Revolutionary Measures

Turning an Easter egg into a marketing crisis

In today’s climate, it isn’t easy being a mainstream politician. At a time when populists are gaining ground across the world, from Spain and France to the White House, the danger is that traditional parties are seen as out of touch and unreflective of popular opinion. In the UK, the memory of the parliamentary expenses scandal, where one MP claimed for a duck house for his country estate and for having his moat cleaned, are still fresh in many people’s minds.

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By Donar Reiskoffer (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

No wonder that politicians think they should get themselves involved in low level debates that burnish their populist credentials. Witness David Cameron claiming to love Cornish pasties – but then being caught out when quizzed on when and where he last bought one.

Now Theresa May has got herself involved in the furore over Cadbury and the National Trust dropping the word ‘Easter’ from the title of their chocolate egg hunts. What were previously called ‘Easter Egg Trails’ at 300 National Trust properties are now being referred to as ‘Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt’. Interviewed by ITV News while on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, she described the omission as “absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know what they are thinking about frankly.”

Personally what I think is ‘absolutely ridiculous’ is the current Prime Minister, who is dealing with Brexit, the biggest change in the country’s position in the world since World War II, spending her time criticising how organisations market themselves and their products. Clearly, someone in Cadbury’s marketing department has had the bright idea of trying to link to either the mood of nationalism or more likely, the Great British Bake-off, and removed the word ‘Easter’ to make space in the title. Easter is mentioned plenty of times elsewhere in promotional material for the events, so they felt that they had all their bases covered.

However, this does demonstrate the potential dangers to brands and their marketing campaigns. Thanks to social media we seem to live in a particularly touchy time, with people quick to jump to conclusions and complain, with issues snowballing as more and more people Like or Retweet them. It then becomes a story that politicians feel they have to become involved in. So what can brands do?

1          Check everything
Marketers need to balance new ideas and being creative with an eye on potential repercussions. The danger is that you worry so much about the tiniest chance of offending someone that you become too scared to actually do anything. So strike a balance – run new ideas past your wider team and test them with your target audiences before going ahead. At least that way you’ll pick up major issues before launching a campaign.

2          Be prepared
As I’ve said in previous blogs, the risk of a reputational crisis is there for every brand. Things go wrong in even the best run company due to the speed and complexity of business today. So make sure you have a crisis plan that is ready to swing into action when necessary. But don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut – adopt a proportional response to an issue, rather than rushing your CEO onto the Today Programme at the merest hint of trouble.

3          Be engaged and keep listening
The best way to avoid lasting damage to your brand is for it to be strong in the first place. If you don’t have a good reputation people are likely to be harsher critics when there are issues. Witness TalkTalk’s drubbing when it suffered a cyber attack – it was already seen as a company that was not particularly customer-centric, so had no real brand capital to fall back on. Cadbury is in a similar, but slightly stronger position – since it was bought by US multinational Kraft Foods and then spun off into the Mondelez confectionery conglomerate, it has been seen as ‘not really British’. Therefore it is not given the benefit of the doubt when a story like this comes up.

Personally, I think the whole Cadbury story is a storm in an Easter egg cup that will blow over and won’t either damage the brand or the number of people who turn out for the egg hunts over the holiday period. However, its prominence, and the involvement of politicians, shows that marketers need to be prepared for even the most innocuous activity to turn into a crisis overnight.

 

April 5, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Turning the Oscars fiasco into good PR

We’re now living in a world where fewer and fewer of us watch TV live, preferring to use catch up services or clips on YouTube to get our fix after the event. Hence TV companies increasing focus on event-based shows that you have to experience live if you want to be part of the conversation. Whether it is the half time show at the Superbowl, or the climax of the Great British Bake Off, broadcasters are looking for ways to make us tune in.arriving_at_the_oscars_2106606836

Which brings us neatly to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Let’s face it awards shows are never riveting viewing, with the only interest normally being whether (a) someone gives a really terrible speech or (b) to judge the sartorial elegance (or otherwise) of the dresses on show. No wonder that the 2017 Oscars had the lowest ratings for a long time.

Therefore the fiasco which saw the Oscar for Best Picture initially given to the wrong film is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise for the event. The organisers get to blame PwC for giving out the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, while knowing that the issue will keep the show in the public consciousness for much longer than previous editions. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate PR ploy, but it bet it means that next year more people will tune in, secretly hoping that something goes wrong again. But, in an age of shortening attention spans, I think there’s a lot more that the Oscars (and any other awards ceremony) could be doing to keep viewers glued to their screens:

1.Random awards
Rather than just getting two candidates for best picture mixed up, organisers need to get a lot more random. Add in a few leftfield choices or even get the auditors from PwC to offer presenters a choice of envelopes with different winning names in them. It’ll certainly make the whole process more entertaining when the Best Actor award goes to Danny Dyer for his performances in EastEnders, even if he wasn’t on the shortlist.

2. Best dressed
As I said a lot of the time people watch award shows for what the stars are wearing, and this (primarily) means women in dresses, given that men tend to stick with a suit/dinner jacket and bow tie. So reward the best (and worst) dressed by running a quick poll on Twitter or Facebook and then announcing the results during the ceremony. It is sure to be hotly contested – and might even see male stars become more adventurous in what they wear.

3. Fights/drunkenness
The best ever award ceremony moment was undoubtedly the year at the Brits when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage when Michael Jackson was singing, was then arrested and was sprung from the cells by ex-solicitor Bob Mortimer. At least that’s how I remember it. So use some common sense when deciding the seating plan – two actors that hate each other’s guts and get chippy when they’ve had a skinful? Pop them on adjoining tables and start a rumour that one called the other a lightweight. Perfect entertainment for the watching masses.

4. Gunge tanks for speeches
The sheer excitement of winning an award often goes to a star’s head and they then drone on for hours thanking everyone they ever met, and going through their entire life story. At one ceremony Tom Hiddleston even brought in doctors working in South Sudan. Politely telling people to finish is obviously not enough, so organisers should take a leaf from children’s TV. Install a gunge tank above the stage, and put a hyperactive 10 year old on the controls. It’ll certainly shorten the speeches and keep people focused.

I’m sure there are many more ways of spicing up award ceremonies and increasing the interest of the general public – let me know your suggestions below.

photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

March 1, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has Donald Trump saved Twitter?

The past couple of years have not gone well for Twitter. User numbers have stalled, attempts to monetise the platform have come to naught and no potential suitors for the company have emerged, despite plenty of rumours.

Donald Trump

Yet, Twitter is probably now the most important (social) media company in the world. It was central to Donald Trump building his fanbase and allowed him to communicate directly with voters during the election, ignoring the media and their pesky fact checking. Essentially it delivered what the internet first promised – a way of interacting with the public without going through middle men, and was, in a large part, directly responsible for Trump’s election as President.

It is a scary thought that while previous politicians looking to grab and hold onto power (think Silvio Berlusconi, Lenin and the Chinese Communist Party) have made it a priority to buy or nationalise communication channels such as newspapers and TV/radio stations, Trump has done it without spending a penny on Twitter. No wonder that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says his feelings about the President-elect’s use of the service are “complicated.”

And Trump’s use of Twitter has, if anything, intensified since the election. He’s used it to challenge the intelligence services’ claims that the Russians hacked Democratic Party emails, and to take potshots at businesses that he claims are moving jobs and production outside the US. The result? Companies such as Ford and Carrier have backed down on overseas investments and the share prices of Lockheed-Martin, Toyota and GM amongst others fell after Trump tweets criticising them. PR and analyst relations professionals for blue chip companies must be spending their time glued to Trump’s Twitter feed, hoping and praying that he doesn’t single them out for punishment, like hapless flunkeys at the court of a particularly unpleasant medieval monarch.

If you needed proof of the power of Twitter, Trump provides it. And ironically, given the left-leaning sensibilities of Silicon Valley, he could well have saved the social network, or at least bought it some breathing space. The number of tweets sent in the US between August and November 2016 was over 1 billion (not all from Trump), with 75 million on election day and its aftermath. While it hasn’t helped the long-term share price, it undoubtedly aids efforts to find a buyer for the service. The question is whether this will be another tech company (Google is a logical fit) or whether another would-be politico will see the opportunity to build their profile à la Trump and invest. Whatever the outcome, expect more incendiary tweets in the future, with policy being set and communicated in 140 characters………….

January 11, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What every PR can learn from Apple – good and bad

For anyone looking for inspiration for their PR and marketing strategy it makes sense to look at what bigger players are doing. Obviously slavishly copying what they do won’t work, but there are always lessons to be learnt that can benefit your brand, whatever size it is.

With CEO of Apple Inc. Steve Jobs.

So looking at Apple’s strategy over the last few years is a good place to start. It may be difficult for many people to grasp, but 20 years ago the company was in a mess, hanging on for its very survival. Founder Steve Jobs re-entered the picture, pushing through innovative new products beginning with the iPod, and then moving onto the iPhone and iPad. The result? Apple became the biggest company in the world by market capitalisation, selling millions of premium products and building a reputation as the maker of must have gadgets for huge numbers of people.

For those looking to see how Apple drove success on the PR side, there’s a fascinating Harvard Business Review article from Cameron Craig, who worked for the company for 10 years. He sums up the approach in five points:

  1. Keep it simple. Don’t use jargon in press releases, and ensure that your language is straightforward and easy to read.
     
  2. Value reporters’ time. Apple doesn’t send out many press releases (leading to complaints of secrecy). Contacting reporters sparingly does mean they’ll pay attention when you have important news – though this is easier for the likes of Apple to do compared to a startup that needs the oxygen of publicity on a more constant basis.
  3. Be hands on. Ahead of any interview Apple organised a hands-on product briefing to explain how it worked, the benefits and features. This is a great way to keep control of the conversation – again, it works better for a big player that has something reporters want than a smaller business struggling to attract their attention.
  4. Stay focused. Keep true to your mission (in the case of Apple providing products that allow customers to unleash their creativity). Don’t comment on news or trends that don’t support this as it wastes time and dilutes your message.
  5. Prioritise media influencers. Focus on the press and influencers that will shape the debate and use your time to build strong relationships with them, as opposed to taking a scattergun approach that targets hundreds of people. This is a really important lesson for businesses – it isn’t just about the amount of coverage you get, but also where it is – get into the right publications read by your target audience and your brand will get noticed.

What’s also interesting is that Apple’s PR and social media strategy seems to be changing. Ahead of the iPhone 7 launch it created its first centralised Twitter account and more information leaked out about the details of the phone. Before this, CEO Tim Cook carried out press interviews after the billionth iPhone was sold earlier in the year.

The change in strategy to be more proactive is partly a response to slowing iPhone sales, and perhaps also the well-publicised EU demand that it pays €13 billion in back tax to Ireland. Getting messages out early also allows Apple to monitor feedback and tweak what it is doing to ensure that the final launch goes smoothly and any questions are successfully answered. Whatever it may be, all companies should take a look at Apple’s PR strategy and see how they can apply the lessons to their own communications.

September 21, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where are your customers?

Looking through Ofcom’s latest report on media use demonstrates the transformation that has occurred in the past ten years when it comes to how and where we find information, communicate with friends, families and companies, and which sources we trust.

Ofcom

For every company, no matter what size, it should act as a wakeup call and be used to drive their marketing so that they are reaching the right people, in the right way, at the right time. You can download the 200+ page report here, but I want to pick out five key points for businesses and marketers alike:

1. Everyone is online
90% of adults use the internet, showing that whatever demographic you are targeting, they are now online. Adults currently spend an average of 21.6 hours per week on the internet. Interestingly time spent has not changed since the last report in 2014, showing that it has become a set part of our routines. So, whatever you are selling, your customers are online and your marketing needs to reflect that.

2. Search is the gateway
92% of adults say they use search engines when looking for information online, but more importantly many believe simply being high ranking in search results is a guarantee of quality. 18% say that if a website is listed in search results it must be providing accurate and unbiased information. 55% couldn’t identify or tell the difference between organic search results and paid for adverts, with 23% thinking they were the best/most relevant results. Clearly this will be music to Google’s ears as it shows that paid search has a major impact on buying decisions. It also demonstrates the importance of good content on your website – the more focused and useful your website is for your key terms, the higher it will rank on Google.

3. Moving to walled gardens
Aside from search, adults are now more likely to use apps or sites that they are familiar with. Just one in five (21%) – down from 25% in 2014 – say they use apps/sites that they’ve not used before each week. Clearly, audiences are becoming set in their routines and the sites that they trust. This means that brands need to be visible on these gatekeepers if they are to reach their target markets. Essentially, building a website and hoping that audiences will come is not a smart strategy – if it ever was.

4. Don’t forget email
It may have been around for 30 years, but email is still the most popular online communication medium. 93% of people send and receive email on a weekly basis, ahead of 78% who use instant messaging and 76% who look at social media. So marketers mustn’t drop email from their strategy – it still reaches the right audiences despite the rise of other channels.

5. Content isn’t just words
It is no surprise that smartphones are increasingly the device of choice to access the internet – previous Ofcom research found that we spend more time online on our phones than PCs. However what we consume has got much more varied since 2014. 48% watch video clips at least weekly (up 9% since 2014), and 47% listen to radio stations online. So, if you want to attract people to your site, don’t just rely on words, but engage them through all of their senses.

Given the findings of the report, every organisation should take a look at its marketing, advertising and communication strategy. How does it affect your particular demographics? Are you embracing the right channels to engage with them, and is your budget being spent in the most productive way? Use the Ofcom findings as a wake-up call and time to spring clean your strategy and approach.

April 27, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What the end of The Independent print edition means for PR

For many media watchers the last week has felt like a watershed moment. The Independent announced that it will end its print edition in March, making it the first national newspaper to go online only. At the same time, youth channel BBC3 has come off the airwaves and moved solely to be web-based.the-independent-logo (1)

So, is the end of old media as we know it and will other channels and papers follow? And, by extension, does it mean that PR people will have to change how they work as media relations becomes less important with consumers getting their news in other ways, for example through citizen journalism and sites such as Buzzfeed?

Answering those questions in turn, old media isn’t dead, but isn’t healthy either. The Independent was always the smallest of the national newspapers when it came to circulation and therefore the weakest when subjected to the twin pressures of online and free papers such as Metro. Indeed it was comprehensively outsold by its cut-price sibling, the i, which will remain in print and is being sold to publisher Johnston Press.

Running a print operation has a large, fixed cost that every national newspaper is struggling with – witness The Guardian’s announcement that it will cut staff. Despite what might be said about BBC3 going where the audience is (online), this is only partially true – the real reason is about reducing costs for the BBC, although whether it will achieve its planned savings is a moot point.

Plenty of titles have gone online only, while yet more are now monthly or quarterly rather than weekly. Others have successfully embraced paywalls (The Economist, The Financial Times to name but two) to stabilise and protect their revenues. The online world does call for new business models as offline advertising pounds are swapped for digital pence, and there will be further casualties in the future.

However, this is not the end of media relations that my erstwhile colleague Stephen Waddington predicts in his blog. He believes that if your role in public relations is pitching stories to journalists, the clock is ticking and you have 15-20 years maximum before you are no longer necessary. I’d agree that anyone who solely spends their time ringing up/emailing national newspaper journalists, trying to interest them all in the same story without using any differentiation or intelligence is not going to survive long.

But I don’t think most (successful) PR people are stuck in that pigeonhole. Over the course of my 20+ year career I’ve seen the move online and the corresponding drop in the number of journalists as costs were cut. At the same time the amount of straight media relations I’m doing has dropped dramatically. More often, it is about coming up with a specific story to meet the title’s needs or pitching an idea for an article and then creating it with the client. Much more revolves around content and sharing it on social media in order to build both thought leadership and SEO for clients in their specific B2B markets.

This can be much harder than simply ringing every journalist on a list and pitching the same story, but the rewards for PR are far, far greater. It embeds the profession deeper into the marketing department and links to outcomes that are based on business value, rather than a bulging book of coverage that looks impressive, but is not measurable.

Is what I do media relations? I’d say that if it involves speaking to a publication in order to gain coverage, without money changing hands, then it is media relations – and I can’t see that going away anytime soon. After all the online-only Independent will still have journalists, just fewer of them, and they will still be writing stories that companies want to be part of. Commoditised media relations may be dying, but true media relations that aims to build links between journalists and clients is as vital as ever.

February 17, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pope, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the lessons for PR

The last week has seen two big stories in the world of PR, both of which I think are linked to issues the profession has in getting it across what it does – and what it cannot or should not try to achieve.

English: This sign welcomes visitors to the he...

Firstly, the Vatican is rethinking its communications strategy, both to deal with the 24 hour global media cycle, and to better support the straightforward and down to earth style of Pope Francis. Given that the Holy See’s press office is understaffed and shuts every day at 3pm GMT you can see why changes are needed. Otherwise the risk is that the messages that Pope Francis wishes to get out will be undermined by lack of the right structure and mechanism to interact with the press.

The second, and much more high profile (on Twitter at least), is the case of HP Enterprise and the Financial Times. After FT columnist Lucy Kellaway included remarks made by HPE’s boss, Meg Whitman, in a piece that poked fun at foolish things said by leaders the World Economic Forum, Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at the company, sent an aggressive response. This ended with a direct threat “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”

Rather than put up with this attack on her (and the FT’s) journalistic independence from advertisers, Kellaway went public with the exchange, to widespread support from both journalists and PR people. HPE made the situation worse by denying Gomez’s letter was aggressive and then releasing it. A quick read shows that it was exactly as described by Kellaway – aggressive and threatening. Hardly bridge building with the journalistic community.

What links these stories? In both cases the PR function is not doing its job. The Vatican is not providing the basic support that its boss/chief spokesperson (The Pope) requires, and HP Enterprises has gone to the other extreme by seeming to pander to the ego of its boss, who seems to have been upset by a tongue in cheek comment.

What seems to be missing is an understanding of what PR can, and can’t do. So, with particular emphasis on Mr Gomez, here’s a list of 5 points to bear in mind:

1          PR is not advertising
In PR you don’t pay money and therefore nothing is guaranteed. However the flip side is that your message is amplified by a trusted, independent third party (the media), making it much more powerful.

2          Not everything written about you will be positive
Particularly if you are a large global corporation not all stories will turn out the way you’d like them. Even if you prepare in detail there’s still the chance that your messages will be mangled or ignored in favour of a better story. Take the rough with the smooth, don’t be thin-skinned, and move on. If you want to hold a grudge, don’t do it publicly.

3          Complaining won’t help, it will make things worse
In the days of print, once something was published it was there in black and white and couldn’t be changed. On the positive side newspapers and magazines have a finite shelf life, meaning today’s front page story is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Online, things are different. They are there forever (unless you can get Google to remove them from search results), but can be amended, updated and changed. I’ve asked journalists to correct stories online that were factually inaccurate – a particular favourite is when a reporter got the sex of a spokesperson wrong (after meeting her!). But there’s no way that you can expect any publication to remove or amend a piece that meets its own journalistic guidelines. As HPE is finding, complaining and threatening is just digging a deeper hole for yourself.

4          PR should be a critical friend
Communication departments need to reflect and support the business/religious organisation that employs them. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense and what will actually work with the media, and other audiences. Be realistic in your aims, and if a PR person thinks a strategy won’t work they need to have the guts to tell their CEO why it won’t fly. PR people should think like a journalist – what is the story, why is it interesting and how can I get it across. Lots of agencies now employ ex-journalists, and as my colleague Chris Lee points out, there are a multiple benefits in doing so.

5          Journalism is independent
Despite living in an era of native advertising, advertorials and blurred lines between paid and earned content, companies need to remember that quality journalism is independent. So threatening to remove advertising pounds should have no impact – and doing so would be counterproductive on a number of levels. After all, as Lucy Kellaway pointed out, if the FT is the best way for HPE to reach its target audiences, then pulling ads from the publication will undermine its overall marketing programme.

What the HPE debacle shows is that it is time for PR to better communicate to stakeholders what it is we do, be robust, and think independently, rather than just believing that the CEO is untouchable. If he wants a role with an all-powerful leader, then perhaps Mr Gomez should apply to the Vatican – I believe they are recruiting…………..

February 10, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is PR changing at last?

Last week’s Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) East Anglia conference reminded me of much of the good – and the bad – about the profession. For a start the half day event brought together a really diverse group of PR practitioners, all enthusiastic about their profession and what it could achieve for businesses. And the overall theme of the conference – why PR needs to step up, embrace new skills and demonstrate the value it creates – is immensely important in a world where digital is transforming the marketing, and business, landscape

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But – and it is a big but – I can remember going to events debating these issues five or possibly ten years ago. And even some of the presenters admitted that they still find it hard to persuade clients that measurement needs to go beyond counting the number of clippings or the advertising value equivalent of coverage. Perhaps most damning of all there is still a huge gender pay gap, of an average of over £8,000 between women and men doing comparable jobs, and a relative shortage of females in the higher echelons of the PR profession. In a sector where 70% of the workforce is female, this is nothing short of a disgrace. Essentially much of this comes down to PR not being taken seriously – we’re expected to either be Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. While I’d relish the chance to drink as much as the former while working or swear as much as the latter without attracting disciplinary action, it is far from the truth.

So PR needs to change, and the first step, like Patsy attending Alcoholics Anonymous, is recognising the need to do things differently. While there was a lot of repetition in the different presentations, there was also a lot to pick up and learn from. I’d distil it into four points:

1. This is a great time to work in PR
Corporate reputation matters: to sales, to the share price, to recruitment, and to overall business success. Customer relationships are vital to build loyalty and revenues. Given its background, PR is the profession best placed to manage both of these, but to do so it needs to change, digitise and talk the language of business. As Sarah Pinch, the current CIPR president, pointed out, “Strategic counsel can’t be provided by a robot.” Only by upping its game will PR avoid being automated.

2. PR needs to integrate
While it is best placed to help companies improve their reputation and relationships, PR can’t do it alone. It has to work with every other department of the business, from finance and sales to customer service and IT, to create a cohesive approach that focuses on the overall reputation of the organisation. It needs to adopt a team of teams approach, working with colleagues with different skills to achieve results.

3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
There was a lot of talk about the need for measurement and why it was important, but fewer examples of how PR could be measured in a way that linked directly to business KPIs. As I’ve said the industry has been talking for years about the need to move from outputs (the number of clips or readers) to outcomes (changes to perception or behaviour that can be directly credited to PR). There are plenty of apocryphal stories of how reading that one article led effortlessly to a sale, or a campaign enabled a company to shift its market positioning, but one of the major issues is measuring this on a consistent, reliable basis. One of the key issues, particularly for smaller agencies and businesses, is that measurement costs money – and often clients are unwilling to pay for it or don’t see its value. That means it has to come out of budget that would otherwise be spent on PR programmes, lessening what can be done, and meaning agencies may well lose out in beauty parades to rivals that promise more.

4. Think like the board
As Denise Kaufmann of Ketchum said, quoting W. Edward Deming, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” PR needs to understand what senior management is looking for and ensure it is talking the same language. And that means ensuring PR targets directly map to corporate objectives, and are presented in a clear, business language. Think like an MBA and speak data, rather than discussing size and number of clips. This requires a change of mindset, but the potential rewards are enormous in terms of prestige, preserving/growing budgets and being recognised as crucial to the business. Hugh Davies, until recently the corporate affairs director of 3, gave his advice on advancing your PR career: be a team player, be confident, build business understanding, and create a body of evidence to support your ideas if you want to be taken seriously.

And by building trust with the board, the job of PR could also become slightly easier. We’ve all seen PR wonderful campaigns that are quickly undermined by a corporate scandal or cock-up that no-one thought to tell the communications department about until it became a crisis. I’d hate to be a PR person for VW at the moment for example. By stepping up to senior management, PR will at the very least have earlier warning of such issues, rather than having to deal with the aftermath.

It is easy to see PR as a profession that just provides window dressing to an organisation – and in the past PRs have not helped themselves with their behaviour or attitude. But the CIPR East Anglia Conference showed that attitudes are changing, and finally we may be solving our own reputational problems.

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Talk Talk – how to turn a crisis into a PR disaster

Last week’s announcement from Talk Talk that its website had been hacked and customer details (including bank account information) had potentially been stolen has turned into a disaster for the company. The stock price slumped by over 10% and MPs have called for an inquiry into whether the firm’s failure to encrypt data put customer information at risk.TalkTalk

Could things have been handled differently – and would they have changed the reaction of both the public and the media?

Firstly, it is worth re-stating that Talk Talk has been the victim of a crime. Initial fanciful rumours that the perpetrators were Russian Jihadis now look wide of the mark, with the police instead arresting a 15 year old boy from Northern Ireland, but the fact remains that its site was hacked. Additionally some of the press coverage has been incredibly sensationalist, with lurid stories of customers having their bank accounts cleared out by fraudsters, even though they were not necessarily linked to the hack itself.

However there are two questions that any business involved in crisis management needs to answer – did it meet the expected standards before the incident, and did it then deal with the situation in a way that reassured customers and other stakeholders?

I’d say that the response to both of these is a No. For a start, failure to encrypt customer details (at a time when people like Apple encrypt everything) is a glaring security hole that should have been filled. But as a PR person I’d point out five ways they’ve not managed the crisis well:

1          Telling press before customers
The first thing most customers knew about the hack was when they turned on the news or listened to the radio. The reason given by chief executive Dido Harding for making contact through the media, as opposed to directly speaking to customers, was that the sheer number of subscribers made this impossible. Talk Talk should have done both – customers wanted a direct response rather than just hearing about it on Radio 4.

2          Incomplete information
You can’t blame Talk Talk for initially overstating the scale of the attack – it obviously needed to get the announcement of the hack out as quickly as possible, rather than laboriously go through all its account details to see what had been compromised. And the story about the afore-mentioned Russian Jihadis came from other sources. However it didn’t provide a full picture to its customers early enough. I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and left six months ago – yet nowhere on its FAQ did it say anything about whether my details were at risk. Much later on Talk Talk admitted that ex-customer information could also have been hacked, but it demonstrates that the entire response was not well thought through.

3          Failure to stay on top of the story
After its initial apology, the story seemed to be going Talk Talk’s way, with pundits talking about the growing threat of cyber crime, and the company’s clear advice to change passwords being repeated across all media. But then the story changed, with the initial hack being downplayed and the press focusing on the failure to encrypt data. As Jacques de Cock of the London School of Marketing pointed out, it seemed to share its customers’ panic, rather than taking decisive action. The agenda shifted against Talk Talk, positioning it as culpable in its own downfall and not having a handle on what was going on.

4          Poor reputation
As I mentioned, I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and I found it a frustrating and unhelpful organisation to deal with. I kept getting regular sales calls, with agents trying to upsell me from my basic package and when I moved home it made me honour a month’s notice period on my contract – even though it said it couldn’t provide service at my new address. The impression I got was of an organisation that didn’t care about its customers, except for the money it could make from them, and that cut corners where it could to save a pound or two. Indeed I remember hearing Dido Harding on the Media Show on Radio 4, likening the firm to a clapped-out car being driven over the speed limit down the motorway, hanging onto the competition. Very few telecoms firms deliver good customer service, but I’m convinced Talk Talk’s poor reputation meant that commentators and customers automatically assumed the worst had happened.

5          Lack of empathy
Compounding customer annoyance, Talk Talk yesterday said that it would charge a termination fee to any customers looking to leave, unless they could prove that money had been stolen from their accounts due to the hack. Now, Talk Talk is obviously a business, and releasing all its customers from their contractual obligations could cause a huge dent in revenues – particularly given how badly the crisis has been handled. But the way the message has been delivered smacks of weakness and arrogance – it is almost as if it believes that customers would seize any excuse to leave, yet are stupid enough to forget the whole hack happened when it comes to contract renewal time. The company should have worked out some sort of half way house, allowing customers to shorten contracts or pay a reduced termination fee as a goodwill gesture. It may have cost it more in the short term, but would have been a valuable first step in rebuilding the company’s reputation – and any good publicity would be welcome at this stage in the process.

Handling a crisis in today’s real-time world is difficult. The combination of continuous news, social media and a desire for instant scapegoats means it is impossible to control the story in the same way as in the past. However Talk Talk should have done better – and is now facing the prospect of real damage to its reputation and bottom line by failing to take decisive action or appearing to care about its customers. Every company should take note and update crisis management plans so that they don’t fall into the same trap.

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How my consultancy is bigger than Facebook UK – and that’s a bad thing

 

I’ve been in business for five years now, and things are going well. I’ve seen revenues for my PR agency grow every year, thanks to loyal clients and (if I say so myself) some wonderful work. Yet it was only when I saw how much corporation tax Facebook paid last year in the UK, that I realised exactly how well I was doing. Comparing our two tax bills, I’ve paid considerably more than the £4,327 Facebook shelled out in 2014. Therefore it stands to reason I must have made much more money than the social network, even if globally its profits were $2.9 billion. Its UK business must just be lagging behind the rest of operations – after all very few people use Facebook in this country.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Obviously this isn’t the case, and like companies from Starbucks to Google, Facebook has engineered its operations to minimise its tax bill. As a businessman myself I can understand this – but what I can’t understand is that it doesn’t take into account the reputational damage that results. After all, company filings are public documents that anyone can access, and there are enough people out there who know how to read a balance sheet and can therefore spot holes in a company’s story without needing to spend too much time investigating.

I even felt sorry for the poor PR spokesperson delegated to read out the anodyne statement that Facebook was compliant with UK law, and all staff paid income tax (how gracious!). Then I realised that the spokesperson was one of the 362 people that shared the £35.4m in bonuses that pushed Facebook’s corporation tax bill down so close to zero, and any sympathy evaporated.

On one hand companies talk about how important their brand, and brand values, are to their success, yet cheerfully spend their time undermining these very same values from within. Why? I think much of this comes from a fundamental disconnect between senior management and those responsible for public relations or brand reputation. They aren’t involved in senior-level decision making, meaning that no-one is pointing out the potential pitfalls of being seen as a poor corporate citizen. In an age of consumer power, the lack of a check on potential corporate skulduggery can prove fatal to a brand.

Ever since I’ve been in public relations, which is over 20 years, there have been calls for PR to have a seat on the board and to be more involved in setting strategy, rather than just delivering it. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Partly it comes down to PR’s own reputation, with the discipline seen as more Ab Fab than strategic, and limited in what it can achieve. The rise of digital and the increase in the importance of corporate reputation should have changed that, but my impression is that the overwhelming number of FTSE 100 companies still don’t have or seek senior level PR counsel until too late in the process.

It is therefore time for PR people to take a step up and build the business understanding that they need to communicate with other senior management. Talk their language, link campaigns and messages to business goals and objectives, and if necessary, scare the bejesus out of people by explaining the financial (and even judicial) consequences of not thinking through decisions or ignoring dubious practices. While Facebook’s tax policies haven’t hit its share price, just look at Volkswagen’s financial woes for an illustration of what happens when you cover up bad behaviour. Despite its US head admitting he was briefed on how the car maker could fool emissions tests in spring 2014, nothing was done to remedy the problem or to come clean.

Looking at the PR implications of business decisions shouldn’t just be limited to big companies with expensive communications departments. Every company has the potential to be caught out if it transgresses the brand values that it trumpets to the world. So whether you are an international social network or a local plumber, think through the PR consequences of your strategy, before you implement it, if you want to avoid potential long-lasting reputational damage.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment