appear.

1.Name recognition is all
It could just be that I’m their target demographic, but I see adverts for D2C shaving brands such as Harry’s everywhere I go online, in the podcasts I listen to and offline in the press. You need to create and sustain strong name recognition if you are to succeed – given the number of challengers in particular markets it is a question of first mover advantage. This impacts traditional brands, whether that is the likes of Gillette, Tesco or Amazon – they need to respond if they are to keep customers loyal.

2. Marketing is constant
Subscriptions do give some security when it consumer retention, particularly as there is an inertia effect when people don’t get round to cancelling them – look at the number of people who failed to cancel their free Amazon Prime trial before it started charging them. However, consumers, particularly of D2C brands, are savvy and are likely to be constantly checking that they are getting a good deal. So customer marketing has to be tailored, personalised and constant if you are to stay front of mind and engage with your existing consumers.

3. You need a story
You can’t create a D2C brand by just moving your product online or to a subscription model. Not only would that be likely to cannibalise existing revenues, but it wouldn’t generate the appeal of an exciting, new, internet-first brand. People want to get more than a product – they want the story behind it. That means highlighting your credentials, why you are different and what sets you apart. This could be that you buy the finest Japanese steel for your razor blades or donate mattresses to charity – whatever it is, it needs to be clear, differentiated and appealing to your target audience.

4. You need to build a tribe
Business guru Seth Godin pointed out the opportunities that the internet provides to build your own tribe – a group of people that follow your brand, understand what makes you different, act as ambassadors and ultimately buy from you. The most successful Kickstarter campaigns are those where someone with an existing following launches a product. Podcasts that spawn books or tours are another example. Essentially your tribe feels a personal connection to you, believes in your ethos and will both sign up for your new offering and spread the word to others. Building a tribe takes time, but creates a lasting customer base for your brand and all of its products.

None of these marketing tactics are new – and importantly none of them are out of the reach of traditional brands. If you want to protect your products against the rise of the D2C brand you need to look at how they are operating, what you can learn from them and how you can improve your marketing and engagement with customers and prospects.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marketing to the disinterested

Marketing gets a lot of stick from consumers. While in the past it might have been complaints about junk mail and sales calls, now it is untargeted online ads and spam email. No wonder that so many people complain that they have had enough of marketing, and say they pay no attention to it.marketing-man-person-communication.jpg

However, as Joe Glover points out in his vlog, what they are actually moaning about, is bad marketing that ignores the fundamental definition of marketing itself. That is that marketing is about meeting the needs of the customer. Therefore, if your marketing campaign is not producing the right effect, then you have failed – not the idea of marketing itself. Essentially this type of bad marketing is now much more visible to us, as we see it in the digital world, including on our smartphones, where it feels much more personal and untargeted, particularly given the amount of data that we end up sharing online.

Good marketing is pretty much invisible – it interests us by either meeting an existing need or by pre-empting a need we didn’t necessarily know we had. While a huge amount of academic and practical work has gone into justifying the art and science of marketing, it simply comes down to consumer needs.

It reminds me of attending a marketing conference, where the founder of the English Whisky Company, a farmer called Andrew Nelstrop, stood up and said he’d built his business without marketing, and that therefore it wasn’t that much use. Of course, his explanation of how he’d met a need, listened to consumers and delivered the right product and experience was a text-book case of a solid, well-executed marketing programme. He just associated marketing with expensive advertising and therefore didn’t think it was for him.

Clearly meeting customer needs is a broad concept, which is why marketers have come up with different stages and models that take a consumer from initial awareness of a product or service all the way through to purchase and beyond. The granddaddy of them all is AIDA, which stands for:

  • Attention/Awareness – i.e. attracting the consumer
  • Interest – piquing their interest by focusing on benefits
  • Desire – making them want what you’ve got
  • Action – getting them to take a positive step such as purchase

The advantages of AIDA are that it is simple and can be applied to other activities rather than just buying something – voting, signing a petition or even joining an organisation. Where it does fall down is that it is a linear process that finishes with the sale – there’s no nurturing of the customer after that, no attempt to keep them loyal or to turn them into a brand advocate. That’s one of the reasons I like the model Joe Glover talks about (even if the acronym isn’t as memorable):

  • Awareness – getting in front of the consumer
  • Consideration – helping them when they want to buy something
  • Purchase – making it easy for them to buy
  • Retention – keeping them loyal
  • Advocacy – encouraging them leave reviews/recommendations

As a marketer the main thing is not the model that you pick – it is understanding that the aim of your company/product/service is to fill a customer need and creating a programme that does this as effectively as possible. Get it right and you’ll be invisible (except in terms of growing sales) – get it wrong and you’ll be stuck in consumers’ minds for all the wrong reasons.

February 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.

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Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

1.Governments
Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at http://www.netc.navy.mil/netc/Commands/NETCcenters.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56331324

January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Facebook, News and the impact on communications

The last year or so has seen a rude awakening for tech giants, particularly social media platforms. As they’ve risen in importance, politicians, regulators and the public have moved from seeing their benefits to seeing their downsides – from the spreading of fake news to harbouring racist/terrorist content. Ironically, for the predominantly open and left-leaning leaders of Silicon Valley firms, social media has been at the heart of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, the two biggest political upsets of recent times.

And, all the while the profits of Facebook and Google have grown sharply – it is estimated that in 2017 these two tech giants alone claimed around 80% of every new online-ad dollar in America. Calls are being made for such companies to be more tightly regulated, and to take legal responsibility for the content that they host.

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Faced with this mounting opposition and a potential drop in usage, Facebook has been making changes to its algorithms, with the aim of focusing time spent on the platform on ‘meaningful social interactions’, according to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That means reducing the amount of content that people see in their News Feed from media and businesses, with the balance shifting more towards content from family and friends.

Publishers have grown to increasingly rely on Facebook for traffic to their sites, and many have already seen a drop in referrals from the social network. This has led to job cuts at many newer media outlets that have relied on social traffic (such as Buzzfeed and Mashable), as well as consternation from others worried about the impact of the changes on their revenues. Rupert Murdoch has called for Facebook to pay ‘carriage fees’ for using news from media outlets on the site, while others have demanded subscription models to support their journalism.

The key problem for publishers is that Facebook has increasingly become the place many people get their news, meaning you need to continually interest them with individual stories, rather than expecting them to buy a newspaper or browse from a news website’s home page. Many Facebook users probably couldn’t tell you who published the story they clicked on – and the same is true for other newsfeed services such as that offered on iPhones.

So publishers risk having the rug pulled out from under a major source of traffic – at the same time that Google and Facebook have hoovered up the ad revenues that previously supported their activities. While most people won’t shed that many tears at Rupert Murdoch’s power and profits reducing, there are bigger issues here around media plurality and holding people to account at all levels.

The dramatic drop in local newspapers has meant that councils are under less scrutiny from journalists than ever before, and while concerned citizens have taken over in some cases, they are less likely to be impartial or have the training to analyse and comment on complicated stories. I believe that the rise of the internet in general, and of social media in particular, has also contributed to a polarisation of views – people simply don’t see content that constructively challenges their point of view and makes them think about their beliefs. Being in a bubble makes it easy to reinforce existing beliefs and demonise the opposition, ultimately hurting democratic dialogue.

It is too easy to blame Facebook for all of these issues, but it does need to step up and take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions. That means looking at how it works with publishers, and the type of content it does carry, if it is to avoid heavier regulation and potential fines down the line. The ball is definitely in Zuckerberg’s court.

Image (CC) Brian Solis, http://www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us, via Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Three ways PR can take a big step forward in 2018

For those of us working in marketing, and in particular PR, the advent of digital and social media should be creating a golden age for us. Why? Because of the ability (finally) to measure our work in a more forensic way and to link it more directly to business outcomes, thus showing the value we deliver. Whereas in the print-based past you had no direct way of measuring whether your piece of coverage led to sales, now you should be able to measure click throughs to your website or other actions taken after someone read an article generated by your efforts.Measurement_unit

What is more, the very skills that PRs possess, such as the ability to write persuasive copy targeted at specific audiences, are exactly what businesses are looking for in an era of content marketing.

However, I think three factors are holding back PR as a profession from taking a bigger slice of the marketing pie:

1.Faking it is easy
As the saying goes, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” And digital gives you the ability to measure data like never before. You can see views of an article, visits to a website, clicks on an advert, RTs or a rise in social media followers. However, as high profile cases in the advertising world have shown, it is relatively easy to game the system. In a recent blog, Stephen Waddington showed how simple it was to set up a Twitter account and buy 10,000 followers, for just $25. At a first look, his account (and its success) was plausible – and would have been even more so if he’d aimed to make his fake more believable. As CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra, points out, “It is precisely the things which are most fakeable that are most measurable. The cult of measurement is powering the tidal wave of fake.”

Clearly, this is not a problem that solely affects PRs, and I’m not suggesting that practitioners are deliberately engaging in full scale fraud. But simply measuring metrics such as the number of followers opens us up to accusations that we’re simply transferring the same mindset that measured the size of a cuttings book, to the online world.

2. Measurement needs to be more detailed
This brings me onto the second challenge. PR people need to go beyond measuring outputs to measuring real outcomes. And that means getting really involved in a business and investing time in measuring what matters. What is the overall objective and how can you create a PR metric to support it? It does mean more work, and potentially learning new skills, but at its heart it is about asking questions of your client/organisation – something that PR people should be good at.

3. PR isn’t a silo
In the past ongoing PR was often run separately from the rest of marketing. Obviously, there would be involvement in big events, such as a product launch, but the focus was on communicating with the press. But public relations can (and should) be a lot more – meaning that PR teams need to think in a more integrated way. How are you going to your message out in multiple ways to reach the right audiences? That means going beyond the press release to embrace social media, emails and slides for sales and other marketing tactics. It is up to PR people to proactively drive this and provide a complete portfolio of content if they are to be seen as central to the business, rather than peripheral figures. And if PR doesn’t act, other marketing disciplines such as advertising and SEO will move in and take responsibility and budget.

We’re already half way through January, so it’s a bit late for New Year’s resolutions. However, PR practitioners should take stock and rethink how they operate, making 2018 the year they step up and earn the respect and budgets that their role and successes deserve.

January 17, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making it work – the marketing challenge behind smart technology

We’re now in the midst of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which sees more than 170,000 people descend on Las Vegas to view and play with the latest technology. And with consumer electronics now covering everything from connected cars to smart appliances and household robots, it provides a real glimpse into the future of how we will live, work and play.

And if people think that this is hyperbole, just look at the speed at which innovations such as Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant and electric cars have entered the mainstream. Morgan Stanley predicts that 22 million Echo devices, which feature Alexa, were sold in 2017, while countries such as the UK and France have banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040. You can even buy those sci-fi staples jetpacks and hover boots.samsung-ces-2018-7971

That’s why the issues tat LG’s new Cloi robot suffered at its CES debut should be a wake-up call to marketers. The device, which is designed to help consumers manage their smart homes, initially co-operated at an onstage demo, but then simply gave up and refused to do anything apart from blink when asked when the presenter’s washing would be ready and what was for dinner. As the owner of an Amazon Echo Dot, I know exactly how the poor chap feels, and have to commend him for not shouting abuse at Cloi in public.

But what this shows is that complicated technology is exactly that – complicated. It can be difficult to get it set up correctly in the first place, to then get the best out of it or link it to other devices in the home. Compare this to the analogue products that most people are used to interacting with, and you can see the problem. They work straight from the box and are designed to be simple to use and get value from.

In many ways this follows the classic framework set out in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, setting out how new technology is adopted. This is the order it provides:

  • A small group who don’t care about things going wrong and have the skills and knowledge to fix them
  • Early Adopters – a bigger group that simply wants the latest thing and puts up with idiosyncrasies
  • Early Majority – pragmatists who adopt the technology when it is mature
  • Late Majority – conservatives who adopt the technology late on, perhaps within existing products that they are familiar with
  • Laggards – sceptics who will only adopt new technology when absolutely essential

This model worked in the past, but I think the acceleration of tech means it is no longer accurate. We all have constant exposure to technology, such as smartphones, and the falling cost of devices, and their omnipresence, means that the majority/laggards often don’t have a choice about adopting them. This potentially divides society into the technologically-skilled and the Luddites who cannot manage to stay on top of innovation, and consequently miss out on the advantages it brings. In turn this leads to resentment and, I believe, drives frustrations which can be manifested in concerns over the future and consequent support for populism and insularity.

What does this mean for marketing? Essentially, we need to stop just pitching technology at the Early Adopter, but make sure that it appeals to everyone. We have to be clear on the advantages, clear on how it used and provide the support to assist people in getting the most from it. And by support I don’t mean an impenetrable, jargon-filled manual or a premium rate phone number – I mean tailored assistance that shows how users can benefit.

No doubt CES 2018 will see a whole raft of wonderful technology innovations unveiled – but in order for them to be really successful companies have to address the fundamental marketing question of “What does it do for me?” in a much better, more understandable way.

January 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luther and Leave – the communication comparisons

As someone who studied history I have a tendency to take a long view of events, comparing and contrasting different eras. And, given this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is worth looking at any lessons that can be learnt by communicators from Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and the widespread rise of anti-establishment movements around the world.Martin_Luther,_1529

First, the political and economic context. Europe in 1517 was made up of multiple, often warring, countries, with power normally focused on a single monarch. Communication was vital to control – you had to know what was going on around your kingdom to ensure order, and larger countries relied on local lords for their support. Most people had a hard life, focused on the land and governed by harvests and the weather. There was one supranational authority, the Catholic Church, which claimed loyalty from all monarchs and their subjects. The rules it set helped ensure its power, pre-eminence and wealth, and Luther’s rebellion was very much against the more worldly behaviour of priests and religious bodies.

Probably 100 years before, Luther’s theses would not have got very far beyond the town he wrote them in. He’d have been arrested by the church, charged, executed and probably forgotten. But the invention of the printing press changed all that, allowing fast communication of his thoughts across Europe, where they could be picked up and turned into a mass movement.

Comparing then and now
Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments. There is a European supranational authority, the European Union, but only its most avid detractors would claim it had the same power over life, death and potential entry into Heaven as the Catholic Church. Instead of the printing press, we have the internet, and particularly social media, which is much more difficult to control, even by the networks themselves.

So, there are a lot of parallels between then and now – an angry population that feels hard done by attacks the establishment, whipped up by charismatic leaders. Both rely on the latest communications technology to sidestep official controls, spreading their message across long distances.

However, what I think is different is that Luther had a positive message that he firmly believed in – he’d been a monk, seen the church from the inside and created an alternative vision based on that. In the same way, Marx and Engels spent years studying the working conditions of the poor before drafting the Communist Manifesto. In contrast today’s populist leaders don’t seem to have a strategy beyond bringing down the old order, with policies that either pander to their followers or offer alternatives that are impossible (Vote Leave and the NHS will get an extra £350m per week) or will cause more harm than good to those that vote for them.

The lessons for communicators from both these examples are clear – if you want your message to resonate you need to have a strong presence on the latest communication channels, whether the printing press or Facebook, and more importantly you need to ensure you are seen as being in-touch with the cares and concerns of those who feel they are not being listened to. After all, the Reformation triggered bloody and sustained wars, the Inquisition and a hardening of positions that is still in evidence today in some countries. Politicians need to take that lesson on board and communicate effectively to woo the disaffected back into the mainstream if they want to remain relevant in today’s society.

December 6, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment