Making fun of politicians is a time-honoured tradition. It’s what keeps editorial cartoonists in business. Many photographers, illustrators and reporters spend a lot of brain power trying to find ways to embarrass politicians, especially when on the campaign trail during an election. Most political PR people try very hard to avoid embarrassing photo opps or gaffes, but some just didn’t learn their lesson.
Back in 1997, Gilles Duceppe was the leader of Canada’s Bloc Québecois, a sovereignist party (i.e. supporting the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada) working at the federal level. The Bloc was running candidates only in Quebec’s seventy-five federal ridings, and this was Duceppe’s first federal election campaign as leader. The Bloc’s poor organization as well as its leader’s inexperience were much in the news at the time, and affected the party’s overall performance (they only won 44 seats, ten less than they had before the election).
In the middle of the election campaign, Gilles Duceppe visited an agro-business factory that produces cheese. All visitors are required by law to wear a hairnet while on the premises, so of course Duceppe donned a hairnet too, with photographers following him. Duceppe looked particularly funny in his hairnet, and was much ridiculed for it.
(Translation) Duceppe visits a cheese factory “…And tomorrow I’m going to visit a condom factory. Don’t miss that!”
In fact, it became a symbol of how silly the Bloc’s campaign and organization were in the election. The Globe and Mail described the hairnet as “a very goofy-looking rubber headgear” that made Duceppe “an early favourite for the Award for Most Preposterous Photo-Op of the Campaign.” Duceppe fired his campaign manager, press liaison and media bus co-ordinator shortly after the cheese factory incident.
And that photo haunts Gilles Duceppe to this day. But he did go on to lead the party for more than a decade after that election, so it wasn’t all bad.
When marketing people look for big ideas, they often come up with some kind of stunt, hoping that the event attracts media attention (online or mainstream). These stunts are attractive to marketers for their “PR-value”, as in “Think of all the free PR we’ll get.” And yes, sometimes they work and brands get a lot of good attention. But sometimes, the attention isn’t really the kind the marketer had in mind.
Take for example Snapple’s idea to promote its new line of frozen treats in 2005 through attempting to set a Guinness World Record by erecting a 7.62-metre-tall popsicle in New York’s Union Square. It was a summer day, and guess what, the giant popsicle melted and turned into a sticky pink mess.
Snapple flooded Union Square with 1.75 tons of kiwi-strawberry-flavoured melting juice, with the liquid gushing out of a truck that was meant to haul the giant popsicle to the area. Pedestrians fled, police and fire departments were called to the area, and Snapple officials stopped the Snapple-raising at a crowd-disappointing 25-degree angle — no record, but lots of media coverage. The mushy giant block was then trucked away and a television-sized ice sculpture in the shape of the Snapple logo took its place, while city workers had to hose the area down.
Of course, this lesson could have been learned by marketers a century earlier. This kind of thing goes back a long, long way.
Take for example, the Crush, Texas train crash of 1896. Before the turn of the last century, a marketer working for the Missouri-Kansas Texas railroad, known as the “Katy,” had the idea to put on a big train wreck as a spectacle. This was the brainchild of William Crush (I didn’t make that up!), the man in charge increasing passenger sales on the Katy. He noted that train wrecks held a morbid fascination for many people, so he convinced his bosses to stage a head-on train collision and invite the public out to watch.
Crush chose an isolated spot in Texas, where two aging locomotives each carrying a few surplus cars would crash into each other after their crews jumped to safety. The area offered hills on three sides where the public could watch but be “safely” away from the crash. They built the track, a station platform, and grandstands, bandstands, a midway, and more to house the spectators.
Media ate up the story and gave the event a lot of publicity. While viewing the crash was free, the railway charged a reduced train fare to the crash site ($2 from any location in Texas). On September 15, 1896, nearly 40,000 people showed up in the new town of Crush, Texas, temporarily making it the second-largest city in the state.
At 5 pm, with the hills crowded with onlookers, the two trains got the signal and took off towards each other and the crash point. In moments there was a deafening sound and the big crash, but things didn’t go according to plan.
The two engines telescoped together, their boilers exploding at once, sending “flying missiles of iron and steel, varying in size from a postage stamp to a half a driving wheel. Tens of thousands scrambled to avoid the iron and wood debris catapulting through the sky. Distance was no guarantee of safety; debris peppered the crowd and pocked the earth as far as 300 yards away. (From history.net) Three people died, and many more were injured.
But here’s the funny part of this story. The public outcry was minimal. The railway quietly settled lawsuits brought by injury victims and families of the dead, but Texans seemed to like the chutzpah of a railway that staged its own wreck. Business on the Katy boomed, and the crash became something of an inside joke, with other businesses using it as their own advertising strategies. For example, the press photographer who was hit by a stray bolt that ripped through his right eye and lodged in his brain, later took out a newspaper ad reading, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”
Still, you think marketers would learn from this train wreck of an idea and be more cautious when planning their next stunts. Can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out today, with everyone tweeting and instagramming photos from the disaster? Not a good PR move, I think.
In an era where our smart phones are practically velcroed to our hands all day, it’s not surprising that apps and websites that review consumer experiences have a lot of power to influence public opinion. This is especially true in the hospitality industry, where consumer reviews are overtaking media reviews in importance.
Run a tour company? Better get more positive reviews on Expedia or Travelocity. Run a hotel? Keep an eye on comments on Bookings.com or Expedia. And it’s not just travellers reading and writing reviews. Locals have their own sway over restaurants in a way not possible before. Yelp reviews have become super important to restauranteurs, even if they don’t want to admit it. The power of an individual to whine out loud, whether right or wrong, is now huge.
So now that you’re dealing with disgruntled individuals and not journalists with editors or codes of ethics, what do you do with bad reviews? When I teach media relations, I always advise that any bad publicity or errors in media coverage must be viewed in context. Weigh the negative impacts of any complaint you might make (pissing off the writer or editor, for starters) against the importance of having any incorrect information corrected. If they got your title wrong, leave it alone. If they got your URL wrong, maybe do something. But what do you do when the negative effect is from a consumer review?
One Ottawa company thought they should threaten to sue. CLV Group, an Ottawa property rental firm, was not pleased when a former tenant posted unflattering reviews of them on Google and Yelp. And while she posted anonymously, CLV Group somehow figured out who she was and sent her a threatening legal letter demanding she take them down. She’s a student who was frightened enough by the letter to comply, but later went to CBC who published a story about it. CLV doesn’t look good in all this, and I would never look to them for an apartment rental after that. CLV responded to CBC saying:
“When anonymous comments are posted by a resident where the content and details of the posting make it clear who the resident may be, we attempt to reach out to the resident to rectify their concerns.”
Wow. Reach out, sure, but threaten legal action and costs? Well, that’s one approach. But perhaps an equally defensive but better PR approach is the one taken by a Kansas City restaurant.
A woman wanted to order takeout from Voltaire. The restaurant told her they don’t do takeout, sorry. But she was unhappy at how she felt they treated her, and threatened to post a negative review on Yelp. And she did, a one-star review.
“Most unfriendly and arrogant restaurant in KC. Just called Voltaire to try to order some food because we’re in a late business meeting across the street…they said they won’t pack food to go. My husband spoke to the manager…and asked if they can pack our dinner (which we would pick up). The hostess flat-out refused to answer our question about the food or to try and work with us so we could get food in our meeting. My husband asked to speak with the manager. The manager, Jamie, said, “our food is plated beautifully, and we can’t put it in a ‘to go’ container.” So thanks, Jamie, we’ll just starve. (What the manager said is just not true by the way–we’ve eaten there before, and they did pack our food to go.)…We regularly travel to NYC and eat at a variety of restaurants, which are more than happy to accommodate people by packing food to go. This restaurant thinks they’re too good for their customers. They will soon learn that if you ignore your customers, they’re going to start ignoring you. I would not even give this place one star after this experience, and I’m dismayed by their unprofessional and arrogant behaviour.”
Not the most mature review I’ve read, but hey, she was angry and took to the interweb to vent. We’ve all wanted to do that at some point. But the real key is the response from the manager, who stood his ground and made the reviewer look pretty silly.
“I sincerely apologize that we don’t offer “take-out” food at our restaurant…We have never offered take-out food as we believe the food we prepare should be presented as we see fit, (usually) on a plate inside the dining room… Although we do allow our guests to take their uneaten food with them in to-go boxes after they have dined with us, we have never offered “take-out” food.
If you were actually starving, as in a life threatening condition requiring nutritional sustenance, we would be happy to assist you..we do make exceptions for emergency situations.
…I can assure you that we don’t offer “take-out” food because we feel we are “too good” for our customers; we just prefer to have our guests dine with us, allowing for the proper presentation (and temperature) of their fare that has been skillfully prepared by our kitchen.
It was made REPEATEDLY clear in the conversation with your husband that he is a lawyer. Let me provide the following analogy/role reversal…it may assist in clarifying your request.
YOU: I want to hire you to handle my divorce.
ME: But, I’m a tax lawyer.
YOU: I don’t care…I want you to handle my divorce.
ME: Sorry, but I don’t practice that form of law.
YOU: Just handle my divorce, I’ll pay you…it will be fine.
ME: I don’t feel comfortable providing my services as a divorce lawyer, as I am a tax lawyer. You won’t receive the service you are wanting or that I am willing to provide.
YOU: Well, I travel to NYC often, and in NYC, Tax lawyers handle my divorce litigation all the time. I don’t know what the problem is. I’ve told you I’m a chef, right?
ME: Well, that’s nice sir, but I really can’t help you. It goes against my business practice.
YOU: If you don’t represent me in my divorce, I’m going to post it all over the [most frequented social media review of lawyers] that you refused to provide me with the service I requested, and make baseless allegations about how you are very pretentious, arrogant and unprofessional. I will also try to prevent you from getting any additional business by damning you on said social media platform. Now will you represent me?
ME: I don’t take kindly to threats.
Thanks for your feedback. We will let you know if we decide in the future to practice divorce law, I mean, provide “take-out” food.”
The reply is saucy, biting, sarcastic, and most of all, funny. It shows that the restaurant has a sense of humour and a sense of pride in how they serve their food. It makes the reviewers look petty, without actually being mean to them. Personally, I’d visit this place if I find myself in Kansas City. Of course, not everyone likes this kind of back and forth, and while Voltaire got a whole lot of publicity for their response, one comment from the foodie community perhaps summed it all up best:
“Apparently all sorts of immature people (on both sides of the street) in KC.”
Note: I’ve edited the review and the response a bit for brevity, but you can read the full text online.