Too little , Too late Thomas Cook

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MC900431521Fail

The saga of Thomas cook and the tragic deaths of two children due to carbon dioxide poisoning is, I think, going to be one we read about for years in PR text books and journals.

The Company’s handling of the event from day one has been a case study in how not to handle a corporate crisis. topped off today by an apology to the bereaved parents which is too little and too late.

The narrative created by the company from the start was wrong. By listening to the Lawyers and focussing on corporate culpability as the main factor in this case Thomas Cook rapidly developed the reputation as being a faceless corporate beast, uncaring and unresponsive. It seems as though the business totally forgot that without customers it cannot exist – and that a positive reputation is what brings in those very same customers.

The game of catch up they are now playing is fascinating to watch.

Yesterday Sky news reported that at least two Facebook pages have been created calling on people to boycott the firm, with a total of at least 5,000 ‘likes’ and that petitions have been started, either calling for a boycott or for the firm to “apologise properly”, on Change.org and 38degree.org.uk.

Overnight on Monday, the Times reported that at least £75m had been wiped off the value of the firm’s shares as worried investors dumped stock whilst monthly Google searches for “Thomas Cook” have dropped 18% compared with the same time last year, according to the Financial Times.

Today the Chief Executive Peter Frankhauser finally said “From the deepest of my heart I am sorry.” (see BBC story here) , something he had pointedly failed to say when asked in the Coroner’s court last week. Whether this was planned or not, the appearance is that the expression of remorse is prompted not by a corporate conscience finally kicking in , but by those financial indicators plummeting through the floor.

As with so much PR, at the heart of the issue is narrative.

Had the messaging been from the off that Thomas Cook stands alongside the bereaved parents, feels let down by suppliers who lied to them, will seek to do whatever is necessary to care for the family and ensure nothing like this happens again from day one, would they be where they are now, struggling to keep up with events.

Crisis management is about getting the narrative right from the off. Get it wrong and, like a set of dominoes knocking each other down, your organisation can find itself dealing with one unexpected outcome after another.

Greggs – Digital triumph lacks integration

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MC900433800 Hit

This week Greggs the bakers have been in the PR news because of their response to a social media crisis that hit their brand. You can read the full story here but in summary Google automatically attached an incorrect and rather insulting spoof logo to their business entry which Greggs’ social media team responded to rapidly and with humour.

It’s a good example of how a bad situation can be turned into an opportunity so quickly with social media and the digital brand manager has been quite rightly highly praised for his response.

What takes the shine of this for me as an example is the very last bit of the Independent article which states that the digital manager couldn’t offer a quote to the paper unless authorised by the head of marketing. A digital crisis isn’t just confined to the digital world, just as a crisis with production at Greggs wouldn’t stop on the bakery floor. The digital and non-digital worlds are interlinked and the response here should have been joined up to offer an integrated communications response – including empowering the person responsible for the digital reaction to respond in the real world too. 

A nice bit of newsjacking helps charities tell their stories

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Three charities have recently used “newsjacking” of a Twitter hashtag  to make their case to London commuters according to the Guardian and I for one am impressed by the creativity they have shown and the confidence to “step on the turf” of a union.

“Newsjacking ” is  the art and science of injecting a different agenda into a breaking news story to generate media coverage and social media engagement.    See here for further info.

Macmillan Cancer, Save the Children and Leonard Cheshire have all made use of the #tubestrike to tell their story in different ways. First off the mark were Macmillan Cancer with this clever Tweet;

Macmillan Tweet

Later Save the Children used it to highlight the plight of children in Syria with Leonard Cheshire following with a Tweet highlighting the poor access for people with disabilities on many tube lines.

The tactic has provoked considerable debate with some commentators suggesting the tactic was “disrespectful” but I think they are right to make use of the interest in the strike and to draw attention to what in all honesty are much more worthy causes than a period of industrial action. In many ways the juxtaposition of these life affecting causes against the inconvenience of the tube strike helps show how easy it is to lose perspective on life, and to do it in a way which has wit and thoughtfulness merely adds to my admiration for them.

It is also worth pointing out to those who feel the tactic of “newsjacking” was wrong in this case, that Twitter is not limited to London, and whilst the strikes are undoubtedly a pain for people living and working in the capital, there are many more people across the country who would see these Tweets and  feel much more affinity to the charities piggy backing on the tube chaos.

Finally, one of the first lessons of social media is that brands are no longer in control and any hastag or Twitter newsfeed for that matter risks being used by other users for other purposes. That is the nature of the tool.

Selfies and the value of plenty of PR groundwork

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MC900433800HIT

The social media phenomenon encouraging women to post “selfies” (pictures taken them of themselves using a smart phone) without make-up with an associated donation to Cancer Research UK, has been a massive success, raising  millions for the charity.

Yet whilst this initiative has to be regarded as a “hit” in PR terms – perhaps the interesting question is  “who should take the credit for it?”.

Carolan Davidge, director of communications at Cancer Research UK, is quoted on Sky News saying: “The trend isn’t something Cancer Research UK started so it’s been fantastic to see so many people getting involved and wanting to use their selfie to raise money for our life-saving research.”

So it appears the initiative on Facebook and Twitter is something that appeared spontaneously and grew organically (see BBC story about its origins here). Some speculate it was inspired by the “Necknominate” game craze from early 2014 in which people challenged others via Facebook to undertake some form of alcoholic drinking stunt, but its origins are unclear. Wherever it came from it has truly spread like the best of memes.

The organic nature of its emergence is perhaps best illustrated in the confusion that has arisen over the donation process. With a designed campaign there would have been a very clearly planned and constructed process to turn the goodwill and awareness into cash – yet this recent trend is notable for the problems associated with it (see BBC story here). For instance, some people trying to donate have been connected to a WWF campaign to protect Polar Bears, others have inadvertently given their money to a fund run  by UNICEF and still other posts have no mention of donation at all, or reference to the cause.

Credit for this “PR Hit” therefore cannot be directly attributed to anyone – yet it can in a sense be laid at the door of good PR. What has been a spontaneous online initiative became linked to Cancer Research UK because the charity has invested consistently in its PR, building awareness of the issue and in its reputation over many years. This groundwork on its reputation is why people initiated and more importantly joined the “Selfie” phenomenon.

A final thought then about the value of PR for my Charity clients. It has been said that PR is “What people say about you when you are not in the room” – perhaps we might now say it is “Why people donate when you haven’t even asked for money”.

Water water everywhere – but who has stopped to think?

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MC900433800  & MC900431521

The floods across the UK which started before Christmas have had a devastating effect on those people and businesses hit by them. But who are the winners and who are the sinners in PR terms?

First of all the power companies. Friends who I know were without power over Christmas and the New Year say they felt some sympathy for the power companies, recognising the massive impact of high winds and floods on the infrastructure. What they could not understand was the slow response in terms of information – or worse still information about the return of power and compensation that changed from minute to minute. A classic example of the perfect storm (if you will excuse the pun) unprecedented weather affecting the business at a time when holidays impact on normal business operations anyway, and perhaps an indication in communications terms of a lack of pre-planning (always plan for the worst) and central control over messaging.

Next the Environment Agency. Here the work of the staff on the ground has been fantastic and their emergency communications function warning people of potential floods was a fine example of planned emergency communication. Where they did fail perhaps was at the very top.

Chair , Chris Smith, was notable by his absence on the ground until quite late on, especially in the South West where large areas of rural England have been affected.  Flooding is an incredibly personal tragedy. Early on he should have been advised to get down on the ground and be seen by the people affected and by the staff from the Agency responding. Leadership in times of crisis is not about management but about presence, and a figurehead showing direct awareness of the situation can convey a range of positives about an organisation.

Finally – and I never thought I would say this about a business I am not a fan of – but well done Tesco. The retailer has provided lorries to transport feed to farmers whose fields have been flooded and whose livestock are facing starvation. Working with farmers in drier areas of the country they have arranged to carry essential supplies of animal feed to those farmers whose livelihoods hang by a thread (read about it here) . For a business who has so often been criticised for the way it treats its farming suppliers this is a practical gesture with a strong message behind it. Quick thinking whoever at Tesco PR HQ had the idea.

Yes yes yes – the 2 speech affectations

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Yes yes yes – the 2 speech affectations I hate most highlighted at last http://ow.ly/syX1w

Comic Relief not smiling over investments

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MC900431521

MISS

We’ve seen a big PR hic-cup, for Comic Relief today with the news that Panorama have discovered that it invests money in companies such as arms manufacturers as well as the  alcohol and tobacco industries. It’s an issue which highlights the need for Charities to understand the value of their reputation and that PR thinking has to enter every dimension of an organisation’s operation, not simply saved for its marketing output.

The revelation has attracted considerable media attention (see The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News ) most of which is critical and most of which will damage the reputation of one of the UKs most powerful charity fundraisers. Yet it seems no-one in this giant in the charity world appears to have seen this coming, despite the fact this very issue has been one which the sector has been dealing with for decades.

I personally recall discussions at one Charity I was involved with 20 years ago regarding where it’s funds should be invested and the very clear outcome being that it had to take an ethical approach if its reputation was to remain spotless. The returns might be lower than other open funds, but the risk to the relationship between the organisation and its existing and potential supporters outweighed the financial aspect.

What we understood then and what hasn’t changed today is that Charities trade on their name – how donors feel about them is essential, literally the difference between the hand going into the pocket or not. Surely someone in a charity working with projects in countries torn apart by war, providing support to people with drug and alcohol problems in the UK and schemes to support people with health issues must have seen the negative implications of being  investing in the very industries at the root of some of the issues it deals with?

The response too has been lack lustre – in an interview on the BBC the CEO of Comic Relief tried to place the blame on the Charity Commission’s guidelines on charity funds investment, clearly a prepared line to try and spread responsibility. Unfortunately the previous interviewee, a specialist in charity fund management and investment had already made it quite clear that Charities can invest in ethical schemes with lower returns when it is in line with their operational delivery.

Comic Relief are in a hole now and just about the only thing in their favour is that they have almost a year to dig themselves out before they once again ask the British public to put their hands in their pockets. By then they could have sorted out an ethical investment portfolio and/or they can hope that the public will have forgotten.

My advice would be to start shifting the money now and to do it in a very humble and public manner.

Plan for the worst – act for the best

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The dreadful accident in Glasgow last Friday in which a police helicopter has crashed into a crowded pub reminded me of the importance of contingency planning and the vital role PR has in the actual management of a situation.

An incident like this illustrates the pressure the media can bring to bear on the emergency services with on scene live coverage continuing more than three days after the accident happened and reminded me of a key lesson I learnt when I was the PR Manager at Rampton Hospital which was you can’t have too many trained spokespeople. Crisis PR is often overlooked by organisations because “It will never happen to us” yet even when it is recognised as a key element of the reputation management of an organisation it is often under-resourced.

In particular this incident shows that you need cover in depth for crisis media management – both to handle the volume of interest, and to deal with a protracted incident. One PRO couldn’t possibly handle the media interest an incident like this generates for an extended period of time, which is why for instance I suspect we saw a spokesperson for the Fire Brigades Union explaining what fire-fighters would be doing on the news last night rather than an official spokesperson for the Glasgow Fire Brigade.

The second issue is in the training spokespeople have. No-one can see into the future, so it’s impossible to foresee every single crisis we may encounter. Certainly I doubt whether anyone trained for a scenario involving a helicopter crashing onto the roof of a crowded city pub (though I have I admit used some pretty outrageous scenarios in my time!). Training needs to be able to take this into account and avoid corralling the spokespeople’s thinking too much in advance.

Flexibility therefore is essential in developing training scenarios. The aim should be to give spokespeople a clear understanding of the questions the media will want to ask in a time of crisis (seeing the world through a journalist’s eyes) and a set of skills which will allow them to develop a clear narrative that meets those needs, provides a truthful picture of what has, is and will happen, and finally that ensures the reputation of the organisation is protected and if possible enhanced by the way it is seen to respond.

Finally, what few looking in from the outside will realise is that PR in a crisis is as much a part of the management of the situation as any of the more obvious operational responses of an organisation. The media are hungry beasts with constant and voracious appetites. Left without guidance they are quite capable of getting in the way of the operational handling of a crisis, so it’s important to develop a way of working which recognises that the PR function has a huge practical impact on operations during the immediate aftermath of an incident when space, people and resources will be required for the handling of the incident.

Police see short term gains instead of long term advantage,

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MC900431521MISS

 

I don’t often comment on political PR, but the “Plebgate” row made me think about the role of PR and the triumph of tactical thinking over strategic thinking.

“Plebgate” for those not in the know is an on-going scandal in the UK in which a government minister, Andrew Mitchell,  lost his job as a result of an incident with a police officer (he was alleged to have sworn at him and called him a Plb as he left a meeting a downing Street).

It seems now however that all was not quite as reported and that the situation was created and subsequently made worse by manipulation of the facts by Police officers in support of their wider campaign to attack the Government’s programme of cuts.

One important event leading to the minister’s departure was a meeting with three members of the Police Federation in his constituency after which they called for his sacking (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24629610 ) .

It was this meeting that eventually led to the minister going,  that a Parliamentary Committee was examining today and emergence into the public domain of some interesting facts about the involvement of PR advisers.

Key to the Committee’s questions was clarification as to the aim of the meeting – it had been officially arranged as a “clear the air” session by the three Police Federation representatives with Mr Mitchell, yet the evidence today revealed that prior to their arrival the three police officers were accompanied by a PR adviser employed by the Police Federation who was liaising with the media to arrange interviews after the meeting. Such was the plan that the meeting was terminated at 5.45pm in time for them to meet the media in time for the evening news programmes – interviews in which they made it clear Mr Mitchell should go.

Why is this a MISS in PR terms? Well tactically they got it spot on – the bru-har-har they created  with their comments after the meeting, helped bring down the minister and there was massive coverage of what they said.

Unfortunately good PR is actually about achieving not just short term tactical gains but at achieving long term strategic success.

Andrew Mitchell had secretly recorded the meeting and it turns out what was actually said does not tally with the report given by the Police representatives in their highly critical media interviews afterwards. This has thrown considerable doubt on the integrity of the individuals, the Police Federation and the Force in general . One MP on the Committee stated that whilst he as at one point taking questions from  his constituents about Government cuts he was now dealing with questions about Police integrity instead.

So that PR adviser clearly helped manufacture a great deal of short term advantage – but that advantage has turned out to be a long term problem. It will be interesting to see what emerges should that PR adviser be invited to give evidence to the Commons Committee and how they refute the strong evidence that there was a conspiracy to bring down a minister even if it meant playing hard and fast with the truth.

I suspect a suit is being pressed  and an alibi being concocted as we speak.

Clothing stunt catches the eye

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MC900433800Hit (though it pains me to say it!)

 

Apparently people wearing animal print clothing have been banned from Chessington Zoo “because it is scaring the animals” in their new “African Zufari” area offering an “off road safari” experience. See article here.

From a PR perspective top marks to Frank PR for this media management stunt, which has caught the eye of news desks at national level – in some cases even using and crediting their photographs (see Daily Telegraph article here). Apparently they only got the Chessington contract at the start of this month (Article) so they have had to move rapidly to get the creative work done to organise and deliver this stunt.

With this bit of fun Frank PR have pulled the zoo right into the public eye at a time when zoos generally are probably not at the top of public awareness when it comes to leisure activities.

Of course, I should justify my comment that it “pains me to say” this PR stunt is a hit. There is no basis to the ruling – it really is a made up problem. Animals see the world with greater clarity than any of us and the fact that these “animal printed” humans will be sat in vehicles means they will never be seen as a threat to the wildlife – particularly in an environment entirely constructed by people.

I know from 20 years visiting Africa to view wildlife, that in the real, open spaces of the African plains, it is actually bright colours such as reds, yellows and blues that animals notice – and even then they only react when they see people on foot. Interestingly of the articles I’ve read generated by this stunt, only the BBC sought the views of other animal experts.

I suppose though that making anyone wearing red, yellow or blue wear the “grey overalls” supposedly being distributed at Chessington would have been an expensive proposition, and simply banning people for bad taste if they turned up in animal print clothing might have attracted the wrong sort of headlines.

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