Revolutionary Measures

Google, tax and PR – do no evil?

On the PR side it has been a busy couple of weeks for Google. Firstly, it casually announced at Davos that it had agreed to pay £130m for ten years of UK corporate taxes, although obviously without any admission of guilt. Cue a storm of protest that this was nowhere near enough for a business that reputedly made £7.2 billion of profits over that period, essentially meaning it paid 3% corporation tax. Much of the vitriol came from other media companies, particularly newspapers, that have seen their own advertising revenues decimated by the search advertising giant.

Google Quick Search Box

Then earlier this week Alphabet, Google’s holding company, became the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, helped by strong financial results and worries about previous number one Apple’s future growth prospects.

Given the closeness of these two events, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that ethically debatable behaviour leads directly to outstanding corporate success. But has it actually made any difference to Google’s reputation in the UK? I’d argue that overall it hasn’t affected its business in any way, for three main reasons:

1.The public doesn’t buy from Google
For the majority of people Google is a utility – providing them with the ability to browse or search the internet, watch videos, manage emails and documents or run their mobile phones, without charging them a penny directly. What people don’t understand is that the price of this free stuff is that they become the product – Google has built its very lucrative business on selling this data on our activities and preferences to advertisers. In contrast Starbucks, another perceived tax avoider, sells physical products direct to the public, giving consumers a vested interest in seeing the right levels of tax paid out.

2.Google does no evil
It will probably surprise a lot of people that Google is as enormous as it actually is. From its beginnings it has cultivated a laid-back, anti-establishment brand, epitomised by its corporate slogan “Do no evil” and heavy investment in moonshot projects such as self-driving cars and research into cures for cancer. Despite its growth, it is still seen as a Silicon Valley upstart successfully battling the likes of Microsoft (search, browsers, productivity applications, operating systems) and Apple (with Android).

3.Is there an alternative?
Obviously you can use different search/email/operating system providers, including those that make it clear that they won’t either track your online behaviour or use it to target adverts based on your browsing. But how many people actually make the effort to go out and switch, particularly when Google makes it so easy to just carry on using its services. The figures speak for themselves – it has nearly 86% of the UK search market, which hasn’t changed much since the first mention of its tax affairs.

So, while as a PR person I agree that it has handled the whole tax situation badly by trying to claim that it is doing the right thing when its activities are ethically dubious at best, I don’t think it will have a major impact on the corporate brand. This is echoed by an (admittedly small) poll in PR Week, where 51% of PR professionals said it would leave its reputation unchanged – and 11% thought the tax settlement would improve the brand.

However, where it may cause issues, is by attracting further attention from regulators at the European Union, which have previously shown that they have more teeth when dealing with tech giants than national governments. Time will tell, but with the media already setting its sights on Facebook for potential even larger tax avoidance, I think Google will feel that the £130 million it spent is worth every penny.

February 3, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why we don’t want discussion with our morning coffee

When you think of Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is not discussions about race. So the company’s latest US campaign, called Race Together, which seeks to start discussions between baristas and customers feels misplaced.

The second location of Starbucks in Seattle wa...

Firstly, let me say I don’t doubt that it is motivated by the right reasons, rather than a desire to differentiate or for marketing purposes. It follows extensive staff open meetings where partners (staff) have discussed the whole situation of race in the USA after high-profile cases involving the police and black citizens in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, amongst other places. And in many ways it goes back to the original purpose of coffee houses as venues for, often raucous, debate and discussion.

However as the overwhelmingly negative feedback on social media confirms, a 21st century chain coffee shop is not the place to have a measured discussion on a topic as sensitive and nuanced as race. As one tweet put it, “I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.” I’d agree – as someone that absolutely refuses to give my name when ordering a coffee, being forced into talking about a difficult subject, no matter how important, with someone I don’t know is not my cup of tea. I’d say there are four reasons it feels like the wrong place for this type of communication:

1          Fit with purpose
People go into a coffee shop to get a drink, and while they may have an unprompted chat with a barista, it is more likely to be about sports or the weather than race. They aren’t necessarily in a mood to talk to anyone until they’ve had their first coffee of the day, and if they are would prefer to choose the subject themselves. And how can you have a long discussion about a complex subject in the couple of minutes it takes for your coffee to be ready?

2          Unbalanced relationship
There is also a monetary transaction involved – it doesn’t feel like an equal conversation when one person is a customer and is paying. A discussion that could be had on an equal footing outside Starbucks most definitely can’t be seen the same way within the coffee shop.

3          Training and knowledge
Baristas at Starbucks haven’t received any special training in debating, and are of course still expected to carry on doing their jobs while engaging customers in discussion. Notwithstanding the potential impact on the coffee they are making, the risk is that they are out-argued by customers on specific points, adding to the issue, rather than helping solve it.

4          Risk to reputation
As a communications professional I’d also look at the risk to Starbucks’ reputation. It is easy to be very British about Race Together and just write it off as patronising, ignoring the genuine American issue behind it, and the more open US culture of discussing your life with complete strangers. But you have to look at the slew of negative tweets and articles to see that many Americans were not impressed. Additionally, given the global nature of the brand, a campaign in the US has an impact across the world, affecting the attitudes of coffee drinkers in other countries.

Most of all it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin pays John Cleese to have an argument. It deteriorates rapidly into just contradiction and is ended by a combination of the police and some wooden mallets. I’m not suggesting that the same approach is necessary in Starbucks’ case, but it needs to focus its efforts differently if it wants to get its message across and a proper discussion started.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Psychology and marketing – appealing to consumer needs

How do you persuade people to buy your product or service, particularly when there is an increasing number of demands on their time and wallets?

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

I’ve always been fascinated about how an understanding of human psychology can help marketers to change people’s behaviour. Whether it is nudging people to choose the ‘right’ option or appealing to the herd mind, there is a lot that marketers can learn from the social sciences.

One theorem that can help improve marketing is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Originally proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 it essentially ranks the varying needs of humans, from the basic to the most complex. The key point is that it is only when one level of requirements are met will humans then move onto the next one.

So at the bottom are physiological needs – breathing, food, water, sleep, excretion. Without these humans simply cannot function. So, if you are selling basic products, appeal to this need, but if what you offer is more complex or higher value, look further up the hierarchy.

Next is safety (security of body, employment, family, resources, health, property). We’ve all seen marketing/advertising campaigns that play to these needs, normally by warning of the dangers that a particular product or service guards against. Insurance is the perfect example.

The third layer of the hierarchy is love and belonging, covering friendship, family and sexual intimacy. This is where sex sells, and also products that deliver a sense of being part of a group. Remember the scene every week in Cheers, where Norm comes in and everyone greets him by name? That’s key to this layer. However too many brands attempt to generate a sense of belonging, but make it too corporate and intrusive, such as Starbucks’ attempt to call customers by their first name when they were buying their latte.

Above belonging is the esteem level (confidence, self-esteem, respect of others, achievement). All humans have a need to feel respected, and clever marketers exploit this by offering products that (they claim) will increase your confidence and earn the esteem of others. Buy our car/mobile phone/bank account and your world will be transformed.

So, what’s at the top of the pyramid? All the previous levels were seen by Maslow as deficiency needs and have to be not just met, but mastered, before humans can move onto self-actualisation. This is much more complex and varies from person to person, but is essentially about achieving your full potential. To do this they need accept themselves, happy in their judgement and have an efficient perception of reality.

On the face of it self-actualisers should be immune to marketing, as they can see through attempts to manipulate their thoughts or feelings. However those on the path to self-actualisation can be targeted with images that show successful people and intimate that they can only be achieved by buying particular products. Think American Express Black credit cards or most celebrity adverts – drink Nespresso and you can be George Clooney!

I’m not saying that the hierarchy of needs is the sole way of planning marketing campaigns or boosting sales. But understanding which level your product best appeals to is a good way of focusing your efforts and going beyond features to look at what the customer is looking for. And that can only lead to better targeted products that consumers actually want, after all.

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March 26, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How much is your personal data worth?

privacy.JPG

At a time when governments snooping on communications data is top of the news agenda it is time for people to realise exactly how much of their private information is out there on the internet. From the websites you’ve visited to the people you are friendly with on Facebook all of this data is used to try and sell you goods and services in increasingly clever ways. Essentially it is the price of free – sites like Facebook don’t charge you to join, and providing an infrastructure for billions of users doesn’t come cheap.

And generally consumers value convenience over security. Hence the increase in sites that let you sign in with your Facebook, Twitter or Google IDs, adding to the data being held about you, tracking your online movements. Of course people have the option to register separately for these sites, but the upfront cost in time of filling in more forms puts most of us off.

Adding in mobile, location-based data adds an extra dimension as companies can see broadly where you were when you looked at a particular page. So marketers know that you were standing outside Starbucks when you checked where the nearest Costa was.

So how much is this data worth to businesses? Hundreds of pounds? Err, no. According to the Financial Times, the average person’s data retails for less than a dollar. Having filled in its nifty online calculator I didn’t even make 50 cents – but then I’m not about to give birth, get married or have a long term (lucrative) health condition. Try the test for yourself on the FT website.

As the PRISM scandal has shown, it isn’t just businesses that want to track your online behaviour. Nine internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google were pinpointed as revealing user data to the National Security Agency.

In the wake of the scandal and renewed interest by consumers in protecting their privacy, the internet industry needs to look at how it gains permission, collects information and shares personal data. Social networks and the internet itself are now mass market – they have crossed the chasm and are no longer populated solely by early adopters and teenagers with a relaxed attitude to sharing their personal information (even if it lands them in hot water down the line). Default settings need to be for stronger privacy settings (rather than the minimum), nudging people into being more secure with their data if companies are to regain trust. Of course, we’re not going to stop using Facebook and Google – but it would be a smart move (and a potential differentiator) for these companies to take a stand and make it simpler for us to protect our privacy online. Even if our data is only worth 38 cents.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taxing times for tech companies

English: Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector) oi...

Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.

Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.

Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.

Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.

Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Telling a Whopper on social media

Burger King

Rather than covering a range of subjects I could probably write a weekly blog called ‘Which brand has f@cked up on social media’, without running short of material. This week it was Burger King’s turn on Twitter – though to be fair to the fast food giant they believe their account was hacked. After all the background picture was changed to a McDonald’s logo and one tweet claimed the chain had been sold to the Golden Arches.

The tweets stopped after an hour after Burger King asked Twitter to suspend its account (unlike HMV, they knew how to switch social networking off). They even had a supportive tweet from @mcdonalds commiserating with their rivals.

So no real reputational damage done – the online equivalent of breaking into a local Burger King, daubing graffiti on the walls and putting quick drying cement down the toilets. Illegal yes, but once the mess is cleared up, Burger King on Twitter will be back open for business.

But the financial damage could have actually been enormous. Imagine that rather than tweeting an obviously untrue rumour (We just got sold to McDonalds!) the hackers had put out something different and subtler – such as news of finding horsemeat in the company’s burgers (not true I hasten to add). Think of what that would do to the stock price, spooking investors and sparking a sell-off. Financial institutions would have seen company news from a reputable source and acted accordingly. Given Burger King is US-listed I’m sure litigation wouldn’t have been far behind from disgruntled shareholders too. And the problem isn’t just malicious hacking – do companies have corporate policies about what they can and can’t tweet/blog/put on Facebook in case it is share price sensitive? My betting is that many don’t, leaving it to the discretion of whoever is actually running the Twitter feed. Hardly foolproof.

So, at a time when cyber security is top of the agenda, companies need to make sure that they not only know their Twitter logon details, have clear policies in place, protect their passwords and have an instant crisis plan if security is breached. I’d hope that if it wasn’t before Burger King’s investor relations department is now much more involved in social media planning. Handled properly this is another chance for marketing/PR/social media to become more strategically involved in vital financial communication – so marketers should ignore the Burger King experience at their peril.

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February 20, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Starbucking up social media

Starbucks Logo

Even before their tax debacle I’ve never been a fan of Starbucks – bland coffee, relentless happiness and demanding my name before deigning to serve me have all driven me elsewhere.

But I was staggered at their ineptitude when it comes to social media. Despite being ranked as the best loved brand on social media in the US, they’ve not quite grasped that not paying millions in tax isn’t going to endear them to people here. Social media popularity fell dramatically when the true story of its tax affairs came out in October and a blog post from chairman, president and CEO, Howard Schultz, defending the company made little difference (a tip Howard – if you want British people to believe you are ‘honoured to serve them’, use the British spelling of the word.)

So what do you do if you’re at the centre of such a firestorm of criticism, particularly via social media? I’d recommend changing behaviour and reaching out to engage with people. Yet, instead the coffee giant decided to run a scheduled Twitter hashtag campaign #spreadthecheer. However, like McDonalds and Waitrose in the past, it failed to see how easily this could be hijacked and as I write #spreadthecheerPRFail is trending on Twitter. The more pleasant tweets push the merits of independent coffee shops, while the most aggressive demand that they ‘Pay your f*cking taxes’. And to make matters even worse the company installed an unmoderated Twitter wall at the Natural History Museum’s ice rink, leading to the automatic projection of abusive messages, allegedly through a malfunction of the profanity filter.

Starbucks has got its marketing, social media and ethical stance very, very wrong. And while it is facing a social media firestorm it has not helped its cause – in fact through #spreadthecheer and Howard Schultz’s blog it has soaked itself in petrol and handed matches to the mob.

But Starbucks isn’t the only brand to completely underestimate that if pushed far enough people will complain – and with social media complaints can reach critical mass very quickly and turn into a comprehensive campaign against an organisation.

This means it is time for brands (particularly ones that claim to be ethical and friendly) to re-adjust their marketing. The time of one way marketing to passive users is over. As my erstwhile colleagues Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington pointed out in their book Brand Anarchy, “Reputation is not just under siege, the ramparts have been utterly breached.” A chilling threat to some companies but also a wake up call to marketers and brands – now you need to listen, learn and engage with customers, not refuse to serve them if they won’t give you their name.

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December 19, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments