Articles: Blogs

Take heart, Gordon: sometimes a gaffe can be the best PR

Crisis Communications - 29th April 2010

Yesterday’s ‘disastrous’ encounter between British prime minister Gordon Brown and forthright voter Gillian Duffy may prove to be a decisive moment in the General Election campaign. Certainly, the PM will have to work hard to repair his reputation. However, thanks to the public’s general weariness with spin, both in politics and business, a public failure or embarrassment can sometimes work to your advantage.

The UK’s disillusionment with its politicians has, of course, many causes: the dubious grounds for the Iraq war, the parliamentary expenses scandal and the shocking budget deficit are just several. However, another important factor is a pervading sense that MPs have over-promised and under-delivered for too long, and, when cross-examined, are evasive to the point of slipperiness in their determination to be proved right.

At the same time, a generation of business executives has been media-trained to believe that this is the right approach. As a result, journalists sometimes feel short-changed in interviews and struggle to find comments that seem genuine and worth printing. This does nothing to help the executives, as their customers (i.e. the readers) are presented with nothing that they can identify with and which earns their trust.

If this doesn’t stretch credibility too far, PR has fallen into disrepute. The comment “that’s good PR” (typically used as a knowing compliment) has taken on an increasingly cynical edge that is at odds with what public relations is actually about (namely, promoting mutual understanding, respect and trust between you and your key audiences).

For companies and organisations, the anti-spin backlash is reflected in changing attitudes and expectations from customers. As we wrote in a recent post about blogging, people increasingly want ‘transparency’ from their suppliers, and are suspicious of organisations that profess their infallibility.

This new climate dictates that organisations must change both the tone and some of the substance of their public relations. Adopting a more relaxed attitude to the occasional failure can prove beneficial in several ways:

  • Today’s well-informed, empowered consumers dislike being patronised. By showing that you are human and fallible, you treat your customers with honesty and respect, which helps to engender trust. As an example, Microsoft’s image with customers benefited hugely from the blogging of its former employee, Robert Scoble, whose candid account of the company’s well-intentioned shortcomings did much to erode the suspicion with which the company was widely viewed.
  • Avoiding a defensive and confrontational attitude to the media can help you get more out of an interview. Contrary to accepted wisdom, few journalists are actually ‘out to get you’ (and one can quickly tell when they are). Although you should prepare and know your facts before an interview, nervously sticking to a script will not help you build a rapport. As a result, the journalist may not find a story they can offer to their readers. Be professional, but be yourself, and accept that coverage will never be precisely as you expect it.
  • Admitting a failure gives you a chance to underline your core beliefs and values. Carphone Warehouse founder Charles Dunstone faced a reputational crisis when an unexpected surge in demand for TalkTalk, his new telephony service, caused customer service to fall over. He took to the airwaves to deliver an unreserved apology to irate customers, explain his beliefs about customer service and say what he would be doing to fix things. This helped to buy the company time and goodwill, which paved the way for TalkTalk’s subsequent success.
  • Owning up to a failed product launch can even contribute to long-term success. As management author Micael Dahlén writes in his book ‘Creativity Unlimited’, even if customers dislike your new offering, the failed launch can remind them why they liked your original product in the first place. The U-turn performed by Coca-Cola over the launch of New Coke provides a textbook example.

Clearly, there are some provisos to this approach, and whether it applies to Gordon Brown is debatable. Most importantly, it assumes you already have a healthy surplus of goodwill in your favour. Marks & Spencer, for example, seems more likely to enjoy this than the embattled British premier. It is also unlikely to apply if you are caught out disparaging your customers.

However, for an organisation with a reputation for quality and customer service, an occasional slip-up (accompanied by an explanation of how you will do better) can turn out to be the perfect piece of PR.