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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.
TV consumer reporters, more than any others I’ve observed in my career, are very fond of the ‘gotcha’ interview. When they can’t get a spokesperson or official to agree to a formal interview, they often just show up with a camera in a parking garage, or at the office door, or outside the elevators. It’s a great strategy when you want to get someone on tape primarily saying, I can’t talk to you about that now. Because most of the time, that’s the result of the gotcha. And the reporter almost always turns that into the impression that the spokesperson was evading the questions, which of course, they often are doing.
But in media relations, we know that sometimes the gotcha ambush seems unfair, and our spokesperson would answer those questions if the timing was different. Still, when you or your spokesperson are caught out, is evasion the best tactic?
In Canada, CBC Marketplace are big users of the gotcha interview. Check out last week’s episode (go to about 16:15 on the video) where they ambush an autobody shop manager, who walks out on them and looks very guilty on camera. Or when Starbucks won’t give them an on-camera interview for a story about whether the coffee giant is really recycling cups as they claim (starts at about 8:00 on the video), Marketplace just walks into the corporate office with a camera. They look evasive too. And there’s always the one where a provincial premier’s PR rep refused to let her boss be interviewed in a dismissive, gum-chewing manner.
But I’ve got to call out a St. Louis PR rep for her high-handed manner in blocking a camera and reporter from interviewing her boss. Not only is she obtrusive and made herself the story by blocking the gotcha interview, but if you watch the video below, her boss was handling things fine before she stepped in and made it worse.
Local Fox news consumer reporter Elliott Davis was doing a story about St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green’s take-home car, which was paid for by taxpayers. He couldn’t get a scheduled interview, so he decided to ambush her in the hallway outside her office. Ms. Green was handling the gotcha pretty well, but then her media relations rep, Melanie Streeper, stepped in and made it much worse. According to some reports, she said the word “no” 36 times as she physically inserted herself (and her large file folder) between the reporter, his camera and Ms. Green.
And when the reporter tried to schedule an interview after that encounter, as offered by Ms. Green, Ms. Streeper emailed him that “No sit-down will be scheduled until we have all of your questions sent to us.” When I teach media training, I always point out that reporters hate being asked for questions and find it insulting, so don’t ever ask unless your client is the head of state or something similarly important. I guess Ms. Streeper missed that lesson, because her refusal just made her boss, and her, look worse.
The ambush gotcha interview may not be a media relations rep’s favourite situation, but it doesn’t have to end like this. And it seems Ms. Streeper is no longer working for the St. Louis Comptroller’s office, so maybe it was a hard lesson to learn for her.
Canada has a new prime minister, 43-year-old Justin Trudeau, and he’s the first Generation X-er to take power on the federal stage. The recent long (11 weeks!) election campaign played out in many strange ways, but let’s focus in on the generation issue and mistakes that were made in media campaigns targeting the generational divide.
Trudeau is 43, and his opponents for the Prime Ministerial job were 56 and 61. So it was the GenXer against the baby boomers. If you’re Gen X, or if you follow Douglas Copeland or others who highlight the limited role GenXers have had in business and power due to their demographic bad luck in following on the heels of a baby boom, you’d know that we (yes, I’m a proud, card-carrying GenXer) have spent our careers following in the shadow of boomers. Boomers got to the job market before us, and then didn’t move up and leave. There were so many of them that GenXers got cut out of a lot of opportunities. The same thing had been happening with corridors of power (and tv series and music, but don’t get me started). That’s why we’re bitter and resentful of the generation that preceded us.
So it wasn’t overly surprising that one of the big themes of Trudeau’s opponents was the he was “just not ready” to be prime minister. Because he’s too young, was the implied theme. Because only those older and wiser than him could accomplish anything substantial. Because only a boomer could be trusted to manage the economy. The television commercial that stands out in this campaign was the one where a bunch of boomers sit around a table talking about how Trudeau is too new and young to be trusted. Yet.
This theme may have played well with older voters, but given the results, it seems to have backfired with anyone younger than 50-something. Trudeau and his party swept into power and he’s just appointed a cabinet full of GenXers and even younger Millennials (and a few boomers). And in perhaps the best comment on why using a media strategy of pitting generations against each other is a bad idea, here’s Trudeau on why his cabinet is made up of equal numbers of men and women:
The lesson here is don’t discount those younger than you, understand your audiences better, and make sure your messages play to all generations without insult. It’s 2015, after all, and a new generational reality is taking hold.