Author Archive

People in glass houses

This may come as some surprise to people who know me but for once I have been loath to enter a debate and share my opinion, but this afternoon my will broke and I could no longer hold back. Yes I am going to share my view on the issue of Blackberry and their ongoing outage.

Firstly I have to declare an interest; I am a Blackberry user and have been for over nine years and despite it taking over life, I am a fan, they do what they say and despite the hard life I give them they don’t tend to let me down. Equally I am not an Apple or Android knocker – to be honest I have more important things to argue about.

What I am passionate about though, is how issues are managed and the study of how people react to them. With Blackberry you have a perfect storm, a technology company that has courted some negative publicity recently is constantly doing battle with another fruit based technology company and prides itself on its security systems.

The last couple of days have seen a clamor for Blackberry to talk more, respond more, be more open etc.  – but who is asking? The cry would seem to lead by social media and technology commentators. Why is this? Well I believe it is down to certain groups believing they have an inalienable right to know everything, not for any reason other than they just deserve to know. The reality is RIM suffered a switch failure which resulted in a backlog of emails clogging up their system. To be honest it’s not very exciting, a bit techy and sounds like a reasonable explanation, which the majority of fair minded people will understand.

Building on this we are seeing ongoing comparisons with Apple in terms of how open they are and how they would have managed things better. Now I don’t have the best of memories at times, but I seem to remember it took an awful lot of persuasion to get Apple to admit there may be a problem with the reception on the iPhone 4. I don’t think anyone would agree that that was handled in a very efficient way.

Finally I think it is fair to say that whatever RIM said over the last couple of days would have been criticised and picked apart by the same aforementioned people  - what would that have achieved?

I say the following as someone who uses their Blackberry a lot and does rely it on for my job, in reality my Blackberry hasn’t worked reliably since Monday lunchtime. But all that has meant is that when I went to get my sandwich at lunchtime I couldn’t check my emails and likewise when I get home tonight that little red light won’t be flashing at me all evening. Do you know what? My world has kept turning; after all I can still make calls and text which are pretty useful ways of communicating, especially the first one.

Oh, one last thing… What this has proved categorically is that technology people should not make jokes, they really should leave that to the experts.

He who lives by Twitter, dies by Twitter

If a week is a long time in politics, the past seven days must be a record for the media.  With the dust barely settling on the Royal Wedding and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the media got its teeth into what it really cares about, freedom and privacy.

The creation of the Twitter account, on Sunday afternoon, allegedly listing at least six of the people who have taken out Super Injunctions, was quickly followed with ironic timing by the defeat of Max Mosley’s case calling for the media to notify people before they are due to appear. These two events re-opened the whole debate of who is entitled to privacy and to what level.

Then, just as all of us in media land where mustering all the energy we could to struggle through the first five day week in what seems like months (well some of us, my colleagues today are all out working with Age UK for our company wide charity day) the God of news dropped the Facebook/Google/Burson-Marsteller story nicely in our laps.

Now I am not naive enough to comment directly on the tribulations of a fellow PR agency (especially as we share the same owner) but having looked back over these seven days there is one common theme that links of all this: our growing demands for transparency. In all of these cases, it wasn’t really the actions (footballer slept with a Big Brother star, someone has an affair, really? How dull? A middle-aged man getting spanked by some prostitutes) that mattered. Frank Bough has been there and got the paddle marks 19 years ago and as for B&M, I think the issue here is execution not motive.

What is clear is that for everyone, from humble celebrity to global tech giant, the media now provides us with a level of access and insight never dreamed possible 15 years ago. This week has demonstrated that this new found power needs to be handled with a great deal of care because decisions and action on how we respect and protect privacy, while still providing freedom, access and transparency could now have some far reaching ramifications that we could all be paying the price for in the future.

Hit or Miss? BBC rewrites EastEnders ‘cot death’ story after outcry – PR Week 14/01/11

Our very own Peter Roberts, Senior Associate Director, issues and crisis management team (and a former BBC head of comms) provided his view on the recent story line change on this popular UK soap for our weekly PR trade title PR Week:

“Television’s so-called delicate issues, which includes mental health and sexual abuse is a real challenge for primetime programme makers; do them well and you’re demonstrating your public service credentials; do them badly, you’re a crass ratings chaser. I’m quite certain much consideration was given to the current storyline, but  the producers appear to have miscalculated the collective strength of feeling, which on a consolatory point is a testament to the programme’s high regard among its audience.

Clearly, it demonstrates maturity to listen to the views of your audience – and the BBC has demonstrated great progress in this regard, but it’s one thing to listen, but another to alter your story lines. In the short-term, the programme has enjoyed the extensive coverage and debate that comes with controversy, but I fear that the Eastenders  response may have set a precedent for other groups to have a disproportionate influence on their future content.”

Brand guardian or brand detractor: It’s a game of two halves

Thank the Lord for football, not only does it entertain, anger and frustrate in equal measures it regularly provides a perfect case study that neatly encapsulates a wider issue. Today’s lesson is brought to you by the creative musings of Ryan Babel, who currently dwells in Liverpool. Here we have the perfect example of an aggrieved employee deciding to vent his anger and personal views via his favourite social network, in this case Twitter.

The issue here is how much control can and will his club exert over him? He is facing an FA charge of improper conduct, at a time when the Club has more than enough problems of its own. Now there must be something about the internet up there on the Anfield side of the City, because the end of last year saw a player’s mum very clearly and succinctly express her views on her son’s new home.

As an employer, how do you handle this? How can you ensure your staff utilise their potentially large social network to support your brand? Now in Ryan’s case I am sure he is expressing a widely held view that was doing the rounds of the dressing room at the final whistle, but would the Club wanted those views shared with the world? Probably not. In the case of the ranting mum I can pretty much guarantee that those rants went down as well as Gary Neville popping into the Kop for a meat pie and a shandy at half time.

Away from the highly charged cauldron of football, these two extreme examples highlight the issue of an employee’s brand. How can organisations at best utilise this asset and turn them into a brand guardian and supporter, before they become at the very least another issue to deal with or at worst a vocal brand detractor?

Searching for customer satisfaction

For many businesses the mantra that the customer is king can be found at the heart of their business. Such companies like John Lewis and Emirates (to name just two) believe that customer satisfaction leads to business success. We all have personal experience of those brands that don’t seem to value our experience as highly and as a result we are left feeling slightly unloved.

When we experience bad customer service we tend to act in a number of ways, but these ultimately boil down to suffering in silence, ranting to those people who unfortunately are nearest to us at the time, or venting our anger online. The latter reaction is where it gets interesting; Google have announced that they are going to penalise those brands with poor online customer relations. Up until now it had, believe it or not, been known for some brands to deliberately abuse their customers, prompting those customers to post (poor) reviews, resulting in a higher placing on the Google search engine!

With these changes, suddenly those unfavourable online reviews are going to carry a lot more weight. For brands spending a fortune on SEO, all that investment could be directly undone by poor customer service. In addition if Google starts displaying customer reviews and ratings next to search results, imagine the impact on customer decision making.

For those responsible for managing brand reputation, being part of the customer service process has just become even more important. After all, Google does rule the world, or to look at it another way, potentially just one bad customer comment or review could drop you from the first page of the search results to the Siberian wastes of the second page.

Media time delay

While we all pick through the aftermath of our failed World Cup bid, the one glaring insight that arose yesterday afternoon was the huge time delay between the different media in play. Anyone following on Twitter yesterday would have known the exact result even before Mr Blatter launched into his long winded riff on the origins of football.

Here in the UK, Ashling O’Connor from the Times had already accurately posted the outcome on Twitter 21 minutes before the envelope was opened, which resulted in the TV broadcasters having to tentatively report the result while being stymied by FIFA’s own pomp and ceremony.

I look on yesterday as a clear demonstration of the media power of Twitter and as a warning for all of us involved in issues and crisis comms planning, underestimate its influence and impact at your peril. The race to be first with the news is well and truly hotting up and if you don’t have systems and plans in place to manage this, it could be you squirming in your seat wondering where it all went wrong.

“I’m eating my cookie”

  I won’t subject you to a long intro, instead sit back and enjoy this great clip. Senior executive media training should be compulsory.

 “I’m eating my cookie”

 Yes, he did lose his job.

Do playboys make good role models or more importantly good brand ambassadors?

 Here at H&K Towers apart from making sure the hole for the new CrossRail station at Tottenham Court Road is big enough we spend a fair amount of time advising clients on how to exploit and manage their sport sponsorship programmes.

So I was very interested in ITV4’s recent programme called “When Playboys ruled the World”, an insightful look into the success and excess of two of our greatest World Champions, Barry Sheene and James Hunt, which also made some interesting comparison to today’s sporting champions. After putting aside my secret desire to be them, what became clear is that the general public and therefore the media’s tolerance of a personal indiscretion nowadays is zero. Our almost voyeuristic urge to seek out the slightest news that could bring down a star borders on the feverish, but our own personal standards would seem to have dropped. While at the same time to read some of the headlines relating to our sports stars now, you would think we were back in Edwardian times.

So what is happening? Should we feel sorry for our highly paid superstars? Are we turning into a nation of hypocrites, where we expect our sports stars to be perfect, as a result freeing us up to do what we want? Do we long for the day when a rebel in the mould of Hunt or Sheene may burst onto the stage and stick two fingers up to the now established norm? These are all questions that anyone considering a sport sponsorship endorsement campaign need to consider.

More fundamentally, we live in an age where despite limitless access to information and, in theory knowledge, we no longer have the trust to believe in anything we are told and so are continually disappointed- “you mean to say a 18 year-old earning £25k a week has drunk too much and crashed his car – how could this happen? He is such a nice boy, look at that photo spread he did in Hello with his mum last week?”

Personally I believe we have lost all sense of perspective, I want my racing driving to drive really fast, I want my footballers to score lots of goals, I want my film stars to entertain me. If I want advice on how to be a father or what constitutes a healthy level of alcohol intake I will talk to my real friends and family. Unless of course you count Britney Spears and Wayne Rooney as close family and friends and in that case you probably are in trouble…

For sponsors though, the process is getting harder, the understandable desire to protect your brand means that you end up putting up walls between you and your star. The problem with that is the bigger the wall the more people will want to see what is going on. Or should you, as a sponsor, embrace their inner bad boy and roll with the inevitable punches? Whichever route you choose perspective, awareness, trust and being prepared are key to you surviving and making the partnership a success.

Now where is my Brut aftershave? I feel a night out with the ladies is required.

An online shaggy dog story

 John Lewis that doyen of the middle classes that has been a rock on the high street has managed to get itself caught in a whirlwind of public hatred and is a victim of an onslaught of online vitriol. What could it have possibly done? Scantily clad women, broken a religious taboo, questioned the validity of X-Factor? No, it is running a new Christmas advert.

It seems its new Christmas advert with the dulcet tones of Ellie Goulding and heart warming images of people buying presents for each other, had the audacity to show, for at least eight seconds, a dog living in its kennel in some snow.

This seemingly innocuous display of heart warming Christmas spirit (a little boy brings his pet dog a present) has generated over a 1,000 posts on their Facebook page and our understanding is they are under pressure to change the advert.

Is this the way the new world is going? Dogs live in kennels, always have done and always will. My chickens live outside, should I feel guilty? Should I bring them in? By posting this will I be targeted for not caring enough for my chickens and not bringing them in when it gets cold?

Social media is a great force for good and everyone should have a voice, but scenarios like this beg the question – at what point do you listen and at what point do you stand your ground?  

I for one think it is cute that the boy loves his dog enough to buy, wrap and deliver a present to a pet he obviously loves. He just doesn’t happen to want a great big shaggy dog wandering round his house.

When monitoring social media, context is everything and organisations need to have that in the forefront of their mind before they make any decisions. In this case, I think the course of action and response is clear. Brands need to know when to stand their ground and stay true to their original principles. Even if it means that some people will put them in the dog house (sorry couldn’t resist it.)

Look East

One of the benefits of this role is that other members of the team are continually jumping on and off planes to far flung places and in the place of some local chocolates bought at the airport it is always good to hear what they learnt. Recently, Catherine Cross our Director of Media Training returned from Kazakhstan from a week’s senior exec training.  Now, I hear you cry, what could I possibly glean from a country who only achieved independence from Russian 20 years ago?

Surprisingly more than you’d think.

Did you know that Kazakhstan has circa 1,500 media outlets, the majority of which have grown in the last decade? This is new media in its purest sense, but why should you care? Well these new emerging markets provide a fascinating insight into how media develops in the hot house of new technology. With no democratic print history to call upon, the country’s media has in effect skipped a generation while at the same time seeing media control shift from the state to powerful publishers with their own political agenda. Different masters, different ideologies, same pressures in striving for a free media.

So what can we learn from a media that only has a potential audience of 16 million? As one of the new emerging markets, with a surplus of oil and other natural resources it will not be long before the joys of Astana airport will be a regular topic on business travel forums.

Even more relevant for those of us involved in preparing clients for the media, my colleague’s experience really brought home how important focus and clear messaging is. With our highly developed media we are always looking for new ways to get our message(s) across in these new emerging markets where the pressure has shifted. If your message isn’t clear and focused, the journalist won’t be and the resulting coverage will be vague to say the least. Equally we are all prepared for the Paxman style of questioning, but an open-ended question with an inexperienced journalist can be just as dangerous. Drop your guard at your peril.

More importantly, research is key. Who owns the media, what is their agenda, where does your messaging fit with their overall objectives, who is their audience? These are all things that sometimes get taken for granted.

I am sure we all go through this process afresh every time we put our clients in front of the media, but sometimes it takes the cold, harsh winds of the Central Asian Steppes to bring it into sharp relief.

Next stop for Catherine is Russia in a couple of weeks – hope she has packed her big fluffy hat.