Revolutionary Measures

Brewdog, PR and smelling a rat

As the Oscar Wilde quote goes, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Plenty of brands and celebrities have adopted this mantra when it comes to communications, reasoning that people will remember their name, even when the story is forgotten. Bookmaker Paddy Power is one that comes to mind, with stunts ranging from sending a Mexican Mariachi band to welcome Donald Trump to Scotland to setting up an amnesty box for medals outside the Russian Embassy in London at the time of the state-sponsored doping revelations.

Brewdog is another brand that aims to cultivate an edgy image to great success. It has positioned the brewer at the front of the craft beer movement and attracted legions of fans. So last week’s PR debacle around its partnership with US brewer Scofflaw should be viewed through the lens of Oscar Wilde’s words.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The basic facts are that Brewdog has a partnership with Scofflaw, contract brewing its beers in the UK. To promote this it was running a series of events in its pubs. So far, so straightforward. Journalists then received an emailed press release from Scofflaw’s PR agency Frank, announcing the events and offering free beer to those that went along. But, it added: “But there is a hook…you have to be a Trump supporter.”

Cue Twitter meltdown and fast action from Brewdog, cancelling the events, promising to send the beer back and launching an alternative free beer promotion. Given its noted anti-Trump stance that wasn’t surprising, but gained it plenty of coverage (more than a free beer event would have done). The plot then thickens – Scofflaw denied signing off the press release, blaming Frank, who in turn apologised and blamed a ‘rogue element’ in its team. A staff member has been suspended, allegedly for sending out an unapproved release.

When I first read the story I’d assumed that the offending communication had gone out on social media, and was just a throw away line by someone that wasn’t thinking, and automatically conflated Scofflaw’s redneck roots with Trump support. But to find out that it was a press release, from a big agency such as Frank which must have clear processes in place to manage approvals makes me suspicious. In my mind that leaves three potential causes of the shenanigans:

  1. Frank doesn’t have any control over what its staff is doing. This seems unlikely given it has been operating since 2000, and has large corporate clients from Investec to Ribena (and, interestingly, Paddy Power).
  2. Scofflaw signed the release off and then retracted when it realised the issue it had created. Again, this seems unlikely as it has a close partnership with Brewdog and must have known the company’s views on Trump. It would also be an issue logistically – given it is in Atlanta the storm broke in the middle of the night US time, ensuring it was out of the loop to immediately respond.
  3. It was a stunt that benefits both Brewdog and Scofflaw. They get to show their liberal credentials and receive significantly more interest and publicity than they would otherwise do. The only company that seems to lose out is Frank (and the unfortunate staff member), as it gets a reputation as unprofessional. Though if that was the case I’m sure it will have had a quiet word with clients to calm any concerns and can chalk up the whole project as a success.

Time will tell whether this was a cock-up or a concocted PR stunt. What it does show for all agencies is the basic importance of having an audit trail around sign-off of materials. We’ve all been in the position where a client tells us over the phone “I’m sure that release/case study/campaign creative is fine, just send it out.” As the Scofflaw case shows, you need to get approval in writing – even if it scrawled on the back of a beer mat.

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October 3, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook, electoral manipulation and Cambridge Analytica

It’s a well-known fact that on ‘free’ social media sites, users are actually paying with their data, allowing them to be targeted with advertising that should match their preferences, and therefore be of interest. But the current revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook show that the cost is potentially much greater than this, with personal data allegedly being used to microtarget and manipulate perceptions, and therefore heavily influence elections.

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While allegations into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum have been made for some time, with the company subject to multiple investigations, including the Mueller probe, what has brought it into the headlines more recently has been good, old-fashioned undercover reporting from Channel 4 News. It sent a reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman to find out how CA could help him influence a local election – and the results were not pretty. Even allowing for the bluster involved in pitching to a potentially lucrative client, CA’s now suspended boss Alexander Nix’s claims that he could use entrapment and bribery to bring down political opponents as well as microtargeting demonstrate a complete contempt for ethics.

The fall-out has been rapid. As a privately held company bankrolled in part by conservative hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, CA has not suffered financially – but Facebook saw its company valuation drop by over $40 billion in the last two days, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg summoned to appear at a parliamentary committee to explain how the data of 50 million Facebook members was allegedly used (and retained) by Cambridge Analytica. At the same time the #DeleteFacebook hashtag on Twitter has been trending around the world.

Use of propaganda and half-truths to swing elections and mobilise voters is obviously nothing new, but the combination of the intimate position of social media in our lives and advances in psychological targeting mean that the majority of people are simply not equipped to understand when they are being manipulated through the likes of Facebook. And clearly the controls on the data that developers can harvest, access (and retain) are too lax to protect people.

So, I think two things need to happen. Facebook needs to put in tighter controls and make it obvious what data people are giving away when they use the service, download apps or take surveys. But more importantly for the political – and ethical – health of the population, everyone needs to be better educated about social media and online behaviour. Most of us have learnt how to pick out bias in newspapers, on TV and in the traditional media, but the personalised capabilities and echo chamber mentality of social media is something that has been thrust upon us without warning or time to adapt.

In the same way that people need to be taught to recognise fake news, they need to understand when they are being manipulated online. This should start in schools and encompass the whole population – if Mark Zuckerberg is smart he’ll attend the parliamentary committee, show that Facebook is changing and announce a global education programme on how to protect yourself on the network. Otherwise, the Cambridge Analytica story has the potential to significantly damage Facebook, hit revenues and reduce user numbers. The ball is in his court.

 

March 21, 2018 Posted by | 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

Why Royal PR should be a model for us all

A few weeks ago I talked about the breakdown of trust between the public and traditional institutions, be they the media, government or business. Yet arguably the most traditional institution of all – the British monarchy – is actually bucking the trend and engaging and resonating with the public more than ever. From the Queen visiting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire to Princes William and Harry talking openly about mental illness, the Royals are increasingly seen as understanding, and empathising with, the mood of the country. This is in stark contrast to current political turmoil where the Prime Minister seems too scared to engage, while her cabinet squabbles around her. The Queen even seemingly managed to get a cheeky shot in about Brexit, wearing an EU blue hat with flowers resembling stars to open parliament.Queen Elizabeth

It is worth noting that it hasn’t always been like this. At the time of Princess Diana’s death the Royal family, particularly the Queen and Prince Philip, was seen as outdated and out of touch, hidebound by protocol and simply unable to understand the mood of the country and the wider world. That led to a major change around in how the Windsors approached PR, which has evolved into the machine that we see today, which is driven by four key factors:

1. Trust
We are in an age where there is a breakdown in trust, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to believe in someone or something. In fact, many are desperate to find somewhere to put their trust that isn’t going to let them down. The monarchy fills this space admirably, seen as working hard while taking the time to listen and engage with people’s concerns.

2. Range
The sheer size of the Royal family, and the number of generations it contains, mean that there are a range of characters and ages for different people to identify with. From the Queen and Prince Philip through Charles and Camilla down to Harry, William, Kate and their children there is someone for everyone to support, trust and relate to, dependent on their views and age.

3. Impartiality
I’m not comparing the Queen to Donald Trump, but in the same way that he has a multimillion dollar fortune to fall back on, so has she. That means she is seen as generally impartial, without an agenda or wider policies to push. I think many in the US see Trump in the same way, even if he definitely does have an agenda/ego driving his actions. This ability to be independent means the Queen is above politics and doesn’t get drawn into a blame game around events such as Grenfell.

4. Vulnerability
In the past the monarchy was seen as aloof and simply not affected by outside events. Since Diana’s death that has changed and it has opened up, demonstrating that the Royals are human too. The younger princes have discussed their mother’s death and the impact on their own mental health, while the continued illnesses of the Duke of Edinburgh has led to widespread sympathy for the Queen, who, after all, is 91 herself. We empathise with humans, and the Royal family continues to show that despite their wealth and power they are human too.

What lessons can communicators draw from this? I think the biggest is to take a long-term view. The reputation of the British monarchy was at an all-time low after the death of Diana, with many questioning their continued role. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction, the institution has changed how it operates, and in particular how it communicates, giving individuals more freedom to talk about the topics that they feel passionate about, all within an overarching framework that demonstrates empathy, authenticity and value for their audience. It may not be perfect, but other communicators looking to build genuine trust should see what they can learn from the Royal family’s success.

 

Photo Nasa/Bill Ingalls via Wikipedia http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2007/queen_egress_8.html

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

The PR lessons from Donald Trump

In the past being nominated as the Republican or Democrat presidential candidate had a lot to do with money, specifically advertising spend. This was the weapon of choice for winning over primary voters in each state, hence the push by candidates to appeal to big donors who would then bankroll their campaigns. The sheer sums involved are astronomical – experts believe that $100 million was spent solely on TV advertising around the New Hampshire primary. No wonder that the total 2016 election is expected to cost $5 billion – more than the GDP of many small countries.

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...

Normally this counts against the maverick candidate – after all, if you don’t appeal to the big donors with the money you won’t get the advertising, and consequently the primary votes won’t follow. This year, as in many ways, the Republican race is turning out very differently. While the runaway leader Donald Trump has spent money on advertising, it is nowhere near as much as his rivals – for example each of his 239,000 votes in South Carolina cost the equivalent ad spend of $7.42, with a total cost $1.78m. By contrast each of Jeb Bush’s 57,000 votes involved spending of $238.15, with a total budget of $13.78m.

Whatever your opinion of him, Trump has done something that most marketers in general, and PR people in particular, should recognise. Rather than spending money solely on advertising, he’s adopted a balanced marketing strategy that is led by PR and social media, and merely supported by TV and other ads. He’s built a brand and sustained it by continually being controversial – with Twitter the primary channel for his rants. If commentators lauded Barack Obama’s use of social media to win his two terms as president, Trump is the flipside, using the networks to connect with those that feel disenfranchised and left behind by traditional politicians.

Of course, it is all (to put it politely) a load of baloney – and Trump knows it. Policies such as building a wall between the US and Mexico (and getting the Mexicans to pay for it) and banning Muslims from entering the country are both objectionable and unworkable. His ideas for increasing the tax paid by hedge fund managers have been proved by economists to actually reduce the tax take from that group. Yet every time opponents seem to be closing the gap, he opens his mouth, says something offensive/controversial and sees opinion polls soar. It is a classic PR-led marketing campaign.

I’m certainly not advocating any of my clients follow suit with similar sentiments, but there are lessons to be learnt from Trump’s success to date:

1. Play the long game
Trump has spent the past few years building his profile as a celebrity. His bombastic stint on The Apprentice provided the bedrock for his celebrity, and he has nurtured this on Twitter and through inflammatory comments long before the campaign began. In contrast, many of his opponents had little national profile before the Republican primaries began, so have been building a base from scratch.

2. Build a connection
Despite being a billionaire who inherited much of his wealth Trump is seen as being on the side of those that have been squeezed by trends such as globalisation. In the same way that Nigel Farage has cultivated his bloke in the pub persona (despite going to top public school Dulwich College and a career in the City), he has built a connection with his supporters. They feel he understands them and is rooting for them, with social media helping to give a personal, human relationship between him and his followers.

3. Everyone loves the underdog
Trump has positioned himself as the radically different challenger brand, rather than being more of the same. This means he is seen as an outsider – David versus Goliath, despite his wealth, connections and fame. He’s not viewed as a politician, with all the baggage that brings, or even as a serious candidate by many. Again, similar tactics helped Boris Johnson win the London mayoral election – a few stints on Have I Got News for You and he’d positioned himself as a bumbling, unthreatening clown, completely different to the political elite.

4. Be controversial
Again, I’d not advocate clients becoming bigoted, bullying misogynistic racists, but Trump uses language that the general public understands and relates to. He doesn’t just read off an autocue or give speeches that have been refined until there is no meaning left in them. People remember his soundbites and they stand out from the crowd – not just because they are offensive, but because of the type of language he uses. This is all part of his act, but demonstrates an understanding of what makes people respond at a very basic level.

I sincerely hope that Trump fails to get the Republican nomination, and, failing that, that the general public see sense and doesn’t vote him into the White House in the coming election. However everyone in marketing and communications should heed the lessons of his campaign, and look at how they can use PR and social media to get their message across to key audiences.

March 9, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments