The PR Guru

November 11, 2011


In light of today’s gaffes from Cornetto UK and British Gas (updating during the Remembrance Day silences – surely you know better than that!), I thought I’d mention some of my favourite epic fails of the past couple of years.

Coming in at three, it’s the 2009 fail from Domino’s Pizza.

When employees Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer filmed themselves doing vile stuff while they prepared their orders – none of which can be mentioned on a family blog – Domino’s management were so slow to respond it did untold damage to their brand in the States.

The video was posted on YouTube, and you can guess the rest – within days, it had been viewed over a million times, and by the time bosses had caught up with the puerile pair – who were subsequently fired and arrested – and posted their own reply on YouTube, the damage had been done.

Their mistake was to ignore what was being said about them on social media. Or perhaps they just didn’t know about it.

Make sure you are paying attention to what the world is saying about you online – it will help you nip a crisis in the bud and show how effective you are at dealing with customer service issues.

My second favourite is the complete failure of Nestle to deal with a Greenpeace campaign to save orang-utans in Borneo last year.

Greenpeace had put together a mock KitKat ad, substituting the chocolate fingers for orang-utan ones, and posted it on YouTube. The idea was to force Nestle to change suppliers of a key KitKat ingredient (palm oil), which had been sourced from the rainforests of Borneo – thus contributing to mass deforestation in the area and threatening the orang-utan habitat.

Nestle responded with aggression, making YouTube remove the film, and when people complained on Nestle’s Facebook and Twitter pages, they were dealt with rudely – making the situation ten times worse.

Eventually Nestle came to an agreement with Greenpeace, and changed their palm oil supplier, so all that fuss was for nothing.

My tip here is to be professional and courteous should someone be saying negative things about you on social media. Imagine how you would deal with a customer face-to-face if they had a problem – and then times it by ten, because the world is watching how you respond.

And finally, my Number One social media gaffe is courtesy of United Airlines, which caused irreparable damage to some guitars belonging to Canadian band Sons of Maxwell in 2008.

Instead of offering compensation, some free flights, or even an apology, the airline ignored the issue. As a response, the band wrote a song called United Breaks Guitars and posted it on YouTube. You can watch it here:

It has since become one of the most popular viral videos, being watched more than 11m times, and supposedly wiped $180m from UA’s share price. Cue some very unhappy shareholders! And all for the sake of an apology.

It’s easy for simple accidents to turn into a crisis – PR people deal with this all the time. The best response is always to be honest and face things head on – offer sincere apologies, and promise to launch thorough investigations. Don’t run away from it, because it will come back and bite you!

With that in mind, I thought one company dealt with a crisis very well this week. They probably won’t thank me for mentioning it, but a welder died of severe burns after an incident at the John Pointon & Sons animal rendering plant in Cheddleton, Staffordshire.

With the HSE investigating the incident, the firm clearly had to be circumspect about their comments, but here was their response…

A company spokesman said: “All at John Pointon and Sons, including directors and employees, are devastated by the tragic death of Mark Bullock, who was a highly valued member of the workforce.

“Our thoughts go out to his family and we are determined to find out how this tragic accident occurred.

“The company is co-operating with the investigation and as such cannot make any further comment.”

It remains to be seen what the HSE will make of what happened. And they may have another crisis to deal with when the findings are announced.

But saying nothing is not an option – it implies whatever has been said or written was correct, and in this case would’ve been seen as a tacit admission of guilt on the company’s part.

Compare that to Ryan Giggs’ response to the media stories about his private life (and Tiger Woods’ response last year).

They will have learnt to their cost that keeping a low profile/your mouth shut does not make the story go away.


December 14, 2010

Image of police is going to suffer due to atrocious illegal actions by officers during student protests

Police launched an internal investigation last night after footage emerged of a man being pulled out of his wheelchair and dragged across the road by an officer during Thursday’s student protest in London.

The grainy video on YouTube does not show the moment Jody McIntyre leaves his wheelchair but shows the 21 year old being dragged to the side of the road by an officer.

McIntyre was interviewed by BBC’s Ben Brown last night.

During the interview, Jody talks of how the media has ignored people like Alfie Meadows, who had to be hospitalised after receiving brain injuries, and what the media reaction would have been if Charles or Camilla were in the same situation. As expected, the presenter completely ignores that and asks whether Jody himself had thrown missiles at the police.

The presenter then later asks whether Jody had shouted anything that would have induced the police to take action.

McIntyre said it was the second time police had pulled him from his wheelchair during the protest. He said in the first incident several officers lifted him from his chair and carried him 100 yards.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan police service said that although no complaint had been received it had launched an investigation: “As a result of media coverage, the MPS directorate of professional standards is investigating the circumstances surrounding this matter.”

There has been mounting pressure on Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson after footage emerged showing an officer policing Thursday’s student protests not wearing identification.

Following the G20 protests last year, during which Ian Tomlinson died after being pushed to the ground by a police officer not wearing ID, Stephenson said it was “absolutely unacceptable” for officers to cover or remove their shoulder tags bearing identification numbers. However, a video taken by one of the protesters at Thursday’s London demonstration clearly shows an officer not displaying her ID.

On The Chris Moyles Show on Radio 1 this morning, Chris Moyles said that the BBC have been flooded with complaints about the interview Ben Brown did.

The complete opposite to this is the news that one of America’s top foreign policy advisors, Richard Holbrooke died following surgery to repair a torn aorta. His last words were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” He has been praised by the president and all the American government for his passion and dedication to peace.

September 29, 2010

Australia’s Next Top Model PR Disaster

Here at Richard Swancott Associates we are always on the lookout for PR Gaffes to share with you and there seems to be a never-ending supply.

Yet another PR disaster hit the headlines last night, with the news that Australia’s Next Top Model announced the wrong winner during the live final of its sixth series.

This is obviously a PR crisis for the TV show because, in the digital age, the announcement would have been spread across Twitter and the Internet as it happened. It has also found its way onto YouTube, here.

Kelsey Martinovich had been revealed as the champion (through the public voting system that is so popular these days) and was making an acceptance speech when presenter Sarah Murdoch (Rupert’s daughter-in-law, a model and TV presenter) interrupted her.

Ironically, Sarah was completely distraught to have to announce that the real winner was 18 year old Amanda Ware, but Martinovich took the news really well.

The most intriguing thing for us though is the way they attempted to cover up the gaffe by claiming that the lead kept changing and that it was an incredibly close decision. They also said that this was one of the drawbacks of live television.

Fox obviously felt obliged to compensate Martinovich for the mistake and gave her the equivalent of £15,162 and a free trip to the US by way of apology. Ware won an eight-page spread in a women’s magazine, a contract with a modelling agency, a Levi’s campaign, a cash prize, a new car and a trip to New York.

However, this is not the first bit of conspiracy surrounding the show. When Jodhi Meares was host she blundered her way through the show’s 2007 final, and pulled out of the 2008 broadcast with just 48 hours’ notice. It seems that the finals are cursed.

This news brings back memories for me of the 2008 Strictly Come Dancing final, when Tom Chambers won. Many felt that the winner had been wrongly announced then. Let’s hope that the new series, which starts on Friday, has none of these hiccups.

March 22, 2010

PR Gaffes for March: bonus content :)

I know we added a post about March’s PR gaffes last week, but I could hardly contain myself from commenting on two big stories to come out since that post…

Everyone enjoys a little break from the hectic office schedule now and again and, with the added promise of a something sweet to nibble on, our urge to indulge is that little bit greater. However it came to light on Wednesday that our tradition of elevenses could be damaging more than just our waistlines.

Greenpeace reported that Indonesia’s largest palm oil supplier Sinar Mas is coping with the vast increase in demand by employing illegal deforestation techniques, and therefore destroying the natural habitat and source of food for the Orang-utan.

The report by the organisation also claims the company are treating the animals as “pests”, with workmen killing off younger Orang-utan in order to prevent them from causing a problem in the future.

This in itself is bad enough; but when you add Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage corporation into the mix, things are only headed for the worse.

With Palm oil being a key ingredient to the firm’s globally popular Kit Kat products (the company produces the equivalent of the height of the Eiffel Tower every five minutes) it is easy to see how demand for the Palm oil has almost doubled in three years.

Greenpeace UK (as expected) has taken an aggressive front on this crusade. With the cleverly sinister parody of the iconic Kit Kat advert floating around video sharing sites like You Tube as well as staging boycott campaigns outside the Nestlé’s offices in East Croydon which featured activists dressed as Orang-utans scaling the office building, you would have thought that Nestlé would of ensured the use of very contrite PR methods to rectify the potentially destructive situation.

However, eager to defend the company’s fair trade policies, Nestlé took an equally aggressive front, demanding that the video be removed from You Tube under the grounds of copyright infringement and unleashed their ire on Facebook and Twitter protesters.

When will corporates learn this is not the way to deal with a social media outrage?!

In response to whether the company was going to work harder in order to source palm oil from sustainable sources at a much sooner date, as opposed to the company’s original forecast of 2015, the reply was simply this: “as soon as quantities are available we will be doing that … but we are not going to promise things we can’t deliver.”

Again, not the humble, caring attitude expected from such a huge multinational company during such a controversial PR firestorm.

Secondly, this week’s media has still been under the barrage of the seemingly never ending British Airways strikes.

With day three well underway, it is increasingly hard to keep up with reports of who really is “winning” the war between Willie Walsh and the hundreds of cabin crew that are demonstrating their anger on the picket lines.

With numerous reports on The Guardian’s news blog showing that BA’s claims that strikes are barely affecting business as “pure fantasy” as well as a catalogue of cabin and ground crews views on the situation, it seems that the energy surrounding the epicentre practically bellows over any PR attempts that BA bosses utilise.

It seems that the disputes have morphed into a fact checking row that has somehow over taken the initial point in hand. Much like a school yard chorus of “He said, she said” it’s virtually impossible to distinguish the facts, let alone trying to focus on the underlying issue among the din.

BA has responded to the endless list of acquisitions with a very serious timbre, “As a PLC, British Airways is legally obliged to ensure that it does not release information that is misleading or inaccurate… Any suggestion in media reports that information we have issued is untrue implies that the airline’s management is acting unlawfully… Unite has no way of obtaining accurate figures as to how many customers are on our aircraft or how many crew are reporting for work.”

But, despite the tittle tattle and  inconveniences caused to tens of thousands holiday goers (the hook that regularly features in the media, that is presumably BA bosses main hope to swaying them back into favour), it is hard to ignore that “sick it to the man” element to the whole episode.

I think the vast majority of us just wish they’d get it sorted out.

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