We ask the public what they think all the time. It’s good practice to engage with our audiences, to learn from our customers and stakeholders, and to ensure that communications is not just one-way, but is truly two-way communications, a best practice in the PR industry. But sometimes, asking the public what they think can have unintended consequences, and you have to be prepared for what might happen. I recently shared the example of British Gas’ disastrous foray into a Twitter open house due to bad timing and poor preparation. Here’s a Canadian example from pre-Twitter time.
Way back when, in 1996 the Northwest Territories in Canada was going to be split into two territories. One of the new territories would be called Nunavut, but the name of the other territory was not yet decided.
A question was put to the public of whether the remaining territory should have a new name. People could submit suggestions by phone, fax, letter and e-mail. The public had some strong opinions, but some jokesters proposed calling it “Bob”, and “Bob” soon took off as the second most popular proposed name. Really. There’d be the Yukon, Nunavut and Bob.
After all, the proponents said:
“Government would no longer be ‘big brother,’ because “Bob’s your uncle!” and “Lots of neat official stuff would be immediately available to the new government — the official sport could be bobsledding, the official hairdo could be ‘the Bob,’ the RCMP could be renamed ‘Bobbies,’ etc.”.
The proponents were after a good laugh, but soon it had to be taken seriously. The government asking the question had failed to take into account the fact that the public loved using the new online tool of email. And they hadn’t limited the ask to NWT residents, so thousands of people outside of NWT started adding their votes, voting “Bob” near to the top spot.
Needless to say, the Territories were not renamed Bob, the contest didn’t proceed, and to this day, they are still the Northwest Territories.
Had the government limited participation in the poll, better understood how technologies would be used, set stronger rules about the kinds of names that could be proposed, or even had a cheeky response to explain why Bob couldn’t be the new name (For example, “We can’t call it Bob because it doesn’t translate well to Inuktikut“), this attempt to engage with NWT citizens might have been less of a joke.
Today’s lesson: When you ask a digitally connected public what they think, be sure you can either take a joke or be prepared with messaging in case what they think isn’t helping your cause.