Mistakes in Media Relations
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So in honour of that, today’s blog post is about how to create messages aimed at women. And a hint, it’s not just to write them in pink ink.
(When I was uploading the pink Lego photo, my son said: “It’s so stupid that they think just because they made it pink it’s for girls.” Very smart, my son! He might be guest blogging for me soon.)
Bic Pen for Females
In 2012, the internet blew up a little in response to a new line of pens from Bic called the Bic for Her. It’s basically a regular Bic Pen but in various pink, purple and mint green colours, and marketed at women. Because, one assumes, women were tired of men stealing their blue or red pens and wanted one they could keep for themselves. It boasts features like “elegant design – just for her!” and a “thin barrel to fit a women’s hand.”
In case you don’t understand why this is a bad idea, let me explain in easy words. By making a pen for only women, you are implying that the pens you made before were only for men, or perhaps that women were unable to use the ‘men’ pens, or that if a woman used a ‘man’ pen she would do it wrong. Getting the words of your messages right is incredibly important, but the words you select also have implied meanings that must be considered.
Reviews and news coverage of the pens showed that consumers were seeing the implied messages of this marketing idea. Here are just a handful of the hundreds of scathing reviews posted on Amazon for the Bic for Her pens:
“Why would anyone even consider inventing this? Are normal pens not suited for women?…This pen is made specially for women because we cannot use normal pens correctly, I presume. This is why gender equality is not present in our current society.”
“I lent this to my brother so he could do all the math that was too hard for my lady brain, but as soon as he touched it, he… turned into a cloud of sparkles! These pens are too feminine for anyone other than women to use! Keep them away from your loved ones, or any man.”
“I had despaired of ever being able to write down recipes in a permanent manner, though my men-folk assured me that I ‘shouldn’t worry yer pretty little head.’ But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like callouses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!”
“I bought these pens as my ovaries dictated, but when I took them out of their packaging and tried to use them to note my car’s mileage they told me to get back into the kitchen where I belonged.”
Now I love a pink or purple pen as much as anyone, but by marketing these pens directly for women, Bic created implied messaging that didn’t paint their company in a favourable light, especially not with those who care about gender equality and feminism. Pens are pens, and you don’t need to be a certain gender to use certain pens. We’re not talking about the fit of work boots or underwear. If Bic felt inclined to sell more pink and purple pens, they could have simply sold pink and purple pens, without perpetuating gender stereotypes that most women in this decade thought were in the past.
Lego, take note.
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.
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.
The art of seeking public opinion and engagement has undergone a lot of change in the past decade, as the internet and social media have opened up the variety of ways in which we can ask people what they think, and the ease at which they can now tell us their thoughts. It’s got many advantages for the world of public engagement, but some organizations forget about the basics when planning an engagement campaign, and have seen disastrous results.
Take the case of British Gas. A couple years ago, they decided to get on board with Twitter and hold a “Twitter town hall”, where Customer Service Director, Bert Pijls, would answer questions from the public. They used the hashtag #AskBG.
It seems like a good idea on behalf of the social media team, but they forgot one basic rule of engagement — timing. The same day they launched #AskBG, they also hiked their rates by 10%, which was not a popular move. The hashtag quickly filled with some very witty put downs of the gas company:
Needless to say it didn’t go well for British Gas, and after an hour they gave it up.
Had this been timed better, BG might have been able to have true engagement with customers. But their timing was way off. And under the circumstances, they failed to use this surge of public participation to their own advantage. Some key messages, tweeted out, about their rationale for charging what they do (they must have had them!) might have helped. Or could they have directed tweeters to check out tips for fuel efficiency, maybe even in a cheeky way? Instead of letting the hashtag overtake them with negativity, they should have looked for ways to turn it around to advantage as quickly as possible.
Today’s lesson: When your organization wants to ask the public its opinion, be sure you know what you might hear and how you’ll deal with it before you open yourself up to public input.