The PR Guru

January 2, 2010

PR Gaffes of the Year 2009 (Part Five)

“Hey Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’m going to let you finish . . . but Kanye West had one of the biggest PR disasters of all time!”

Yes, not content with having a reputation for egomania and humourlessness which South Park devoted an entire episode to ridiculing, Kanye West decided to annoy as many people as possible with his actions at the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Country and Western cutie Taylor Swift accepted the gong for best video, West jumped onstage, grabbed the microphone and informed the audience that Beyonce should have won.

Despite having since apologised repeatedly on various TV shows, West’s reputation is still in tatters. Even President Obama was overheard calling him a “jackass”.

Unless Kanye releases a truly fantastic album pretty soon at some point in the new year to remind everyone why he’s famous in the first place, he really might not be able to recover from this.

September wasn’t just about celebrities though; one American mother caused a serious headache for Whirlpool and their Maytag brand.

Heather Armstrong, a “Mommy-blogger” who has built up a large following online with her regular series of posts on childcare, organised a huge online campaign to boycott Whirlpool’s “Maytag” line after experiencing extremely poor customer service while trying to get her new washing machine repaired.

The drive garnered so much support that Whirlpool were forced to publicly offer to replace the faulty unit and one on their U.S. management team phoned Ms. Armstrong to apologise personally.

This is another in a long line of examples of what can be achieved by really working to build your internet presence.

October also saw the power of internet users coming into effect. Both of the major PR failures this month were driven by web-users; Twitter-ers in particular.

Everybody was shocked by the sudden death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately; he passed away at the age of 33 just as the band were gearing up to launch their new album.

But even more shocking than Gately’s death was an article written by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir a few days before his funeral.

In the article, Moir asserted that Gately’s death was a direct result of his homosexuality. She then went on to declare that civil partnerships were a failure and that the homosexual lifestyle led inevitably to licentiousness and drug use.

The backlash was massive; celebrities like Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker led the charge on Twitter, Marks & Spencer and Nescafe withdrew their advertising and the Press Complaints Commission website received so many complaints that it crashed.

A similar Twitter-storm erupted over the attempts to prevent The Guardian publishing an article on Swiss commodities-trading company Trafigura.

The Guardian had intended to publish an article on a question asked by an MP about freedom of the press and whistleblowers in two cases, one involving Trafigura. The question had been asked in Parliament and, therefore, it was free for anyone to report on.

Carter Ruck, Trafigura’s lawyers, obtained an injunction to prevent the article going to print. What The Guardian did print, however, was a notice that they had been gagged and that Carter Ruck was responsible. With this information, a number of internet sources were able to infer that the article was about Trafigura.

News of the gagging order soon spread via the internet; people were incensed by the idea that a large corporation could silence the press with legal threats.

The only way to describe Carter Ruck’s actions is “own goal”.

Had they not been so aggressive in the defence of their client then the story would never have become what it did; the article would have come and gone and, had anything been picked up on, it probably would have been the reference to Barclays which formed the other half of the question.

As it is, Trafigura have now earned a place on the “evil corporations” list in the minds of many members of the public.

Sadly they haven’t earned the award for October – that honour goes to Jan Moir. Well done Jan! Perhaps spouting your horrible homophobic bile was worthwhile after all!

October 16, 2009

When it’s best just to keep your mouth shut…

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardswancott @ 5:29 pm
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Following on from my blog the other day about Trafigura wishing they’d kept their mouth shut (or at least not tried to keep The Guardian’s mouth shut), here’s another PR gaffe from someone who really should be keeping their opinions to themselves.

Now the fact the latest outcry has been caused by an article in the Daily Mail should be no surprise to anyone. Although what is surprising is they haven’t blamed something on asylum seekers this time 🙂

But for an experienced journalist like Jan Moir to use words like ‘sleazy’ to describe the circumstances surrounding Stephen Gately’s sad death, and then go off on a rant about the ‘myth of civil partnerships’ is a little bit crass and in bad taste – don’t you think?

Again though the growing influence of social media has come to the fore – there has been another outcry on Twitter in response to her vile comments, only a couple of days after the one about Carter-Ruck.

Just type #jan moir into the Twitter search box and see what I mean.

Alongside that, a group has been set up on Facebook (and already has almost 4000 members), the article has drawn nearly 700 comments on the Mail website, and Moir has been forced to issue a statement. Although she doesn’t sound too apologetic.

Think this one might run for a while…

October 13, 2009

Is all publicity really good publicity?

There is an old adage which says ‘all publicity is good publicity’ – in other words just getting your name in the paper, whether it’s a positive or a negative story, is a good idea.

Is that really the case, or is it more a case of ‘no news is good news’?

I’d say the reality is somewhere between the two. A lot of stories can be presented as a positive one for your company. Even the bad ones.

For example, take a story about turnover. If a company has had a record year, turnover is usually expressed in actual figures – and why not? We don’t reward ourselves enough in business when we hit or beat those targets!

Alternatively, if a company has had an average year, turnover is often expressed as a percentage. That’s because the majority of people will not bother to find out what it equates to – assuming the figures are even submitted to Companies House.

It can also be reported as a percentage if you’re a small business, starting from a lower base. You could say your turnover has grown by 100%, even if you’ve just gone from one customer to two!

I jest of course, but this is perhaps why PR has a bit of a bad reputation for ‘spinning’ the story, and why PR agencies in Staffordshire and elsewhere are often distrusted. You could say PR has an image problem 🙂

Anyway I am drifting off the point slightly here. Yes, many stories can be presented in a good light. But not all.

In a way I would hate to be the PR person for Royal Mail, Trafigura or even our MPs at the moment. All three have done themselves absolutely no favours this week.

On the other hand, anyone experienced in crisis management could make an absolute fortune with these projects!

They would certainly have their work cut out with the Trafigura job. It’s rare that something backfires so disastrously as their attempt to stop The Guardian reporting from Parliament this week.

It’s known as the Streisand Effect – a company tries to stop news coming out, but by doing so immediately makes the story bigger than it would’ve been.

I think what it’s also shown is that social media like Twitter are beginning to find their feet and play a major part in reporting and making the news. Without the outcry on Twitter over the gagging order, Trafigura‘s lawyers Carter-Ruck would never have had to back down.

You may wonder why a PR man is waffling on about press freedom, in the light of what I said earlier about the presentation – or some might say the manipulation – of stories.

It’s quite simple though really. The PR industry needs the media as much as the media needs the PR industry. One can’t exist without the other.

But more importantly without press freedom, or something close to it, we can’t function as a society.

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