Blog : PR

So long superficial social stars – it’s time for the real influencers to step up

So long superficial social stars – it’s time for the real influencers to step up

The pandemic has made us, as consumers, reassess and reflect on exactly who we’re following online, and why. As the UK public put a spotlight on our everyday heroes – the nurses, bin men and shelf stackers fighting the good fight right there on the frontline – slowly we began to realise that influencer culture had got a little out of control.

From sponsored brand deals, collaborations and an all-expenses paid lifestyle – or at least, the illusion of one – influencers appeared to have been given an easy ride over the past couple of years.

Then coronavirus happened.

Sponsored posts on Instagram fell from representing 35% of influencer content in mid-February to 4% in mid-April according to a report by Launchmetrics. Covid-19 forced content creators to strip back all the luxuries and go back to doing exactly that – creating their own content. With no glamorous events, launches and comped travel to luxe destinations, influencers have retreated to their bedrooms, mirroring exactly what their viewers have been doing for the past four months.

Back to the bedroom

For those of us who remember YouTube’s ‘What’s in my Bag’ era when Zoella filmed her videos in a box room at her parent’s house and Tanya Burr still spent her weekends working on a makeup counter, there’s something satisfying in knowing that throughout lockdown, our favourite influencers were binging Normal People right alongside us.

Pretty much overnight, influencers had to relinquish control of their carefully curated content, pare back their aesthetically pleasing lives and go back to the drawing board to work out exactly what their fans enjoy (and balancing that with much needed hits and engagement) at a time when social media provided a much-needed solace for so many.

In some cases, it’s been refreshing. As we all dusted off our kindles, Beth Sandland launched her virtual book club and brought readers from around the world together. When restaurants and bars were forced to close, Ailsa from Edin Eats pivoted her content from recommending the best places to eat in the city to ‘Edin Cooks’, a series where she learned to cook from scratch in her kitchen.

Josie LDN has captivated Insta audiences over lockdown with her home renovation. Yes, it might be a glorious, million-pound Cotswolds bolthole rather than a one-bedroom studio with a shower above the toilet, but who hasn’t enjoyed a bit of lockdown DIY?

However, it’s clear that others have struggled with developing their style when the safety net is wheeked away (no names mentioned – in this blog post anyway…).

The behaviour backlash

Predictably, living your life online comes with a level of accountability and some influencers have been caught out. Creators such as Arielle Charnas were called out for flouting social distancing rules and travelling long distances – with their followers describing their behaviour as irresponsible, insensitive or just plain old out of touch. Suddenly, fans took off their rose-tinted glasses and instead started to view their favourite influencers with piercing clarity.

So, is this the end of the road for influencers? Despite the backlash, influencer marketing is still one of the most powerful and measurable forms of marketing. During times of uncertainty, people rely on those individuals with credibility to educate, entertain and inspire. That’s not going to change. Influencers just need to ensure that they’re being genuine with the content they’re putting out there and continue to be as authentic as possible.

The rise of authenticity and purpose

Authenticity is something PR professionals have been banging on about for years. But, some of the time, it’s been lip service. How many times has a client said they want to work with a Zoe Sugg, because they can’t see further than the follower count over engagement levels? They’re happy to ‘pay and display’ – pay a one off sum for an Insta Story, a tweet, a single post with #ad. But what’s the benefit for the brand, and ultimately, the end consumer?

It’s our prediction that there is going to be a rise of purpose-led content, and content creators that facilitate conversations and inform valuable two-way discussions with their audiences will come to the fore. Pushing out just one solitary, vacuous grid post isn’t going to cut it with audiences in a post-Covid world and PRs, brands and influencers need to recognise this.

The next few months are going to be an interesting time as opinion shifts. Beauty blogs? Meh. We’d rather see some more dancing bin men.

Nobody panic – helping you manage out of a crisis

Nobody panic – helping you manage out of a crisis

Despite the fact we are in the middle of a huge crisis, from a comms point of view things have been relatively straight forward. The Government has led the way and businesses have followed.  No one is alone, we’re all in it together, which in many ways has made it easier to message and deal with.

But as we start to see things transition into ‘next normal’, businesses have to be prepared for managing their own news and reputations. The media are going to switch their attention away from the Government and will be looking for stories about the fallout. So, everything – from financial struggles to redundancies, closure of offices, pulling back from investment, employees not being supported or treated appropriately, to additional spikes in infection – will prove challenging to manage. Whilst much of this is unavoidable, brands and businesses will be held accountable for their actions during this time, and even the mighty can fall with one wrong move.

Last week, myself and Scotland MD, Morna McLelland, sat on a Marketing Society Inspiring Minds panel to discuss managing comms during a crisis; here’s a summary of some things for brands and businesses to think about.

1. Be Prepared (and know when an issue becomes a crisis).

None of us ever saw ‘global pandemic’ on the risk register of any business we worked with, but every business should be thinking about the potential risks and challenges facing them.  These could be financial, operational, people, product or customer related.  Prepare your own risk register, work through the scenarios, and ideally, plan how you would respond.  If you know something significant is going to happen, take as much time as you can to prepare.  Think about who in your organisation will need to be involved, what are the key stages or dates you need to work around, how will you make decisions, and how will you communicate with each other?

2. Understand your audiences

Who are the people you need to influence and communicate with?  These could include investors, stakeholders, politicians, customers, and employees.  Map out your audiences in relation to your issue.  Who is most important, what do they need, what do they want to hear, and how will you reach them?

3. Make your message relevant

Ideally you should boil your comms down to four key messages. When you write them, remember your voice, keep them short, and ideally work with a PR professional to ensure that the words you use can’t be edited down by a journalist or taken out of context in any way.  Revisit your audiences and then make sure you tweak messages depending on who you’re talking to – tailored comms will go down much better than one size fits all.  Be consistent.  Admit mistakes, be clear, and show empathy.

 

4. Don’t believe your own hype

Of course you believe in the business you work in but that can sometimes cloud your judgement on how people externally will interpret your message. Use someone external to stress test your messaging and approach, and get a real-world view on things.

5. Be clear on your voice and who is representing you

When you speak, how do you sound?  If a brand is talking, make sure you don’t ignore your brand personality but be flexible.  Even the most irreverent brands need to know when to play it straight. Be real, be authentic, and above all else be honest.  The brands who fare best in a crisis are those that are relatable and real – hiding behind corporate masks will do very little to engender any kind of empathy. Get clear on who is going to be your voice. There is of course a role for the CEO but it’s important to consider different people for different roles and to ensure the most effective communicators are used at key moments.

6. Join things up

Make sure that your communications response looks at all the comms channels at your disposal, from PR, internal channels, customer newsletters, social media, stakeholder comms, third party networks and direct communications (picking up the phone or sending someone an email).  Timing and the sequence of this is especially critical and will be dictated by your audience mapping.

 

7. Use third parties to provide a different voice

Is there a third party that could support your story? Can you signpost existing help and information resources?  Or similarly, if you know someone is going to be especially negative then you might want to brief them directly in advance.

8. Understand the mood, and how it changes over time

How your story lands will have as much to do with what you say as the context in which it is landing.  Make sure you have a good read on the external environment and are sensitive to what’s going on around you. At the moment we are ‘all in this together’ with a collective goal, but that’s unusual. Be aware of wider economic factors that are influencing opinion – both good and bad – and how your messaging might need to change.

9. Communicate often and think ahead

Keep people updated (even when you have nothing to say).  Never stick your head in the sand or ignore questions. Review your social content and frequency of communications as people hunger for information, reassurance or guidance. And while you’re in this now, and will undoubtedly be focused on getting out of it as quickly and painlessly as possible, think ahead…what could be the future implications; unemployment, shareholder unrest, staff well-being and mental health, and are you equipped for that too?

 

10. Get specialist help

Managing reputations in a crisis is something that can’t be taught in a book or by reading a blog. The process and nuances come from years of experience so get someone in that knows what they are doing and absolutely have them at the top table throughout.  If you manage something badly then it’s going to take five times longer to clear up and by then your reputation could be severely damaged. Surround yourself with experienced experts that can help you and provide calm and confident support.

As a final thought, while no-one loves a crisis, if handled correctly they can define a business and the leadership team within it. Even when delivering the toughest of messages, if you are relatable and act with integrity and compassion then things might not end up quite as bad as you think.

 

Merlin Entertainments appoints Stripe Communications London as retained PR and social media agency for all London attractions

Merlin Entertainments appoints Stripe Communications London as retained PR and social media agency for all London attractions

We’re very proud to announce the expansion of our partnership with Merlin Entertainments as the retained PR and Social Media consultancy for the London portfolio of attractions including; Madame Tussauds London, The Coca-Cola London Eye, SEA LIFE London, The London Dungeon and Shrek’s Adventure! London.

We were first appointed as retained PR consultancy for Madame Tussauds in 2016, and our work with Merlin Entertainments now includes the entire London portfolio of attractions, providing domestic and international press office management, brand campaigns, news hijacking and all issues and crisis management for the London attractions. Our social media remit includes development and implementation of social media strategy for all attractions plus ongoing community management and influencer strategy and engagement.

Some of our recent work with Merlin Entertainments has included; when Madame Tussauds London displayed Donald Trump outside the US Embassy when the US President declared on Twitter that he would not be visiting the UK to open the new London embassy building in Vauxhall. Also, recently in December when the London Eye played host to the nation’s favourite nanny to coincide with the European premier of Mary Poppins Returns.

Our London Managing Director, Chris Stevenson, said, “It is a privilege to work with some of the UK’s most iconic attractions and a team with boundless ambition to produce bold and innovative work. It is a tremendous collaboration between the Stripe team and Merlin Entertainments London marketing team and we are confident 2019 will be another huge success working closely together.”

Gemma Cracknell, Marketing Director, Merlin Entertainments said, “Stripe have been a valuable agency partner to us since their original appointment and we are delighted to have expanded the scope of their role to include all of the London attractions. They have already delivered some outstanding results for us across our attractions and we look forward to continued success with Stripe as a key agency partner.”

PR in 2018 – Forget a List of Resolutions, This Year is All About The Resolve to Evolve and Authenticity

PR in 2018 – Forget a List of Resolutions, This Year is All About The Resolve to Evolve and Authenticity

New Year’s resolutions often begin with a nod to some wrong-doing. Personally, I don’t think starting with a negative is the best way to encourage a genuine change or action; consequently, I’ve never paid too much attention to NY resolutions.

In the spirit of being different, and in true Yogi fashion, I have looked at two positive intentions for 2018 that will help make the change it brings exciting, filled with opportunities, and jam-packed with unforgettable authentic storytelling.

Intentions for 2018: Resolve to Evolve AND Be Authentic

My nine-year PR career has spanned across London, Dubai, Sydney, and now bounces between Edinburgh and London. It’s been an exciting career in an ever-changing landscape and one thing I have noticed, regardless of country, is that if there is one common feature to be found in the most successful PR professionals and companies, it is adaptability. This year more than ever, we will need to Resolve to Evolve.

The second came more easily. Fake News is no longer a funny line regularly quoted by Trump. Public trust in traditional media fell to an all-time low last year with people increasingly favouring their friends and contacts on the internet as sources of news and truth. Those sources are also being pulled into question and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. Media, influencers, brands – ALL will have the spotlight on them and there won’t be room for mistakes. Transparency and honesty is going to be key and ALL will need to get onboard and Be Authentic.

I have outlined a few touchpoints where these intentions are going to really matter.

Influencers

The term ‘influencer’ isn’t new to your average Joe, let alone any professional working in media. That said, it is an ever-evolving medium of communication and brands are still trying to understand the best ways of sourcing and working with influencers, measuring their value, and understanding where they sit amongst more traditional media platforms. Perhaps more importantly brands are also still trying to understand where the value of micro-influencers lies vs your more traditional celebrities.

Last year saw a huge shift in activity across the globe with influencers becoming prevalent in above the line campaigns for massive corporations including P&G, Diageo, ASOS and Estee Lauder. They are no longer restricted to below the line activity and this trend of dipping into both will no doubt continue to grow if Celebrity Intelligence research stands to be true. But… it will be the will of the people – particularly Gen Z – that truly dictates what happens to influencers this year and we need to prepare to react and move with them at a fast-pace. The one thing that won’t be shifting is the Gen Z demand for authentic ambassadors – influencers who spread themselves too thinly or indulge in unauthentic partnerships for cash will quickly suffer the consequences.

Paid Vs Earned Vs Owned

The lines have been getting blurry with regards to all brand created content and where it sits; perhaps even more importantly and relevant – who makes it! PR agencies are no longer focused on earned content alone, and have slowly over the past two or three years been working our way into producing more content for paid and owned channels. This year will be hotter and more competitive than ever with agencies who used to work to strict specialisations crossing-over into new remits and hiring in a parallel manner.

PR agencies have a pretty strong position in this blurrier landscape because we’ve been story-telling to the biggest cynics for years – journalists. That said, it’s also important to note you don’t want to be the ‘Jack of all Master of none’ – know where your strengths are and work with other specialists’ agencies or professionals when you know they can realistically do the task better! Working with other agencies can also be enjoyable, and beneficial and doesn’t always have to be a competition to show who is best. The most important element is again, creating authentic content that fits in a relevant and holistic way.

Artificial Intelligence

PR professionals will also need to evolve this year with new technology as it arises – everything from virtual reality to augmented reality and artificial intelligence will play a role in how people source, create and share content.

Audiences demand a lot from consumer brands today – more than ever I’d say… look at how hard retailers are having to diversify in store experience to get footfall! One clear route to brand loyalty will be using technology to better understand the consumers’ needs and equally to develop innovative and unique sensorial experiences that take interaction with brands to new levels. I don’t think PR’s will ever be made redundant– thankfully there is no replacement for human creativity and interaction and PR is still about story-telling and evoking emotion. Whether it’s laughter (the new Kiwi police advert) or perhaps that warm fuzzy feeling (the new dancing on ice ad) – until robots can truly make audiences feel and Be Authentic– you’re relatively safe!

Turing Fest 2017 – PR vs SEO

Turing Fest 2017 – PR vs SEO

Last week, Stripe attended Scotland’s largest tech gathering, Turing Fest to further submerge ourselves into the world of digital marketing for a day, with talks from international leaders in the field.

We were glued to speakers such as Rand Fishkin, Wil Reynolds and Lisa Myers on SEO; Laura Crimmons who gave us an important lesson in connecting with people whether it be clients or colleagues; CMO of ClassPass, Joanna Lord, who talked about the different levels of growth in business and how to achieve it and Purna Virji who discussed marketing in a conversational world, taking a closer look at the use of chatbots.

As someone who comes from a very PR background, the opportunity that lies with digital is fascinating and is something that has increasingly become part of my portfolio of experience as clients look for more than just those traditional pieces of media coverage, but integrated campaigns. The key takeaway for me from Turing was the similarities and crossovers between PR and SEO and how ultimately they can organically support each other.

PRs and SEOs both aim to achieve coverage through compilation of content and media outreach with the difference being that while PRs strive for the highest reach through calculations of readership, followers and unique user figures, SEOs aim for coverage in the form of links, ideally having authoritative sites such as the BBC or The Huffington Post including a link to the client’s campaign web page in their coverage of the story for example, which in turn would help improve the search engine rankings of the brand’s website.

As a comms consultant always upskilling in more digital disciplines, it made me realise that us PRs are already pros in a lot of practices involved in SEO – more of us just need to realise the digital value to our clients of incorporating something so simple as a brand web page link into content and highlighting the importance of that link being included in coverage of the story to our media contacts and voila… we’re on our way to being SEO practitioners.

Having had my eyes opened at Turing Fest to the world of SEO, I’m looking forward to seeing how the disciplines of PR and digital marketing will continue to merge, as clients continue to operate further into the digital space with campaigns and coverage KPIs.

From hack to flack: Jumping from journalism to PR

From hack to flack: Jumping from journalism to PR

That’s that then;  week one at Stripe done and dusted, week one of being in PR at all for that matter done and dusted after 20-plus years as a journalist.

I loved working my ticket round the weird and wonderful world of newspapers and news websites for longer than was probably healthy, so how has it been then ‘jumping the pond’ and landing in Scatter Cushion Corner?

I’m not really sure how to describe it; ‘challenging’ doesn’t cover it, ‘bewildering’ certainly comes close in parts, but perhaps the best parallel I can find is that I feel like Karen in the wedding scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas  –  overwhelmed by a new life in an alien world, spinning around in a sea of sensory overload, but in a good way, still smiling.

Not that I’m comparing my new colleagues to The Mob, or myself to a blushing bride;  I knew from the get go that things would be different here than the newsroom.

Up until now my first week in any new job has pretty much consisted of being told where the kettle is and how to turn the computer on.

But as my first monthly team meeting ended and the clapping stopped and we all headed off back to our desks, loins girded, enthused, focused on the job ahead, I took a moment, looked around, and said to myself ‘Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas any more.’

On the way back to my desk, ever so-slightly shell-shocked, one of my new colleagues smiled and leaned in and said: “You aren’t quite used to the whole clapping thing eh?”

It’s not that I’m not used to meetings, I’ve been to plenty, all sorts.

Like everybody else, memories of most of them have evaporated into a sludge of meaningless doodles, secret shared raised ‘oh aye?’ eyebrows, indecipherable notes, and forgotten action points.

But there are some meetings I remember more than others,  the ones ending with scrunched up news lists being hurled by an irate editor and bouncing off the back of hapless news editors’ heads, or worse, the bear-pit ritual humiliation of a colleague.

That doesn’t appear to be the Stripe way. This first meeting saw the senior managers sitting down with the whole team,  laying out the bones of the business in the weeks ahead, all of it, and publicly acknowledging success (hence the clapping, they’re not Moonies). They invited questions, no matter how prickly, and set proper, clear goals for the days ahead; I wasn’t used to any of that, maybe it’s like this in every PR agency, but I suspect not.

They say that first impressions are important, in this game perhaps more than most,  so here are my first impressions – I’ve clearly joined a motivated, dedicated team of very bright people who are all working incredibly hard. No time for scatter cushions here.

Since day one it has been a whirlwind of meeting new colleagues and clients, trying to learn the ropes, doing my best to get up to speed with the ways of working round here, of trying my best to add value to the whole enterprise, but mostly simply trying not to make any mistakes.

I know I am out of my Comfort Zone; an old friend who also now works in PR after a life in journalism put it beautifully when she said that I was clearly in The Google Zone. When I admitted after a few moments, sheepishly, that I had no idea what that was, she laughed and said:  ‘that’s the whole point, you have to go to the toilet and Google things every five minutes. You’ll be in The Google Zone for a good while yet’.

Stripe is undeniably fast-paced and dynamic – the energy in this place could have it connected to the National Grid –  and it has been a breath of fresh air; give me the Google Zone over the Comfort Zone any day.

Stripe back on campus to talk PR at Northumbria University

Stripe back on campus to talk PR at Northumbria University

Ten years ago I graduated from Northumbria University a bit of a crossroads. With a degree in English Literature and Film Studies, an empty wallet and a C.V. which included a variety of trades, from meat-packing to tea-towel printing, you could say I was a little confused about what to do next.

However, rather than selling my soul to become a prodigious blues guitarist, instead I decided to train as a broadcast journalist – before swapping a career as a hack for PR and marketing. The rest as they say, is history.

So when I was invited to deliver a presentation to MSc International Sport Management students at my old university stomping ground, it felt like I had come full circle. Having been asked to share my insight and experience of what industry best practice looks like, I jumped at the chance to hop on a train to Newcastle.

Inspiring future industry talent

The private sector has an important role to play in sharing advice with young people on the key attributes and skills they need to enter the workplace. While I get the sense there is still more work to be done in this area, positive strides are already underway.

Stripe is an agency committed to developing the next generation of communication professionals. As well as regular visits to present to students at Edinburgh University and Queen Margaret University, we continue to hire young and dynamic talent through our graduate recruitment programme, Stars and Stripes.

Each year we take on bright and enthusiastic grads to join our ranks and be part of Stripe Academy, our training and development programme. Now in its eighth year, the programme has kick-started the career of 25 outstanding graduates.

My presentation was focused on providing students with a better understanding of the value of PR, and its effectiveness for delivering impact as part of a brand’s integrated marketing strategy. As well as demystifying the industry, we discussed strategic thinking, campaign planning, media relations, community management, measurement and evaluation, agency life and what brilliant work looks like.

Andrew presenting to Northumbria Uni studentsPR presentation

Of course a sport-themed lecture wouldn’t be complete without some career highlights, and a few sporting anecdotes from a portfolio that has included sponsorship activations and event management, from football to mountain biking. I was delighted to wax lyrical about some of the projects I’ve enjoyed working on recently, such as the IRN-BRU Cup activation with A.G. Barr and the SPFL, Strathmore water’s Do More campaign and the UCI Fort William Mountain Bike World Cup.

But the key takeaway I wanted to share with students was that while the rules of engagement may have shifted over the last decade, the fundamental principles of communication are as relevant today as they always will be.

For me building strong relationships, no matter what industry you work in, will always open new doors and spark fresh opportunities. While creating deep and meaningful stories will always be the difference between a good campaign and a memorable one.

But if you’re thinking about a career in PR, here’s some of my top advice to get you started:

  • Writing wizardry: From drafting media releases to crafting sticky social content, excellent writing skills are an essential tool for PRs. Starting a blog, writing for your local newspaper or simply keeping a diary can help improve your tone of voice, spelling and grammar.
  • Confident communicator: While sending and replying to emails is a daily job, PRs are not keyboard warriors. Starting conversations is what we do best – so make sure you have great set of social skills and enjoy talking to real human beings!
  • Stay informed and be curious: As a PR it’s important to stay on top of current affairs and the wider news agenda. We work closely with the media and speak to reporters every day. With the rise of fake news, it’s best to go straight for quality journalism and pick up a newspaper.
  • Organise work experience: There really is no better way to learn about PR than gaining first hand industry experience. Why not apply for a week placement with an agency, or in a brand’s marketing department. I’d also encourage getting in touch with your local paper, TV or radio station.
  • Make a good impression: Showing interest in the job is a no brainer, but don’t forget to be passionate and enthusiastic about what you’re doing. If you get the chance of work experience, it’s your opportunity to make your mark.
Crisis Communications: Is it too little, too late for United Airlines?

Crisis Communications: Is it too little, too late for United Airlines?

Just a couple weeks after a public outcry following United’s refusal to let two children board a flight as they were wearing leggings, the world looked on in horror as a video went viral showing a 69 year old man being dragged bloodied and seemingly unconscious from an airplane – for no other reason than refusing to give up the seat he had reserved and paid for.

What unfolded in the following 72 hrs will no doubt go down in history as how NOT to handle a crisis situation. The reputational damage to United Airlines is already huge with many individuals and businesses threatening a boycott, Chinese media accusing racism and questions asked at the White House press conference. Whilst United’s share price was not initially hit on Monday by close of markets on Tuesday it had lost 4% equating to around $1.4 billion in market capitalisation. If you add to this the cost of long running legal proceedings and the accompanying negative media coverage the damage will run deep.

From a communications point of view the ill-thought-out response from United and its CEO, Oscar Munoz, is unfathomable. The initial statement from Munoz completely lacked any humanity, centred around United not the affected customer, was not a proper apology, didn’t accept responsibility and used a combination of corporate and legal language guaranteed to ostracise the average consumer.

United_meme_2

Talking about the incident as ‘upsetting’ to ‘all of us’ at United immediately focused the statement around the business rather than the individual. The phrases ‘re-accommodate’ and ‘reaching out’ were immediately seen as corporate euphemisms completely lacking in any compassion for the customers involved and the company has been widely derided on social media.

The statement was followed by a leaked email from the CEO to United staff in which he said “I emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend all of you for continuing to go ahead and beyond to ensure we fly right” and described the passenger as “belligerent” this compounded the crisis into an even worst scandal scenario.

By Wednesday morning, a new statement had been issued with much more conciliatory tone (maybe the lawyers had finally let the PR people into the room?) and the CEO did an exclusive interview with ABC News. However this could be viewed as a bit too little, too late, although there was an admission of guilt, an apology and commitment to never let something similar happen in the future there were a few slips into corporate language and phrasing that would certainly grate with a UK audience. Munoz refers to “my messaging” (classic PR jargon), United staff as “our family” and the incident as “a bad moment” and a “systems failure”. Perhaps most revealingly was the very long pause after the interviewer asked him whether the passenger was at fault before Munoz said “no”. If United truly want to resolve this situation they not only need to say they are sorry but be seen to really mean it.

If nothing else, this whole incident is a good prompt of some of the basic rules for handling a crisis situation:

  • Time is of the essence
  • Express empathy
  • If you have made a mistake – own up and take responsibility
  • Don’t submit to the urge to be defensive – blaming others gets you nowhere
  • Talk as if talking to your grandmother – in polite plain English
What PR lessons can be learnt from ‘Boaty McBoatface’ debacle?

What PR lessons can be learnt from ‘Boaty McBoatface’ debacle?

If there is one thing that we can all agree on – the naming of a polar research ship is not something which would traditionally generate the kind of nationwide media coverage it has over the past month.

When former BBC presenter James Hand jokingly entered a public competition to name the new £200m state-of-the-art ship, which is due to be built in 2019, he could have had no idea that his suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would garner such public support and capture the imagination of the country so successfully.

Garnering quick support from the blog-o-sphere and social media channels, the ‘Boaty McBoatface’ suggestion soon went viral, with the public overwhelmingly endorsing the comical name for the new ship- and why not? It’s neither offensive nor particularly outlandish but I challenge anyone not to adopt a wry smile across their face every time they hear the name mentioned on TV and radio. It’s pretty much impossible.

Eventually, after achieving over 124,000 votes online, Boaty McBoatface triumphed in a bigger landslide than Labour’s famous 1997 general election victory. This is where the story takes a massive wrong turn – veering off the edge of a cliff and turning the PR dream into a politically correct nightmare of epic proportions.

Because, we all now know, Boaty McBoatface did not win – the decision was quickly taken out of the hands of the public and moved in-house to the Government who have now decided that the RRS (Royal Research Ship) David Attenborough is a much more befitting name than poor ‘Boaty McBoatface’.

In the public poll, David Attenborough came 4th overall – nowhere even close to the popularity of Boaty McBoatface – so why was the decision made to award the 4th choice as the overall winner?

By this point, Sky News, BBC, the Daily Mail and most of the British press had dedicated countless minutes and column-inches to the story which captured the hearts of a British public, looking for a rare glimmer of positive news amidst the daily turmoil of foreign conflict, asylum seekers, the Calais ‘Jungle’, a government at war with the NHS and junior doctors and massive job losses at BHS and in the country’s traditional steel and coal industries.

From a communications perspective, this is where major lessons could and should be learned.

Why was the decision made to, despite overwhelming public support, cast the social media competition aside and take the decision out of the hands of the public? Why even have a public competition in the first place if the decision is ultimately going to be taken by the ‘powers that be’ rather than allowing people a rare moment of joy?

Positive PR could have easily been achieved had they taken the nationwide publicity and utilised it to the advantage of the Royal Research Society. The RRS has probably never had such a far reaching media story and if the Government had been smart it would have harnessed this popularity and made the most out of it. It’s what we in the industry call an ‘easy-win’.

Instead the Government with its ill-thought decision has not only missed an open-goal of Chris Iwelumo-esque proportions, but blasted the ball into the back of its own proverbial net.

Just think of the goodwill and opportunities that could have been afforded to the RRS had they allowed ‘Boaty McBoatface’ to become a reality – the research ship could have eventually become a national tourist attraction, such is the level of support attributed to it.

I think there are two main lessons to be learnt from ‘Boaty McBoatface’ –

  1. If you’re not willing to let go of control and give the public the overall say in a public competition – don’t do it in the first place. The Government would have been well aware of the potential risks attached when opening up a naming competition to the public.
  2. If you do go ahead with such a competition – whatever you do, don’t backtrack once you’ve gone live and score an own-goal from a PR perspective. The public is more shrewd than it is given credit for and it is exactly this type of scenario that fuels scepticism of politics and politicians.

The Government has now backtracked on its original backtrack and announced that while the polar ship itself will not be named Boaty McBoatface, one of its remotely operated sub-sea vehicles will be named Boaty in recognition of the vote. A more futile attempt to save some face, I can’t remember.

Overall, I can’t help but feel that a massive opportunity has been missed.

To paraphrase a much used quote “Boaty McBoatface is dead. Long live Boaty McBoatface!”

The 2022 FIFA World Cup and Qatar’s PR juggling act

The 2022 FIFA World Cup and Qatar’s PR juggling act

“The winner to organise the 2022 FIFA World Cup is, Qatar!” These are the words declared on 2 December 2010 by Sepp Blatter that remain fresh in the memory of so many in the footballing world. They are also the words which have arguably changed a nation and how football is run forever. I will always remember the atmosphere in Aspire Park in Doha. Men, women and children, faces illuminated looking up at a giant screen. The declaration ceremony was taking place a world away in a much colder Zurich. The area erupted when ‘QATAR’ was pulled from the envelope. People shouted, screamed and some even cried with happiness. It was then that I realised that this was to be much more than just a football tournament. It was going to be a catalyst for change on a political, cultural and human level. It was going to be about sport breaking down stereotypical barriers, and a unique opportunity for Qatar to leave a lasting legacy to change perceptions about the country on a global scale.

However, no more than a few hours later, the world’s media scolded the decision and brought Qatar’s biggest ever party to an almighty halt. Allegations of corruption and bribery soon followed and even now in 2016 casualties of the decision continue to be thrust into the media spotlight with the bid now under FBI investigation. Qatar is having what we like to call in the industry, a ‘PR nightmare’.

Despite the opportunity before them, I have to agree with comments made by Nicholas McGheehan, Gulf Analyst at Human Rights Watch recently that Qatar seemed to be “catastrophically” unprepared for the scrutiny that followed this big decision. Its efforts at public relations have been poor, especially in comparison to the United Arab Emirates who have been more effective in handling the country’s image around the world.

I’m a strong advocate of giving the underdog a chance at proving themselves. But I also have to acknowledge the negative image which has been portrayed so far amidst the allegations of corruption, bribery, human rights abuses, lack of footballing history and the uncontrollable climate issue. I have been lucky enough to live in Qatar and I agree that they have a lot of work to do to combat this negative reputation and I certainly don’t condone the said allegations. But what Qatar is being denied is a chance to tell both sides of the story. Qatar has gone from a relatively anonymous backwater to strong economic and political power, becoming a key player in global affairs. Its vision and ambition has to be admired, but one has to question if Qatar being thrust into the global media spotlight was too much too soon?

Amongst the damning headlines, Qatar has also been catching the eyes of the world by means of its vast wealth. It is the richest country in the world per capita and has been involved with the purchase, investment and sponsorship of some of the world’s biggest brands including Harrods, FC Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain and The Shard. Despite rapid development and eye catching purchases, Qatar is still a developing country with a number of teething problems and in my opinion not being able to control its image has been a major issue. This has created a problem in that FIFA sponsors including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Budweiser are facing increasing pressure from groups to pull out of sponsoring the 2022 World Cup due to the allegations. So far, a few have voiced concern, but none have pulled out. A move which could be explained by the monetary and advertising value that the World Cup can bring.

Overall, Qatar’s PR juggling act is a tough one. On one side they are trying to promote the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a great event and a unique opportunity to showcase Qatar as a country, but on the other it is trying to counter negative press around current teething problems as a developing country. It will always be remembered for being the first World Cup in the Middle East, the first World Cup to be held in the winter and also being known as one of the most controversial decisions in the history of sport. Qatar needs to work on its global image and make sure that any activity is appropriate and doesn’t open it up to further criticism. Global sporting events magnify a country’s flaws and I look forward to observing with interest how Qatar’s leaders overcome them in the years prior to 2022. The clock is ticking and solutions and demonstrable change needs to be seen. Organisers have a chance to promote Qatar for the right reasons and to deliver a memorable tournament to live up to the campaign hashtag, #ExpectAmazing.