A Grain Of Salt – What Happens When PR Becomes a Disaster?

Public relations is becoming an ever more important aspect of marketing. It supports a number of complex interactions between a company and all its stakeholders, including its customers, at different times throughout a campaign. With the maturation of digital media channels, PR can now be more targeted, more timely and more engaging to the target audience, when done right…

Thankfully, to the benefit of our own senses of entertainment, it isn’t always done right and it can even do more damage to a brand when it does backfire… The main challenge that companies face when engaging in any form of marketing based PR (MPR) online is the fact that they are no longer bound by borders, or have the same level of control over their messaging. It becomes a two-way street, but those streets aren’t necessarily in a friendly neighborhood.

Communications offense(ive)

The first and foremost thing that should be on anyone’s checklist when formulating any piece of content is this question: “Will it offend anyone?”… Every time, the answer is most likely “yes”, so the second question should also be: “Can we get away with it by not alienating too may customers?”… If the answer is “no”, then back to the drawing board with you. Do not pass go!

Woolworths, one of the two major supermarket chains in Australia, also known as “the fresh food people”, were looking to promote their line of frozen meals featuring high quality vegetables (the irony of the ‘fresh food people’ selling frozen foods doesn’t escape anyone either). But the irony isn’t the problem with their, very short-lived, online and owned-media focused content, featuring Biggest Loser trainer and known fitness personality Michelle Bridges.

The content itself and the message are actually quite strong and the execution is humorous, yet the reaction from customers was swift and brutal! And it all came to the framing of the stereotypes which Woolworths was trying to play against in order to leverage the humorous approach, labelling as “freaks”, with a very broad brush, people who grow their own vegetables. Something that a lot of people, including their suppliers (Farmers!) do… and I’m sure they’re mostly quite normal people.

Woolworths’ brand cache is based, almost entirely, on Fresh Food, from the farmer to the plate and they’ve put considerable effort to cultivate that cache also, at great expense… The cost of using the word “fresh” alone probably makes up most of the cost of this ad…

While humour is a great tool for getting attention and creating a message which resonates (particularly in Australia where sarcasm is the national sport), it still has to be light hearted enough to not deeply offend… Ads can offend people, offending people can be as effective at making them question their perceptions as humour and stereotypes are a good way to do that, as it can isolate the damage to a very small proportion of the audience, very few of which will be vocal about their dissatisfaction. But there is a fine line.

Woolies’ characterisation of people who grow their own vegetables as overall wearing, plant-whispering, dirt eating “freaks” overstepped the line because it was too broad. Thankfully, they saw the reaction, quickly pulled the ad and issued a blanket apology… Or classic damage control. And then the people were appeased with only slight damage to the brand which will soon be smoothed over with time.

“I got some bad ideas in my head…”

For those who might not know, that’s a quote from the movie Taxi Driver and is also, most likely, the catch phrase of whoever the CMO of the Victorian Taxi Association is… Like many places, in Australia, the social stock of taxis has plummeted and rightly so when you consider the headlines associated with taxis, such as: Taxi Drivers bar Aborignal Actors; Cabbies Prey on Women; plus several incidents of racism, drug syndication and hundreds more anecdotal instances of “drive offs”, price gauging, taking long routes, sexual assaults, indecent behaviour, dangerous driving, etc., etc., etc., from now to near eternity!

Pretty sure this is the CMO for the Vic. Taxi Assoc...
Pretty sure this is the CMO for the Vic. Taxi Assoc…

These problems compounded when ride-share provider Uber entered Australia, with Taxi associations calling for them to be banned or at least regulated for an even playing field. However, the continuing growth in popularity and difficulty of regulation has resulted in moving away from civil debate to several instances of intimidation, assault, property damage, etc. (again) by taxis feeling threatened by the new players… It’s all here, here, here… Oh and here!

While I have no opinion either way as I use neither option and simply take the bus/train like a typical transport philistine, my interest was piqued yesterday when I caught onto the Victorian Taxi Association’s #YourTaxi campaign. Which starts innocently enough with them asking for people to use the hashtag #YourTaxi, to tell a story of their experiences with taxis… It turns out, That. Was. A terrible. Idea!

The overwhelming responses were brutal, shocking and sometimes outrageous! With what can only be estimated as 100% of all tweets in response being of negative experiences for at least the first day of the hashtag’s initial syndication, such as a few very light examples (there are far worse ones!):


While the feed is mostly still all bad, there are glimmers of hope with some sharing their positive stories and many ads and spam posts now showing up under the hashtag (including this! I regret nothing). But there are various problems with this approach by the Victorian Taxi Association:

  • It ignores customer sentiment.
  • It shows a complete disconnect between all stakeholders, from creative agency, to management to customers.
  • It attempts to sweep away existing problems and start fresh, without actually addressing those problems.
  • It will be seen as a vain, vapid attempt to be the “hip, trendy social media” people & a cynical marketing ploy, rather than an attempt to create any meaningful, positive change to a much maligned service.
  • It took a campaign localised in a city to a borderless platform and turned it into a national forum for complaints towards the industry as a whole.
  • Uber was able to capitalise on the furore, using programmatic positioning to be placed in articles relating to the failed campaign and the humble objective to “start a discussion” has proven to be a win for the competition.
  • And finally, they’re still going with it!

The tag is very entertaining, still receiving many tweets a minute, but also at times creating a sense of fear and shock at some of the allegations made against taxi drivers. It makes for a good read, so check it out if you can!

Knowing your PR!

PR, it’s not really rocket science, but these days, most people have a strong enough hold on their own data that they are able to understand what is and isn’t effective, so it does take a little ‘sciencing’. It’s also the role of agencies to be on the same page as their clients and understand what opportunities there are for which successful PR strategies they could implement. So if there’s a bit of a gap in the understanding, there’s a few simple tips:

  • Evaluate your current situation – The first step to knowing where you want to get to and how you can get there! This is where you need to set your goals.
  • Know your sentiment – A brand’s message is perceived only as well as the brand is! There are free tools to visualise online sentiment towards brands. Knowing where you stand can help better frame the message.
  • “Who is this for?” – Not only does it help you target who will be exposed to the message, it helps control it once it’s launched.
  • “What can go wrong?” – Needless to say, this needs to be discussed, weighted and measured for a yes/no on whether to go ahead or not.

I’ve also given this advice in previous posts regarding social media, but i’ll repeat it again, because some people don’t seem to get it still: Always ask yourself first, “Does this approach work for me/us?”. It’s a simple question, but it could make all the difference.


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