By Doug Shields
This has been a big week for PR – not for the PR industry, but for the ethos of PR.
PR is not a single entity, it can be many things, conversation, promotion, engagement, but what lies beneath it all is reputation.
Reputations take years to build, but as the saying goes they can be destroyed in a instant.
I have read with interest three particular stories this week, which to any outsiders looking in, paint a pretty clear image of how important PR is, and why it should be treated with the utmost respect.
It is easy for people, big brands and brands that are aiming for the stars to sometimes dismiss PR and focus on advertising. The boom in online news and the wider spectrum of the worldwide web and its growing influence and reach has exacerbated this.
I have met in the not too distant past what we would all describe as household brands. Household brands that sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions of products globally.
Some of them have PR teams numbering less then five people, and some have PR teams that consist of one or two part-time staff.
This worries me – because PR is important.
We are all obsessed with what other people think about us.
Brands and people in the public eye are no different, if anything they are more obsessed with how their image, product or personality is perceived by the general public and the wider media.
So how on earth did Thomas Cook, Raheem Sterling and Odds Checker Au get it so wrong?
Let’s look at it case by case.
In a very, very small measure I sympathise with the Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser, and this by the way doesn’t even come close to the sympathy I feel, as a father myself, for Neil Shepherd who lost his two young children on what should have been a family sunshine break which lingered long in the memory, not an horrific tragedy which he and the children’s extended family, have to bear for the rest of their lives.
But clearly Fankhauser was badly advised.
I would even bet my mortgage on Thomas Cook’s lawyers very firmly stating to him that an apology, of any kind, would be seen as an admission of guilt, and would be seized upon by guess who – more lawyers – who would take the company to the cleaners financially.
But surely at some point someone sitting in that room would have said – or should have said – “Hold on, we are talking about a family losing two of their young children here, this is not a case of Legionnaires disease caused by the water in the swimming pool”.
Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t.
But steadfastly refusing to apologise, and there are ways of apologising without admitting guilt, the English language is varied and comprehensive, was wrong in every sense.
The right words do exist. But the right time also exists, and the right time as far as PR is concerned is at the earliest possible opportunity.
I nipped out for a bite to eat with my wife at lunch-time on Monday and with almost ten years in the PR industry under my belt, and with my wife boasting 15 or so years as a national news journalist, we discussed the way forward for Thomas Cook.
We came to the conclusion the only way for them to repair the damage was to apologise first to the family, then say sorry publicly, then find some way to compensate them for their loss.
Finally the company came to their senses. How long it takes to fully recover their reputation amid a storm of protest from every which direction, remains to be seen.
My second case in point is Raheem Sterling, the 20-year-old Liverpool and England ‘star’ whose agent Ady Ward this week told the club Sterling wouldn’t stay if Liverpool paid his player £900,000 a week.
What???? £900k a week.
I bet training the following morning was #Awks.
Sterling: “Morning boss”.
Brendan Rodgers: (Complete silence)
Sterling is someone who did well at the World Cup last year (when we failed to win a game and left before the fridge was even properly stocked at the Brazilian football fiesta).
But since then he has been shocking.
So demanding a move – and what looks like a salary which will make the highest paid player on this planet and possibly another seven or eight similar to ours if they exist, is a poor move.
He may not be moving for the money. He may be moving because he wants to win things (the reason players use because they feel bad saying “I’m tripling my salary”).
Sterling may want to play for a club that wins leagues, cups and even Champions Leagues, but if he does, why on earth did his agent come out and say that.
The player now faces weeks, months, or even another TWO YEARS at Liverpool, who have vowed to hang on to him, where he will be absolutely slaughtered by supporters at every opportunity.
Even if he moves to another club, he is only ever three or four games away from falling foul of fans there, amid accusations he is only there for the big bucks.
“What a waste of money” is frequently the chant of choice for supporters, both home and away.
So I have no idea what Ward was thinking. Sorry, I know you will soon become Britain’s most famous sports publicist, but you got this one wrong so I am giving you a #PRfail.
Finally, today we have the case of the awful, barbed tweet from Odds Checker Au aimed at Frankie Barwell, the girlfriend of Manchester United starlet James Wilson.
I have no idea what the strategy was from Odds Checker AU’s point of view. But it backfired massively.
Maybe they thought a dig at a few celebs would launch their brand to a broader global audience, perhaps they see themselves as an Aussie Paddy Power.
Whatever they were thinking, they got it wrong.
I am usually at odds with the Twittersphere tw*ts who wade in and sing their weight about demanding brands or companies immediately fire those responsible.
I always think they just want to be able to tell their mates in the pub that night they played a part in that company’s decision. How sad is that?
But today I agree with them. This is another major #PRfail. Yes we all now know who the brand is, but as for positive recognition – I think not.
I feel for Frankie – and if you are reading this (I know you won’t) – I thought you looked great, and I thought your response was bang on.
I for one will now not ever use Odds Checker AU to check odds in Australia.
Whether I would have ended ever up facing that dilemma, I am unsure.
But if I was to, I will now look elsewhere.