At the end of last November I had the honour of delivering the keynote address at the PR Forum, a wonderful and well-attended annual national conference held in Warsaw for PR practitioners in Poland. The subject was The 10 Most Important Events for PR in 2010.
I admit the list is subjective but each of the events I chose was important from a communications perspective. Some served as reminders of what can either go well or horribly wrong. Others I included simply because of their impact on the PR industry itself. In reverse order:
10. The Toyota Recalls
Toyota’s excellent reputation for quality and reliability was severely damaged when it was forced to recall more than eight million vehicles in the United States due to acceleration and braking problems. Newsweek called it “Toyota’s Digital Disaster”.
The company’s struggle to respond was slow, very traditional, and resulted in a great deal of consumer anxiety.
It reminded us of two things: Although the overall strategy for corporate crisis management has not necessarily changed much over the years, the advent of Google, Twitter and Facebook, has meant that the execution certainly has.
Secondly, such an issue calls for absolute transparency. Consumers may accept that you are not perfect, but they will not accept no comment. Silence simply fuels rumours of deception and cover-up.
9. Tiger Woods
Revelations of Tiger Woods’ personal life boosted the circulation of many tabloid newspapers but as a consequence they wiped millions off the value of the sporting superstar. The corporate world watched as sponsors were forced to take damage limitation measures, some more drastic than others.
It was a stark reminder to sponsors that even the best personalities can have skeletons in the cupboard and that once they escape sportsmen can rarely be relied upon to do their own PR. Best to be prepared; and if such an eventuality occurs, don’t wait before you seek professional advice.
8. The GAP Logo – In memoriam
First seen on their website on October 4, 2010, the new Gap logo was supposed to signify Gap’s transition from “classic, American design to modern, sexy, cool.” Instead it created a storm of adverse reaction from the design media and consumers alike. One journalist likened it to “the emblem of some failed low-fare spinoff of a major airline.” Another to something you would expect to find while “thrift-shopping.”
As reaction on Twitter, Facebook (4,000 comments on Gap’s Facebook page), and Google (15 million results for “New Gap Logo”) gained momentum the company bravely said it was “thrilled” by the buzz that was being created for the brand.
But just a week later it was dead. “We’ve learned just how much energy there is around our brand, and after much thought, we’ve decided to go back to our iconic blue box logo,” a spokesperson, told Bloomberg News.
Was it a well-planned social media strategy or a failed design? I think probably the latter. It brought back memories of old Coke / new Coke saga some years ago, and reminds us to tread very carefully when it comes to brand communications and addressing loyal consumers.
7. Oprah Winfrey goes to Australia
The deal to persuade Oprah Winfrey to take her show outside the United States for the first time in its 25 year history can only be described as a PR coup for the Australian Tourist Board. Being daring – by aiming high and thinking big – can pay huge dividends.
Even though it cost a reputed $2.5 million to entice her and her 150-strong crew to Sydney for two shows at the Opera House, the payback was enormous. Apart from reaching her regular 49m viewers in the US, there are an estimated 30 million more in other countries. Of course there was the usual Oprah glitz. The entire audience from one of her earlier shows when she announced she would be going to Australia were flown out with her. There was even a fair share of publicity for the national airline Qantas. Oprah’s plane was flown by none other than John Travolta.
It was probably no exaggeration when it was claimed by local media to be “the biggest shot in the arm for Australia since the Olympics.”
6. The Icelandic Volcano
Like many travellers at the time I was a victim of the 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland that brought European air traffic to a standstill for six days in April. I was very unhappy to have missed a family wedding in Edinburgh but it was something over which I had no control. By contrast, what made me very annoyed was the extremely slow response and lack of information from the airline with whom I should have been flying. It was inexcusable because that was something that should have been in their control.
Most airlines are well-rehearsed and maintain very detailed plans in case they are ever faced with a major accident. Indeed, I have spent many hours in the past helping to train executives of a major airline for just such an incident.
But this was an incident that really separated the men from the boys. It showed the difference between those who were prepared and those who were not.
A rapid response in the first 24 hours is what really determines success in such cases.
There were some good – and in some cases excellent – examples of rapid response. Thomas Cook very quickly began a massive operation to rescue thousands of stranded holidaymakers; Virgin Atlantic Tweeted customers to reassure them of refunds and to inform them that extra staff were being drafted in to increase the number of telephone lines available; British Airways used social media to explain their telephone queuing system; Lufthansa reminded passengers to use their website to rebook or cancel tickets; and KLM used Facebook to provide online answers and to showcase their Tweets of praise from customers.
Aurélie Valtat, website editor of Eurocontrol, the EU’s air traffic management company, was nominated by European Voice as “Inspiration of the Year” for her work providing travellers with information. As part of Eurocontrol’s press team, she made Eurocontrol into an information hub, providing a striking example of how the instruments of new media, particularly Twitter, could be mobilised to beneficial effect.
However, the response from many others was extremely variable and not surprisingly many of them found their names frequently mentioned in an unflattering context as customers used social media to exchange horror stories.
It is a shame that by the time some European airports were paralysed by snow in December, the main culprits appeared to be little better prepared.
5. The Rescue of the Chilean Miners
The rescue of 33 Chilean miners, trapped for more than two months underground, provided us with an excellent example of how a PR opportunity can be successfully seized. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper headline proclaimed: “Copper mine rescue may prove a goldmine for Brand Chile.”
Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera was credited for having spotted the opportunity to put his country on the map. But if you take a look behind the scenes, you will see that its success was also due to a well led and well orchestrated response.
4. The BP Oil disaster
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the BP oil disaster. It provides a case study that I am sure will be examined by communications students for many years to come.
In an interview afterwards, the former boss of BP, Tony Hayward, admitted the company was “unprepared” and that they had been “forced to make things up” as they went along.
It was a shame to see such a large and previously revered organisation in such difficulty, particularly as there were some amazing feats of engineering which received relatively little media coverage.
Suffice it to say that in any such crisis situation the most important aspects to communicate are the five C’s: Concern, Clarity, Control, Confidence and Competence. I don’t think I need to say more.
3. Apple Launches
I am a lover of technology and there are no two devices I love more than my iPhone and my iPad.
The iPad was the best-reviewed tech product of 2010 and created an entire category in tablet computing with a portable entertainment device that ditched the keyboard for a touch-screen and made it more fun to watch movies and TV shows, play games and read books.
Apple are masters at creating hype and buzz around their products and their meticulously orchestrated launches in 2010 were no exception. Much of what they do is almost text-book PR but the strength of the brand means it can be done on an unparalleled and enviable scale. There are probably not many companies which can boast celebrity endorsements involving both the US and Russian Presidents, pictured with their iPhones.
However, even Apple has had its issues and for a time came under fierce criticism due to perceived antennae problems on the iPhone 4. But hey, who is still talking about that?
2. The rise of social media
Deciding which of the top two events were the most impactful was difficult since I believe they have both changed the PR industry significantly and forever.
In the end I chose to give second place to the rise of social media, not so much because of the scale of its influence, but because the changes that it is bringing are still ongoing and it may be some time before they are fully felt.
Building trust by listening to customers and communicating through transparent, authentic conversation have always been core PR competencies. There is no doubt that PR is now driving the hottest area of brand communications – social media.
Its rise has been phenomenal. Facebook now has more than 500 million active users. Four billion messages are exchanged each day and the average user spends 55 minutes a day conversing with an average of 130 friends.
Twitter has more than 150 million users who send 120 million tweets a day. And YouTube has two billion viewers every day who, between them, upload 24 hours of new video footage every minute.
Most forward-thinking companies are already embracing social media as an essential means of communicating with their stakeholders. Many have full-time online community managers. Others are just beginning to do so but the message is clear: it is a phenomenon that would be ignored at peril.
1. The (end of the) recession
PR has emerged from the recession as a different business than it was three or four years ago. Not only are both in-house communications departments and agencies leaner than before, they have to be much sharper. Clients expect us to understand and participate in communities and to comprehend and to speak the language of marketeers.
The industry is invigorated with ideas, new technologies and innovative ways to help brands to fuel conversation. But to implement them we have to be much wiser. The savvy communicators are going to be the ones who know how to tell stories that galvanise consumers to act and to talk about products and services. The successful ones will be those who anticipate the future, not react to the present.
Digital has already transformed the industry forever but the pace of change is still accelerating. Reputation and public opinion now matter more than ever.
One message is quite clear. Those who still regard PR as a process that drives headlines and events will be left behind. Happy 2011 everyone.