Too little , Too late Thomas Cook

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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.

Selfies and the value of plenty of PR groundwork

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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”.

Basil Clarke – a PR hero for our time

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It’s not often a new hero comes along, still yet one who was working on reputation management almost a century ago.

This PR Week article about Basil Clarke was a revelation and I can’t wait to read more about this remarkable man.

Almost a century ago Clarke was developing a way of working which would put many of today’s practitioners to shame. His ethical approach was not driven by codes of conduct or the risk of bad press in the trade media, but on a strong and practical understanding of what was right.

I try to impress on students that working ethically is not an altruistic choice – there are strong business reasons for working in a way which considers the needs of others. Clarke knew that his business relied on relationships and trust and the examples given in the PR week article show him to be a man of great vision and understanding.

Some of this, no doubt came from his experiences in the First World war and the picture of him is one in Uniform – to come through the carnage of the trenches must have made many men question the values of the society in which they lived, yet Clarke shows a down to earth understanding of fairness and honesty in business which many today fail to understand.

We can learn a great deal from men such as Clarke.

Hats off to Hacked Off

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The Hacked Off Campaign, set up to draw attention to press excesses and call for a new way of regulating the newspapers, seems to have pulled off a significant coup with its campaign for greater accountability for journalists in the written media in Britain.

It’s been announced today that all the three main parliamentary parties have finally agreed a way forward establishing a new, more robust approach to press regulation (see here BBC report) and that the main thrust of the Leveson Inquiry may become a reality.

Whether the agreed way forward gets implemented is still up for question as the media are likely to fight tooth and nail for weaker oversight (much as they have now with the in-house, Press Complaints Commission which has been described as as much use as a one legged man in a backside kicking competition), however in the light of their recent activity, with more revelations still coming out about their lack of ethics in news gathering, the tide of public opinion is very much against them.

In my training I work with people ranging from business executives to academics and charity workers – I have yet to come across anyone attending my workshops who comes with anything better than a jaundiced view of journalists and what to expect from them. Indeed many come with downright hostility and suspicion. Truthful and honest reporting of the facts is rarely at the top of their expectations and it would be a salutary experience I’m sure for journalists to attend one of my sessions to see how low their reputation lies with ordinary people. So significant is this, that perhaps 30% of the work I do to help organisations work with the media is focussed on building some understanding and sympathy for the way journalists work to reduce the fear and suspicion people have of them.

The problem for most journalists (who do act fairly and ethically) is they fail to understand that the extent to which the excessive behaviour of some of their brethren has tainted the whole profession, and that the only way to regain public confidence is to clearly demonstrate that decency, truth and honesty are at the heart of their trade. Having a robust regulator is one way to reassure the public that the beast can be domesticated. But the profession has to accept that it also has to embrace these changes and adopt a more ethical approach to news gathering if it is to regain public confidence.

The truth is, straightforward honest journalists, even investigative journalists, have nothing to fear from tighter regulation and everything to gain – because once again their readers will have faith in what has been written, rather than viewing everything with cynicism.

So hats off to Hacked off – not only have they done all those who have ben abused by journalistic excess  a huge service, but they may well have done journalism itself a favour too by forcing the first steps towards it regaining public trust and support.

The image control cat is out of the bag

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A miss today, for not just Beyonce’s PR people, but the entertainment industry as a whole.

It seems she wasn’t impressed with some pictures taken of her at the Superbowl by fans which were subsequently shared online and her management tried to have the images removed – story here.

I think this reveals how out of touch the image manufacturers and maintainers in the industry actually are. They might be very adept at using social media as a push technology to carry brand messages and associated images to the world, but they clearly haven’t understood that the traditional concepts of image control and management no longer exist in the new world of user generated content.

Just as corporate bodies have had to accept that social media means they are no longer able to shape how they are perceived solely from the top, people in the entertainment industry are going to have to realise that they can no longer easily manufacture stars and impose them on an accepting public.

Like the corporates who “get it” perhaps in the medium to long term we will see more genuine and human talents coming to the fore at the expense of created “plastic personalities” emerging from the entertainment industry and a recognition that honest, open , truthful images build reputation far more than censorship.

We can but hope.

A triumph for short term creativity over organisational narrative

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Driving along yesterday I was amazed to hear the latest radio advertisement for the Royal Society for the Protection Of Birds (RSPB), inviting people to join the Spring Garden Bird watch.

It started off with the sound of a cat meowing, and then the words “do you like watching garden birds”, with more meowing.

Sadly, I couldn’t find it online to link to, but I did find plenty of negative comments about it.

Now, whilst I can appreciate the humour in a black sort of way, whoever approved this at the RSPB has really failed to grasp that creativity doesn’t always mean effective messaging.

To use the noise of a cat in relation to watching garden birds flys in the face of the RSPBs organisational narrative, as even the Society itself campaigns to highlight the damage done to wild birds from domestic cats (see here the RSPB web pages).

As they point out cats and birds just don’t mix – the RSPB quote figures on their web site of 55 million birds estimated to be taken as prey by cats every year in the UK. So what are they doing in an advert about bird watching?

Either the RSPB is employing people with a limited grasp of the organisational narrative , or there is a disconnect between the marketing department and policy staff, or whoever was in charge of this campaign allowed professional copywriters and advertising agency professionals with no grasp of what the organisation is about to sway their better judgement.

However it came into being, an advert for the RSPB featuring a meowing cat just doesn’t sit right and their reputation is diminished as a result.

A Victory out on the front line for Harry

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The decision to allow an extended interview with Prince Harry at the end of his tour of duty as an Apache helicopter co- pilot/gunner was an exercise in pragmatic media management with unexpected consequences.

After his last tour, which was cut short when the media revealed he was with his Regiment on the ground in Afghanistan, the MOD decided to take a co-operative approach, offering the media an opportunity for an extended  pooled interview to be broadcast at the end of his deployment if they stayed off his back whilst he was on duty.

Whilst there was some limited PR value for the MOD,  there is no doubt in my mind that the real hit here was that the interview did much for “Brand Wales”.

Prince Harry is someone the media ( and hence the public) have enjoyed seeing make a gaff or two – from Nazi costume at a fancy dress party to candid shots snatched in a Vegas hotel room – he has been called the “Party Prince”. Yet here we saw a young man, clearly uncomfortable with the rigmarole of the media circus imposed upon him, showing how much it means to serve his country, and to “belong” to something where he is valued for who he is and what he can do, rather than what he represents.

To some who are less familiar with the culture and language of the Army (and Officer’s Mess in particular), he might have come across as diffident. But to me this was his clear reluctance to engage except on his terms. His interview showed he holds a genuine love for soldiering, which it is clear gives him an environment in which “he can just be one of the boys”, getting on with an important job without the superficial judgement of journalists. At one pont he even alluded to the fact that the interview was not what he wanted, but part of the deal to make it possible for him to serve on the front line again.

In the business of reputation management honesty and openness are priceless assets. Whilst the interview may have been seen as a PR opportunity for the MOD the real winner was Harry himself, with his reluctant yet revealing words he has shown that behind the picture painted remotely by the media stands someone keen to be his own man.

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