When things go wrong in the PR field, it is fascinating to map who most enjoys the resulting schadenfreude.
Critics of PR ominously warn, while being suffused with an inner glow of delight, how it is yet another example of how awful PR people are and how their evil schemes justifiably go awry. This is the obverse of that existential despair Phillip Adams once saw when he witnessed a crowd of environmentalists hearing that some problem probably wouldn’t be as bad as they believed. PR competitors of those who end up with egg on their faces try to keep a straight face while uttering banalities that try to suggest they would never have done something so dumb.
Mini-Cooper has just had a PR problem when its marketing firm advised that it could generate publicity by sponsoring a weather formation — something you can do in Germany apparently for very reasonable cost. Unfortunately it sponsored a storm cell, called it Cooper, which produced a cold front that killed 70 people and sent another 500 to hospital.
In its defence, it didn’t sponsor that particular storm front as the German weather bureau takes your money and then allocates the names in some sort of order — a philosophy the Greek government could probably learn from. But despite that, the story spread around the world through YouTube and appeared in Australia in The Age online edition of Drive on February 3, 2012. Mini-Cooper must also have been delighted by all the creative journalists all going for the same angle — Mini-Cooper promotion back-fires.
Probably the promotion didn’t cause the brand any harm. If you are going to buy a Mini-Cooper it is unlikely that the bad publicity — mainly jocular — would dissuade you. There is also much doubt about whether such misfires (forgive me, I couldn’t resist it) have much impact given that there is also doubt about the impact of consumer boycotts and other adverse publicity.
Nestle’s brand has been irrevocably destroyed, according to some commentator or other, so many times in my 40-odd years in the industry that I couldn’t estimate a number. Indeed, my only regret is not being able to buy some shares every time the brand was allegedly irretrievably damaged.
But the sort of reaction, in the PR industry, to the Cooper storm was mild compared to that which occurs when other advisers from other areas, such as lawyers, get it wrong.
Tony Jaques, who worked for many years in the chemical industry and has written several articles and books about issues management — as well as the monumental and invaluable Dictionary of Sieges and Battles (The Miegunyah Press, 2006) — and publishes a regular e-newsletter called Managing Outcomes. In the issue of February 1, 2012, Vol 3, No 3 he describes several legal cases where winning the case, or not winning, can lead to PR disasters. For more details go to www.issueoutcomes.com.au.
In the first case a popular fizzy soft drink was faced with a claim by a consumer that they had found a dead mouse in the drink can. The defence — the mouse couldn’t have been there because the drink was so acidic it would have dissolved and been turned into a “jelly-like substance”. Jaques also describes the Pringles chips case where Procter and Gamble were trying to get the chips exempted from VAT. The argument — they weren’t really potato chips. As Jaques says in his post: “Where were the issue management professionals when someone suggested his was a good idea?”