Last Wednesday, the cuddly, credit card provider Mastercard ran into an alleged ‘PR fail’ storm when their PR agency mishandled and misjudged a bevy of journalists they were inviting to the Brit awards. Scribblers claim that, in exchange for entry to the event, they were asked by email to guarantee coverage, and were requested to keep to social media guidelines including using brand hashtags. Why the inane babble was thought important, is another discussion.
The first thing to say is that this is but a irritating itch, not a full blown brand ebola. Journalists may have ‘taken to Twitter’ to gloat over the misstep, but I can’t see anyone getting fired over a few tantrums. House PR, who sent the offending emails, have only ‘become the story’ for a tiny circle of media old wives. The man and woman from Kettering hasn’t the faintest idea that any of this has happened. Mastercard’s logo still proudly enveloped the event like an amorphous boil.
That said, there are warning signs of deeper problems here. It’s a sad indicator of our weakened press that this sort of thing has become relatively commonplace in PR. The pixies at House can’t be blamed too much – placing constraints on journalists is becoming increasingly culturally acceptable in the industry. The demented zeal to please a difficult client is common. Client demands can be hard to challenge. Some see the craft of PR as something akin to buying ad space. They don’t recognise the weaponry available. PR folk would rather keep the retained client and website logo. The fee environment is deadly. For the simple reason that it¹s easier to get away with than it used to be.
Perhaps more worryingly, there’s a growing cultural divide between journalists and PRs. A new recruit from a newspaper website I met at a function the other day, introduced himself as a content provider. In this shifting world, the new rules haven’t been tested. Lack of confidence prevails. It’s difficult to explain to a young communications graduate who gets their news from Twitter and Reddit, and hasn’t read a newspaper in their life why a journalist would be affronted when ordered to follow a hashtag. Some younger journalists possibly wouldn’t be (though I think the training at media hothouses like City University would inure a lot of them against it). Kids who’ve grown up on softer news are likely to be shocked when they come up against a hard-nosed old schooler.
For evidence of a real disruptive headline-grabber, Mastercard need look no further than Bowie’s comments on Scottish Independence. His peon to the union, delivered via willing puppet Kate Moss, dominated headlines after the event, and created a narrative far more compelling than the old-school brand stickering Mastercard delivered at the Brits.
So not a disaster, but both sides are missing out here. PRs who really take the time to understand the thought patterns of journalists (on and offline) avoid kinks like this before they are even a possibility. Journalists, meanwhile, get deeper, richer stories from these PRs. We may be living in the Now Economy, but I’d prescribe some old-fashioned relationship building, starting with some good old honest time down the pub.
House should, in any case, keep their heads down and just get on with it – probably the only real mistake they made was trying to appease the trade press. The best post-crisis strategy is summed up nicely by a quote from Moss herself – “never explain, never complain.”