Teresa Horscroft's blog

Teresa Horscroft is a PR consultant who helps companies in the information technology and marketing sectors to raise awareness of their products and services and increase sales.

17 August 2011

How to win friends and alienate customers

Brands work hard to make friends with their customers. They start the process by building great products that meet a real customer need. My Blackberry is a good example. It provides me with essential on the move access to critical applications - email, Twitter and Facebook for example - that ensure I’m up to date with trending topics and in touch with clients, journalists and bloggers. But providing a great product or brand experience is only part of the road to righteousness followed by brands who are increasingly aware that everywhere we encounter them is an opportunity to influence our perceptions and behaviour. These brand experiences along the path to purchase are as often bad as they are good however.

Keeping with the Blackberry example I am reminded of an interview I watched a few months ago with Mike Lazaridis, CEO of Blackberry’s maker, Research In Motion and BBC technology reporter Rory Cellan-Jones for BBC Click. This single interview completely changed my perception of this Canadian smartphone maker, and also provided a useful example of how not to behave in a media interview.

What should have been a great opportunity to talk about the Blackberry Playbook was a PR disaster that I am sure caused a few raised eyebrows other than my own. Cellan-Jones asked, as any reporter would, what Blackberry was doing to address customer security concerns. Lazaridis was clearly astonished at having been asked about the issue of protecting users’ privacy. After telling the BBC reporter that it was an unfair question, he refused to answer it. He subsequently ended the interview by holding his hand to the camera and telling the reporter “this interview is over..turn off that camera”.

Of course I am left pondering whether Blackberry’s are secure, but the reality is far from the truth as I understand it. So how is it possible in this PR-savvy era that we live, apparently, that a CEO can make the mistake of thinking that they can dictate the questions that are asked in an interview. There are exceptions of course – such as cash for chat deals with celebrities – but generally speaking a journalist, can, will and should ask what they want. Every executive can control the interview of course, but they cannot control the questions. To assume otherwise is not only ignorant but potentially damaging for the company’s reputation.

Basic media training rules teach any executive how to prepare for press interviews and deal with difficult questions. Refusing to answer them is most certainly not one of the suggested approaches. Lazaridis succeeded in throwing fuel into the flames of a security issue that could have been managed far more positively. And since the interview positioned Lazaridis as defensive and arrogant, there’s the danger that this transfers to the brand too.

Unfortunately Blackberry isn’t alone in its mismanagement of a media interview. Companies continue to make errors of judgement that impact all of their stakeholders (media, customers, shareholders and analysts alike) and ultimately their long-term reputation.

It takes years to build a brand but only moments to destroy it. If you are investing in creating brand loyal companies don’t forget to invest in keeping them too.

23 December 2010

Are conversations ever really off the record?

My answer to this question is invariably always “no with a few caveats”. Vince Cable’s comments this week on Murdoch’s intended acquisition of BSkyB and the challenges of working in a coalition Government is a stark reminder that anything we say can be ‘published’. Cable will probably assert at some point that he wasn’t aware he was speaking to ‘the press’. These days however that distinction isn’t important. Perhaps it never was. Word of mouth is, after all, not a new phenomena.

Social media does of course accelerate the ability of word of mouth to travel, providing anyone and everyone with an opinion the ability to comment, willingly and often, on all manner of topics that impact or interest them. Their individual comments invariably join with others to create an enormous groundswell of comment, often from millions of individual voices, that is capable of becoming or influencing global news.

Even if Cable’s comments had fallen on the ears of two regular constituents instead of ‘undercover’ journalists, it is highly likely that his words would have still have found a way to be heard.

The Web is one giant mixing bowl, making distinct lines of communication to specific audiences a strategy of the past and meaning that people like Cable should be careful about what they say anywhere, not just in the press conference or briefing environment.

Exceptions to my ‘no off the record’ mantra, like the Chatham House rule on non-attributable briefings, may exist but they rely on agreement and understanding and are planned in advance. They do not help people who make unguarded, critical comments to anyone who will listen. The web really does makes every conversation ‘on the record’.

25 August 2010

Too hot to handle? Festival founder agrees to sunshine clause in event contract

I’m becoming slightly obsessed with all this rain and was chatting to Big Chill festival founder Pete Lawrence yesterday about the weather forecast for this weekend’s Festinho music event at Hinwick House in Bedfordshire. He told me that he had acquired a reputation over the years for an uncanny ability to bring out the sun. According to a study about weather at UK festivals his former festival, The Big Chill, was recently declared the hottest by average temperature and sunshine hours in the UK.

Ironically, after Lawrence's exit from The Big Chill two years ago, this year's event (my first music festival) was hit by rain, cloud and cooler temperatures for much of the weekend.

I’m not the only one keeping an eye on Pete’s weather predictions. Festinho suggested adding an unprecedented clause to his contract this year for the ‘delivery’ of a minimum number of sunshine hours of sunshine hours. Pete apparently accepted. Festinho organiser Simon Strick remarked "Pete's reputation as a sun god is legendary in UK festival circles and has recently acquired added resonance and scarcity value since his departure from The Big Chill. We stepped in quickly and went for an exclusive with him - he was more than happy to agree to the 'sun' clause in his contract for the coming weekend. It's a bit of fun really but at the end of the day, heads will roll if Pete fails to deliver the rays after such a poor August so far."

I’ll be asking this revered sun god for his forecast for our forthcoming National Picnic Day on Bank Holiday Monday 30th August. Organised by Pete Lawrence to get us all out of doors sharing food and good times with friends and family this occasion is also an early celebration of the impending launch of Pete’s new social network, Pic-Nic Village(which I’m launching so watch this space for more news on 7th September). Like the online community, picnics are all about bringing people together to share good times and ideas. The Pic-Nic Village team and friends will be taking a picnic to the inaugural (and free) Braunston Festival where Eliza Carthy, Sheelanangig and others will be playing. I’ll be packing warm (and waterproof) clothing just in case but am hoping Pete’s new contract with Festinho is a good omen for a dry bank holiday weekend.


17 May 2010

Lessons Learnt

While working with Six Degrees recently I was surprised to see a new business proposal make reference to a couple of PR strategies that didn’t work as planned. Giving two examples the proposal went on to explain what had been learnt from the chain of events that unfolded in each case as an advisory to the prospect. Was I in the wrong document? Surely proposals are all about putting forward examples of our best work?

Not any longer. Proposals that show how we deal with tough situations and what we learn from them can give potential clients real insight into how we assess and improve processes and strategies and keep in tune an ever-changing media and business landscape. While not all errors are of our own doing ( it is not unknown for sound advice to fall upon deaf ears), learning from ill-timed or implemented strategies that don’t deliver upon the desired objectives is simply good honest business practice. CEOs regularly take risks that don’t pan out. Far from damaging their careers it boosts their value and credibility. It is wholly surprising that we don’t see more of this practice in the PR world.

All too often busy PR professionals end one project and just move straight onto the next without any debrief or discussion about what worked well, what didn’t and ideas for what to improve the next time.

As I finalise my own debrief report from the fifth annual launch of Millward Brown’s Most Valuable Global Brands research, I am encouraged to see an open and sharing culture emerging from the spin that many in our industry thrive in.

25 March 2010

Can Toyota rebuild its reputation after the recent crisis?

Some media students from Alton College interviewed me last week about how Toyota’s faulty accelerator pedal crisis may have damaged the company's reputation. While it is evident that the car manufacturer made some basic crisis communications errors, it will be interesting to see whether Toyota can rebuild its reputation as one of the world’s most trusted car brands.

The mistakes made by this fast growth car company will no doubt ensure that it is referred to in business and communications management text books for years to come.
The first mistake Toyota made was not to respond quickly enough. It was too slow to: acknowledge the problem; decide how to deal with the problem; and communicate remedial actions. In a crisis speed is critical. In recent years we’ve gone from having a few hours or even days to just a few seconds before news about a crisis is spread widely via online blogs, social media sites and news pages. It’s more important than ever that, as part of crisis preparedness , companies have planned for a multitude of possible events. The planning should include among other things agreement on how to respond, who will respond and even a draft of the planned response. I am sure there are a number of scenarios that could be covered by a single statement for a company in this sector, where product recalls are not uncommon. Doing the legwork in advance really does gain valuable time.

The second, but my no means final, error Toyota made was to try to downplay the problem. It will always be wrong to trivialise a problem where people have or could die. And honesty is crucial.

Further, by adopting a decentralised approach to disseminating information, customers received mixed messages about the nature of the problem, adding fuel to the already flaming fire of consumer anxiety.

In a crisis, you need to quell rumours and confusion by ensuring that communication comes from the top of the organisation. Since the internet is global and bad news travels quickly online, it should also be consistent across the globe (with local detail if necessary). And if you’re communicating on webcasts or TV, don’t forget the importance of body language. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry, you have truly be sorry in order to look sorry too. I watched one TV interview where the spokesperson appeared defensive and even slightly annoyed at the questions he was being asked. This is not a good attitude to take. People have died. Show some respect and remorse.
Despite these blunders, it is still possible to survive a crisis when a company, like Toyota, has already built a huge amount of customer trust. It’s no easy ride to recovery however. Toyota still needs to get the business response and the way it communicates that right from now on. It was slow to engage with and leverage the support of dealers, suppliers and partners in the early stages of the crisis, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to start. It’s also not to late to work with other key influencers , such as Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond or independent car safety experts. Invite these trusted experts to test cars. Get them into the manufacturing plant to review first-hand the quality and testing processes and let them lift the hood on what happens under Toyota’s bonnet. Film it, document it and use it to highlight how seriously safety and quality are taken at Toyota. But don’t use it as an excuse for what happened. Acknowledge the issues and show how they are being tackled. Being open and transparent will show that Toyota has nothing to hide. This will help to rebuild trust and perhaps even gain some new followers in the process.

Toyota still has a chance to rebuild its reputation as long as it continues to deliver on its promises. People will forgive a mistake when it’s dealt with openly and honestly. Anything else plants seeds of doubt that can damage trust and brand loyalty.

21 March 2010

How your office environment and staff behaviour impacts your corporate identity

My preparation for a video interview this week included more than researching Toyota’s battered reputation. I spent just as much thinking about visual impact. This included tidying away desk clutter, displaying recent copies of marketing and PR trade magazines as well as the daily papers and filling the flower vase. It reminded me that a company’s image is not only communicated by its collateral, press coverage, website and product packaging. Corporate identity is presented in every single interaction a company has with its suppliers, partners and customers. The way the receptionist answers the phone or greets visitors; whether the office is tidy or messy, modern or old-fashioned, small or large; how welcoming the reception area is; and how staff dress and behave, will all communicate something about your company.

Ask yourself what your own office and staff says about your company and is it consistent with how you describe the company and your core values.

As an example, think about how you might feel if you saw a Waitrose van driver throwing rubbish out of the window while driving along. Probably not the behaviour you’d expect from the nation’s favourite ‘green’ retailer. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been unimpressed by a sullen or rude receptionist. How do you feel when you walk into a shop and hear sales staff gossiping about the person they just served in front of you? This happened to a colleague recently who subsequently decided to boycott that shop in future.

When we work so hard to gain customers, losing them as a direct result of staff behaviour should not be tolerated. But it really is equally important to consider the entire journey that a potential or existing customer takes with your company. If you don’t already undertake regular and comprehensive corporate identity audit then there’s no better time to start than right now.

11 February 2010

Is it acceptable to have a blog ghostwritten?

A recent blog by Vikki Chowney at Reputation Online tackled the issue of whether ghost-writing a blog is an acceptable practice. She identified two main opposing schools of thought on the issue. First are the digital natives who believe ghost-blogging to be an unacceptable practice and argue that the whole idea of a blog is that it captures the first-hand views and opinions of the author. Some of these people even deem ghost-blogging to be illegal. They suggest that CEOs and other ‘bloggers’ have no idea what they are putting their name to.

Secondly there are the agencies that don’t see ghost-blogging as any different from ghost-writing by-lined articles. Essentially this is where I stand. In both cases the content of the article is discussed (or at least should be) with the author to ensure that their opinions and expertise are accurately represented. Once written the author reviews and then agrees to the article or blog copy before it is submitted and published. Even though blogging needs to have a quicker turnaround and the tone of the piece is entirely different from a by-lined article,the procedure is really no different. If the idea or beliefs expressed in the blog were firstly asserted and secondly agreed by the ‘author’ then there should be no case, legal or otherwise, to discredit the blogger as bogus. One commentator on Vikki’s blog, Alex Blythe, makes an important point. He says authors trust ghost-writers to present their opinions in a clear and engaging way. Of course they do! Just because someone can’t write or doesn’t have the time to, they can still have their views published with the help of a ghost-writer or ghost-blogger.

On other hand if the author really has not authorised the text and someone is blogging his own opinions under the banner of the CEO then I am inclined to agree with the digital natives on this one: that the by-line should be attributed to the real author (the actual writer). The same applies to anything else that is essentially written as a by-line rather than the company line.

To summarise, yes, ghost blogging should be acceptable with a few fundamental rules. We should be encouraging companies to communicate in a more open and transparent way with all of their audiences. Blogging is one of the ways they can do this. It gives a company a real face and invites customers and other influencers to interact, which could be invaluable in building brand loyalty as well as influencing corporate strategy and sales.