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.

“We all just want our lives back”

As media commentators continue to pick through the carnage following the Deepwater Horizon blowout, some interesting insights are bubbling to the service. For those of you that saw the BBC’s Money Programme, one of the defining moments that shone through was a quote from Tony Hayward that.. “Maybe if I had achieved a degree from RADA rather than in Geology, things would have been different.”

Now for me that is a defining quote, what type of people do we want running these global organisations? Experts in their field who have a deep understanding of their operations? Or trained orators who can deliver impressive sound bites?

In the ideal world we would have both, but the reality is that the combination is pretty rare. For example, would you like Richard Branson to fly you and family across the Atlantic? Or (far more worryingly) step on a plane piloted by Michael O’Leary? No! All of these people, including Tony Hayward, have realised the benefit of surrounding themselves with experts in their field. In Tony Hayward’s case, you would have to argue he was let down not by his statements, but by the people who put him in that position in the first place.

The first objective for any business is to minimise the likelihood of a crisis, but incidents can and will arise and from that point on, the imperative has to be to deploy the best people to do the best jobs at the right time and place.

I for one have a certain amount of sympathy for Tony Hayward, he paid a high personal price as you would expect, but I think he came away with some new found respect for the how the media machine operates. I can pretty much guarantee the media won’t find it so easy to ambush him in his next role. Just need to remember that not everyone gets a second chance in situations like this.

Is a Twitter parody account the new face of crisis management?

The rise in popularity of parody Twitter accounts is forcing many companies to take a walk down the hall of mirrors and have a good, hard look at themselves.

 

Oh I do hope so.

You see, for several years (and numerous blog posts) I’ve been banging on about how reputation management for companies largely depends on their ability to not p*** people off.

That’s not so much a function of your Communication or Marketing department as it is a commitment by management and their staff to behave in a way that consumers (and by extension, society in general) find acceptable.

In many instances, things that are popularly called “crises” are cases where a brand’s behaviour violates the promise the company made to its market.

In other words, if you represent yourself as a big corporate evil, and behave as such, then people will generally accept you for who you are. You may not be popular, but at least you’re honest.

Similarly, if you represent yourself as a benevolence personified, so long as you behave accordingly, you’re going to be fine.

It’s when you tell people one thing, and then behave in a contrary way, that companies run into trouble.

And so to Twitter, and while there’s an element of truth to the fact a blog post about Twitter and crisis management is purely link bait to the Twitterati marketing community, this post is hopefully something pragmatic for readers to work with.

Courtesy of Tim Whitlock, a technical consultant to the communications industry in London, I’ve come across Twitter’s point of view with respect to parody accounts.

You know the ones, the kind with handles like @BPGlobalPR, or @GapLogo, or formerly @sean376 (yes, we miss you). The ones whose follower counts eclipse those of the brands they seek to mock, usually many times over.

Here’s the important bit: “Twitter provides a platform for its users to share and receive a wide range of ideas and content, and we greatly value and respect our users’ expression. Because of these principles, we do not actively monitor users’ content and will not edit or remove user content, except in cases of violations of our Terms of Service.”

Ah. That’s a problem. The fastest-growing publishing platform in the world is actively encouraging amateur humourists to take the proverbial, right under the noses of the world’s biggest brands.

And here’s the thing. While journalism has a professional code of ethics, and Jo Q Public citizen journalist does have to operate within some (albeit largely misunderstood) defamation and libel laws…parody is arguably an artform, and in many places occupies a more privileged space.

The problem for brands that find themselves the subject of one of these accounts is, therefore, exacerbated beyond the now infamous Streisand Effect. Not only is taking action going to draw attention to something you want hidden, it’s going to show you up as being a bad sport. After all, we all remember the primary-school mantra taught by our parents: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Oh, but they will. How then, does a multinational corporation, responsible for the salaries of a hundred thousand employees and the wellbeing of their families, guard against such public humiliation and reputational damage? Sure, you could try “engaging in the dialogue” or “joining the conversation”. Right. And heckling Billy Connolly’s also a good idea.

The answer is disappointingly simple, and despairingly unattainable. You have to take the oxygen away from the fire. Without fuel, fire doth not burn.

The only way to avoid criticism is…not to upset people. Bugger, that’s going to be tough. Just ask the folk over at Gap Towers. Heeding the boundaries of the consumer comfort zone pretty much kills all chance of innovation, development, edgy marketing campaigns, or even fun. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to write this drivel for starters.

So here’s a compromise. Live your brand. Articulate the values you stand for. Proclaim them from every wall of your HQ, post them on every tea-room notice board, bulk out your email signature with the ten things your brand lives by. And then go out and live it. People may not like it. But if you do what you say, they’ll accept, and usually, respect you for it.

But understand this: Living your brand is not your best defence. It’s your only defence.

Are you using social media to help with your product recall planning?

Here at Issues & Crisis Management central we’ve got a bit of a focus on product recalls at the minute, but so far haven’t looked at the adoption of social media as a communication tool that’s useful for this kind of challenge.

Fortunately, while we’ve been napping the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been on the job, according to this story on Networkworld.com.

As the ACCC sees it, social media is now trumping the daily newspaper advertisement as the single-most effective communication tool for advising consumers of a product recall, due largely to the expansion of broadband internet access across populations.

This is probably more true for countries with a fairly well-established broadband infrastructure, although the combination of growing mobile networks and increasing uptake of mobile web browsing point to a similar status quo emerging in markets without the cable infrastructure.

For those readers looking for a few tips, there’s a very informative, if long, video right here at SmartBlog that you can look at. Alternatively, try on the five pointers below for a quick 101:

  1. Use social media as an extension of your other product recall communication efforts. Avoid the trap of thinking you need a different message for your internet audience – at the end of the internet is the same consumer who used to read the newspaper. Usually.
  2. Be thoughtful about the detail you provide. There are usually regulatory requirements for product recall information – make sure you meet the relevant local regulations. But try to enhance the information by being as specific as possible – the more information you can provide, the fewer actual products you’ll have to get back, and the clearer the message to consumers will be.
  3. Use visuals. In the internet age none of us has the attention span for a great slab of information. If this blog post wasn’t so important you’d have already stopped reading.
  4. Support your consumer care phone line with an online option. If you’re short on staff, a web-based FAQ may be the best you can come up with – it’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Try to dedicate some resources to managing electronic enquiries though; it’s the way of the future so you may as well start getting used to it now. And remember that the internet works 24/7…
  5. Don’t get into a discussion about the recall online. If an individual consumer has individual concerns, try to give them a more personal hearing – phone’s usually your best option. Every consumer’s concerns are valid, but during a recall your priority has to be the well-being of a bigger population, and that usually means shuffling individual complaints into a linked, but ultimately different system. If appropriate, add similar questions to your FAQ once you’ve satisfactorily resolved the consumer’s concerns. Just make sure you don’t cut them off.

Managing product recall risk: retail channel

How closely is your business’s communication department tied into your reseller or retail network? If the answer is “not very” or similar then you’re likely to find yourself up against it in the event of a product recall.

Effective recalls depend on clear communication to stakeholders, and a committed effort by retailers to remove affected product from shelves as quickly as possible is the most visible example of this in action. But proper planning for a recall extends beyond just clearing shelves.

  • Careful monitoring of customer complaints to identify any possible product safety issues. If you have a product issue that hasn’t been picked up through your usual quality assurance/control processes, chances are the first you’ll hear of it is when the consumer complaints start getting back to you. Making sure that you have systematic monitoring of complaints helps identify potential issues much more quickly, which means you can intervene earlier, with better outcomes for both consumers and your business. It’s easier and cheaper to recall one hundred units of something than it is to recall a thousand.
  • Well prepared and rehearsed recall and crisis communications plan. Yes, obviously I’m going to say this because I work in crisis communication. The thing is, that doesn’t make the point any less relevant. Having worked on numerous recalls (and a number of near misses), on both sides of the world, I can tell you first-hand that the thing that makes the biggest difference is working with a team of people who know what they’re doing. That means having a plan, and knowing how to use it.
  • Suppliers/manufacturers should have responsibility for taking out recall insurance. Recalls are expensive things, and no-one ever wants to have one, so it’s a really good idea to cover yourself for the possibility that one day you’re going to have to stump for some kind of product recall. There are expenses at literally every step and the costs can mount quickly. Seriously, you have car insurance, home insurance, health insurance…why wouldn’t you do this as well?
  • Strict security measures at retail level to minimise product tampering risk. While we’d all like to believe the best of people, the fact remains that sometimes people tamper with products, and they do it for all manner of reasons. Part of the defence against this comes down to the security measures taken by retailers. It’s also helpful for ruling out actual tampering in cases where consumers have tried to fraudulently claim a product had an issue. I’ve worked at least two recall cases where store CCTV helped police identify a tampering or fraud suspect, averting the need for an actual recall.

If you’ve already had a go at playing Zurich’s risk management game, go back and see how you do now we’ve given you some of the answers (and yes, we have).

Tim Luckett talks recall and reputation with Communication World

As our regular readers would be aware, our unofficial theme of the month is product recall communication.Coincidentally, US-based industry magazine, Communication World, has featured an opionion piece on this topic, by our very own Lead Counsel for issues and crisis management, Tim Luckett.

If you’re a subscriber to CW you should definitely check it out because there’s a whole special feature on crisis management that’s worth at least two morning commutes. However if you’re not signed up, you could always try this version over at All Business.

Managing product recall risk: consumers

Following on from last week’s post featuring Zurich’s online product recall risk management game, we thought (based on some fairly shirty feedback from an individual with a disappointingly low score) that we’d provide some additional information that may be helpful.

There are five stages in the game, which correspond with stages in the manufacturing-consumption process, each with a series of risks that you need to categorise. The different stages are: Manufacturing, Packaging, Distribution, Retail and Consumer. Since most people working in PR are looking at the relationship with consumers, we’ll start there and work backwards over the next few posts. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the recession making us smarter?

posted by Peter Roberts

Figures from the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations would suggest that the tough times are proving to be a healthy catalyst for our mental wellbeing.

As a nation, we appear to be jettisoning the ribaldry of the lads’ mags for a different form of stimulation, as extended by those titles, WH Smith would collectively label, Current Affairs.

What’s the evidence? Weekly heavyweight, The Economist grew circulation in every region it operates worldwide in the first half of the year, while news ‘collage’, The Week saw growth of 6.7% year-on-year. Furthermore, David Goodhart’s Prospect enjoyed a jump of over 10% compared to the same time last year. What more, Private Eye posted a 0.5% increase year-on-year, while The Oldie showed growth of 9.1%.

Meanwhile, in the more tabloid corner, trade is positively sluggish.  Bauer Media’s, Zoo, was down by 27.9% year on year. Its older stable mate, Loaded lost 26.3% of its sales year on year, while IPC’s Nuts had wilted by 22% over the same time period.

So, there you have it – we’re swapping girl bands for Milibands, or are we? It is, of course, something of a specious argument, but probably holds a grain of truth in light of the usual pattern of self-improvement at times of uncertainty.