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.
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
Coastal Fair Hike
Spirit of Bad WiFi
MV Sailing Wait
Queen of the Damned
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.
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.