Asking the public for their thoughts can be a great way of creating meaningful two–way engagement for your organization. It can also be a good marketing tool to use a contest to name something new, bringing your organization to the attention of the public and getting them involved in the company. But if you haven’t thought through what you’ll get when you ask, you could get disastrous results.
I’ve already shown you how British Gas messed up their attempt at engagement with a badly timed Twitter town hall, and how the Northwest Territories of Canada asked the public if they should be renamed and almost ended up being called “Bob.” Here is my final example in this series from my home province of British Columbia.
Proving that you need to consider the impact of engagement as part of your entire communications strategy is the story of BC Ferries. In a stroke of ‘genius’, the ferry corporation asked the public to suggest a name for its new class of boats. For another company, this might have been a strong campaign, but the BC public was pretty ticked off at a series of price hikes and service cuts by BC Ferries, so this engagement left the organization wide open to parody.
In May 2015, the ferry corporation opened a contest for new names for three intermediate class ferries, and offered a $500 prize. After only a few days, the public had submitted a lot of suggestions that, well, didn’t meet the organization’s naming criteria. Some of the ideas submitted (and talked about on social media!):
- Spirit of The WalletSucker
- Queen of No Other Choice
- The Spirit of Unfettered Capitalism
- Queen of the Cash Cow
- HMS Overdraft
- Coastal Fair Hike
- Spirit of Bad WiFi
- HMS Cantafford
- MV Sailing Wait
- Queen of the Damned
- Coastal Desperation
The Vancouver Sun noted that this contest was a fascinating peek into how the public viewed the ferry corporation:
…interesting to muse on how a public that once doted on a ferry system that helped define its collective identity has since arrived at the place from which it now sees it as a service to be mercilessly mocked as a symbol of over-priced ineptitude.
The marketing folks at the ferry corporation have been keeping a stiff upper lip over the keel-hauling, hoping the publicity will attract greater attention to the contest, a Twitter-era spin on that hoary print media proverb that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and it doesn’t matter what they print about you as they spell your name right.
In the end, the contest proceeded and the new ferries were called Salish Orca, Salish Eagle and Salish Raven. But since so many British Columbians saw this contest as another way to air their beefs about high prices and service problems, it was not a good exercise in engagement for BC Ferries.
BC Ferries should have found a way to recover from this mockery and take control of the messages coming out of this contest. They could have used some of the complaints in an announcement of a change in service, such as a new onboard menu, or improved WIFI service, showing that they were responsive to public opinion.
Or they could have gone in on the joke, gently poking fun at themselves by compiling their own list of top ten suggestions they would not be using. BC Ferries is not known for their sense of humour, but this might have been a lost opportunity to show a sense of deprecation that may have improved how the public responded to the organization. Instead, it was just a fizzle of a contest where those outside the organization, instead of BC Ferries themselves, controlled the messaging.
Today’s lesson: If your operations are not in the public favour, yet you open yourself up to very public input, get ready to laugh along with the commentary or have messaging ready that can respond to whatever the public throws at you.