Revolutionary Measures

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.

Advertisements

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

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

English: NEW YORK (May 31, 2010) Visitors inte...

Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment