Mistakes in Media Relations

The art of asking the public their opinion, part one (British Gas)

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.

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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:

 

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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.

When the reporter does a ‘gotcha’, don’t tell him to talk to the hand

Melanie-StreeperTV 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.
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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.

Generation X is ready, baby boomers take note

justin-trudeau-20140220Canada 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.

Sticking to key messages is one way of justifying domain name blackmail

635642589994637065-sucksIn March 2015, a new top-level internet domain started selling new domains, but to many in the online and branding worlds, it was all blackmail. The controversy made news, mainstream and online, for a couple months, especially when the US and Canadian internet regulators said they would look into it.

But what really caught my eye (well, ear really), was how the company selling the .sucks domains responded to its critics. In all the interviews I heard and saw, the same CEO was quoted saying the same messages, and stuck to his guns in a polite and lighthearted way. I may not agree with the company’s business practices, but I gotta admire their media relations strategy and execution.

Here’s the story: This past year a bunch of new top-level domain names were offered for sale. When the domain .sucks became available, the company selling this top-level domain, Vox Populi, began by charging a lot of money to brands for their .sucks domains, to prevent the public from owning a domain that might leave their brand open for criticism.

The .sucks sale began with a 60-day sunrise period, where the domain names are available only to trademark holders to buy their names before they go on sale to the general public. Normally a sunrise period for a new domain name would see the domains being sold for a few hundred each, but the company selling .sucks, was asking $2500 US. And that would be the price every year. Many critics called this brand blackmail, since companies who didn’t buy their brand.sucks domain could find it in the hands of those wanting to say mean things about them. The price was described as “predatory,” and critics were saying the seller was “trying to shake down large companies.”

Vox Populi, however, said owning a .sucks domain was for the greater good of society. Their CEO John Berard was quoted as saying:

“If we’re successful in making .sucks a recognized location on the internet, not only will it give people the opportunity to say what they want to say, but it will increase the chance that what they have to say will be heard by the people they’re saying it about.”

A promotional video on their website even features Ralph Nader and Martin Luther King Jr.

I heard Vox Populi CEO John Berard on an interview with CBC’s Day 6 radio program. The show offered a lot of criticism of the whole .sucks situation, but Berard stuck firmly to his messaging about a .sucks domain.

“It provides a clean, well-lighted place for the kind of criticism that customers want to be sure is heard and companies can leverage for improvement…My hope is that companies, institutions and governments will see the value of creating, cultivating and managing that website so as to get a handle sooner, better more meaningfully on criticisms that might be coming it way.”

And when asked about brands having to buy their .sucks domains to block and silence critics, he said:

“Our hope is that smart people inside these successful companies will see the value of launching this site and cultivating the commentary. We have set pricing for the names so as to encourage their use…The motivation for our doing this has been to establish these websites. I can only hope that our intent will be matched my market action and that there will be over time a new class of comment and criticism that emerges.

Nothing shook Berard from his key messages, and he never got upset or rose to any of the criticism. It was a great example of how to manage media situations and come out smelling if not sweet, then at least not bad, on the other side.

Now that the sunrise period has ended, anyone can buy a .sucks name for about $250 US, although the company says this fall some people can apply for subsidized sites for as little as $10/year. And yet, Vox Populi says that some “market premium” domain names (defined by the company as “names that the market over time have designated as having a high value”) are only available if you shell out $2500.

That kinda sucks, but if it blows up, I think their CEO can handle the criticism.