Don’t shoot the messenger!

DontfkRight now, Uber’s PR team should be celebrating having secured feature pieces in both the FT and Vanity Fair, the latter of which could have successfully repositioned  the brand from its helter-skelter course.

Rather than enjoying a few strong pats on the back however, that team is probably going to have to put on its firefighting gear, whilst wondering where the next blaze is going to start.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter how strong your PR team is if the company culture is wrong.

As such, Uber works as the perfect case study for anyone evaluating how not to operate during a global crisis. It’s hubristic leadership appears to lack the maturity or the composure to properly deal with the level of attack being levied against the brand. However, as one Bloomberg writer points out,

it is ultimately the investors who are accountable, and will decide the company’s fate. So give the poor Uber PR team a break and fix corporate culture before it eats itself.

Dapper (Not-A-Barrel-Of) Laughs

Already this week (and it’s only Monday evening!) I have witnessed the rise and fall of a feckless nobody heralded as the next big TV icon. Injected into mainstream media by TV producers in search of profit, only to be dragged violently out again when the heat (allegedly) became too hot for the sponsors to handle, the Dapper Laughs story is one we’ve heard many times before. It is astonishing how we lap up a publicity trick if it hooks us with a shock tactic.

So basic and prurient is the individual in question, that I am loath to dedicate any more inches to his name than he has already been granted – but I am keen to explore the press phenomena that has catapulted him to fame, only to have the spotlight taken from him again.

From the miasma of a series of six second Vine videos, to the screens of ITV2 and headlines of the Observer, Dapper Laughs could hardly be described as a barrel of them. At best he is a Roy Chubby Brown for the millennials, and at worst well, others have put it better than I will. But what much of the left wing, liberal media has failed to grasp is that the likes of Dapper Laughs in the current political climate are like Hydra: the more of their heads you try to chop off, the more quickly and vigorously the next set sprouts in their place. His is a particular breed of extremism, in that he offers a means of release and empowerment to a particular type of disenfranchised man, at the expense and disenfranchisement of other people, in this case, women. His misogyny, and the crowd’s support of it, is a misguided, damp fart of an act of rebellion that smells like roses to people who haven’t had a voice in the mainstream media for quite some time. What ITV2 spotted in hiring Dapper Laughs was an untapped audience goldmine, and they sought to exploit it whatever the cost.

The question is how to out the misogyny without creating a means to drive an audience to the door of the perpetrator. Until axing the show, ITV and their like would have been enjoying the fruits of the war between those supporting him and those who stood against his bile. The reality is, until the sponsors turned sour, Dapper Laughs had a Kevlar rhino skin and a skull thick enough to keep him laughing all the way to the bank.

The comparison has been made already, but much like Nigel Farage’s perceivedly pint-weilding, frank-speaking team of purple-prejudiced merry men, Dapper Laughs is believed to speak with more honesty than others currently in the limelight. An attack on him is perceived to be an attack on those who identify with him, which has resulted in the kinds of trolling we have seen of writers who have stood up against his antics.

What we have witnessed today is a battle between reach and influence.

Mainstream political parties and media have ignored the existence of certain parts of society for too long, and have consequently lost influence over them. What both Farage and ITV2 have done is spot a willing flock in need of a shepherd and have seized the opportunity to lead it. Where neither Farage nor Dapper Laughs had reach, they had influence, which resonated with a crowd, produced word-of-mouth stories, and played to the left wing media’s own brand of fear-driven sensationalism enough to get column inches. Farage has been savvy enough in time, to have crafted this attention into political credence by playing the left wing media at its own game. As other leaders and MPs have stuck doggedly to their hackneyed PR lines, Farage has appeared to be the only human being sitting at a table of marionettes.

Where other comedy shows or political parties may have greater reach, this does not necessarily equate to the greatest influence. This is the age of David triumphing Goliath, in which the bigger they become the harder they fall, has become a truism that many brands are struggling to come to terms with. Both Farage and DL have moved from a position of comparative obscurity, to infamy – and, in the case of UKIP – gradual validity, encouraged by a growth in numbers and a bit of media-meddling.

Whilst Dapper Laughs will be little more than a flash-in-the-pan, what is clear is that as with UKIP, the level of attack levered against him has merely fuelled the crowd who have hailed him their hero, and legitimised their cause. These leaderless crowds are vulnerable and feel as though they have nothing to lose – a volatile and powerful combination.

We Are Never, Ever, Ever Getting Back Together!

It seems that pop’s darling of the decade has turned diva this week as it was announced that Taylor Swift had pulled her entire back catalogue of music from Spotify. Through all the initial hubub, it seems that everybody’s missed the point: this is a publicity scam, and it’s one that she’s already rehearsed. The move was practically in the DNA of 1989’s release.

Don’t be misled by her bubblegum lyrics, Taylor Swift is one of the most powerful women in the music industry at the moment. And this is in no small part due to her masterful ability to craft her public image and her intuitive grasp of PR. With solid branding, a strong, direct connection with her fanbase, and a business-savvy mind to boot, Swift is one of a very select few artists who could pull off this kind of move without direct recoil from the public. She has taken great care in positioning herself prior to the announcement through an op-ed placed in the Wall Street Journal, and this current move marks yet another step in Swift’s long game. What is clear from all of this is that Swift has vision, determination and an uncanny ability to fine-tune her public image.

Some time in the future, she may come back to Spotify – but for the moment, the recipe goes like this: engineer a row, generate ink, sprinkle in a bit of fuss and a dash of consternation; and watch as the mix bubbles sends flocks of fans to non-streaming and Apple-branded versions. In the meantime, Spotify can be guaranteed column inches, and everybody around the table is happy. Swift is a PR genius – her label ain’t called Big Machine for nothin’.

While the break-up seems drastic to some, this stunt is pulled from the pages of a classic tome. Swift’s row is as old as the hills. From Prince vs. YouTube to the Beatles vs. The World, these arguments are about creating noise and spinning a global narrative. All parties benefit from a hyped-up spat, whether it’s Coca Cola vs. Pepsi or Fairy vs. Competitors – commercial interests always benefit from visibility – It’s free advertising!

The clues to the commercial benefits of this latest move can be found in the craftsmanship that has gone into Spotify’s response to the apparent slight. At once witty, light-hearted and uplifting, the brand’s response is well thought-out, and almost a little too slickly executed. There is not the mildest whiff of a brand in trouble, but rather the assured good humour of a brand reaffirming its relationship with its public. In an open letter to Swift, Spotify reminds her of its 40 million-strong network of users, its strongly ethical stance of creating « a new music economy that works for everyone » and the fact that it pays its artists 70 % of its total revenue. The posting of a playlist urging her to return was just the cherry on the cake.

If her album Red was anything to go by, this is not the last we’ll hear of the Spotify vs. Swift pseudo-fiasco. In what could be seen as a warm-up for her latest shenanigans, Swift pulled her last album from Spotify around the time of its release, only for it to reappear again. This latest is a little like the cheeky wink at the end of the We Are Never Getting Back Together video.

“I remember when we broke up the first time
Saying, “This is it, I’ve had enough,” ’cause like
We hadn’t seen each other in a month
When you said you needed space. (What?)
Then you come around again and say
“Baby, I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change, trust me.”
Remember how that lasted for a day?
I say, “I hate you,” we break up, you call me, “I love you.”

A careless toss of a coin!

Whether you believe it or not isn’t the point. The announcement on Twitter that Cadbury’s had lost the festive spirit and cancelled supplies of chocolate coins fuelled an outcry of emotion from the crowd. That’s the point. Was this a stunt? That remains to be seen, but Cadbury’s failed to respect the emotions of their audience, either by commercial pressure or by exposing people to the playing up of the brand.

Loudly announcing (with some tactical timing) a well loved brand is to be discontinued is nothing new. We all remember the Heinz Salad Cream stunt after all. “People preferred mayonnaise”, Heinz claimed as they pulled it from the shelves and the five remaining people who actually still bought it, before whipping the crowd into a frenzy of nostalgia and launching a campaign to save it. So is this the modern game in the face of commercial pressure? And if it is, how far can you take it with a public who love a brand? Cadbury’s went so far as to create their own hashtag #choccoingate in a bid to leverage the noise and they may have thought that smart. They forgot that Cadbury’s still has a unique place in the heart of the British public and loyalty only extends so far. This didn’t feel organic – it felt like a karaoke PR stunt. Cadbury’s should be careful what they wish for. The crowd won’t like being hoodwinked.

Maybe the point is that the retail of most products is ubiquitous. We’ve lost the magic. Cadbury’s Creme Eggs were so much nicer when they were only available for four weeks a year. If the reason for the discontinuation is, as they say, simply because the proliferation of own brand copycats have grabbed the market share and they are ‘too fiddly” then for heavens sake – get innovating! Create something exciting and magical. Just do it in time for Christmas!


The Distraction Strategy

I would argue there are some things you can teach and some things you cannot. I am still not convinced you can teach creativity for example, but you can certainly pass on how to be an appreciator and maybe that is the point here.

PR is a craft. At the heart of that craft are three muscles that must be trained and flexed on a daily basis. Listening, appreciation and curiosity. Now, more than ever, this world demands a concession to conversational instinct and that comes from a lifetime of building and nurturing relationships and of understanding human nuance. But then conversely, experience though of great value, all too often fails to change the world. What does change the world is open mindedness and a healthy dose of distraction! Imagine suggesting a module focusing on distraction should make the PR degree syllabus – and yet, being open to disjointed impressions is essential for creativity. And creativity is essential to great PR.

Many of us can get into the habit of believing that solving problems and creating solutions means bringing our minds to bear on them with discipline, thoughtful concentration and single-mindedness. I’m not sure this is completely true. Discipline, thoughtful concentration and myopic focus usually shut down creativity and drive it straight into reasonableness and logic, and whilst of course, logic certainly has its place and so do intense concentration, undistracted focus and attention to detail, they are best to come after the flip side of that has produced its magic. That magic, comes from limitless distractions and disjointedness to provoke appreciation, curiosity and imagination, in whichever sequence they occur to you.

Most businesses are growth obsessed and can only purport to be creatively driven. Most are repeat order service businesses, where originality and breakthroughs take too much time and don’t add up on the balance sheet.

A successful business or campaign now demands relationships are built on trust and based on an understanding of different demands and opinion. This is the first time in modern business when success or failure depends not on what you say nor even on what you produce, but who you are.

Be careful.

The way PR engages has changed and trust is key

Many of us have felt the shifting sands for some time but the Greenpeace, Lego and Shell narrative really does signal the last warning shot.

This world demands trust above all and, alongside that, the right people in positions of power who understand the pressures.

Traditional methodologies are no longer fit for purpose. A younger, more knowing generation cannot be moved in the same way as before.

Legacy industries have to touch the same consumers they once bought. Fifty years ago corporations could hide behind expensive public image campaigns. But now thanks to social media they actually need to connect properly.

This is the first time in modern business when success or failure depends not on what you say, nor even on what you produce, but on who you are.

In days gone by, trust was at best viewed as subsidiary to the all-pervasive focus on better sales and market share demanded by stakeholders.

In the current environment, the degree to which consumer trust influences decisions has never been higher and is clearly rising.

Yet, paradoxically, trust and transactions are independent variables. Only when you view them as such can you fully understand their relationship to true brand sustainability.

PR can no longer shape perceptions about a brand to the same extent because a brand is a conversation happening as much outside a company’s walls as within them.

So it is individual relationships that count. That said, businesses should avoid the tendency to use their increased social reach to try to ‘advertise’ their way out of that responsibility. Behaviour is on public display so customer interaction is an imperative.

Big corporations that have been weighed down by their responsibility to shareholders and legal straight-jackets must be able to rethink these bonds.

It is time to develop a new style of corporate leader and build something more resilient.

Mark’s lively and informative talks, speeches and panel appearances offer provocative perspectives on the past, present and future of communications. Why not extend an invitation?

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In his talks he draws on the analytical, advisory and creative work of the company, which places it at the heart of debate and developments concerning consumers, communication and technology. But he also draws on his 30 years’ practical experience as a publicist. 30 years during which he has earned a reputation as one of the most free-thinking, innovative and challenging practitioners of the art of consumer communications.

Please e-mail to inquire about possible speaking opportunities.