Another week, another person unwittingly falls foul of the internet mob. This time an unfortunate executive from PR firm Weber Shandwick who managed to turn an otherwise routine promotional ‘week in the life’ blog into a PR disaster by, seemingly, channeling David Brent from ‘The Office’.
I won’t dwell on the details, (if you’re interested you can see the story in full here), but to give you a flavour of the tone – the final entry for Tuesday reads:
“Last thought of the day, Syria..”.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not a PR agency should have known better than to release such tone-deaf nonsense, there is a more serious issue here. When does publicity become bad publicity and what can forward-thinking brands do to get themselves out of a hole when things go sour?
The answer is – a surprising amount. Sometimes.
Take the recent example of Virgin Rail who, on realising its attempts to attract young travellers by offering millennials a third off their rail fares if they "present an avocado", had backfired spectacularly, quickly got ahead of the story. When challenged on social media they reacted with good humour, showing they were in on the joke and understood that their stunt may have seemed a little patronising. “we’re sorry you feel that way, let’s avocuddle”, read one response.
Contrast that with the usually social media-savvy Brewdog’s recent misfire. On announcing that it was launching ‘Pink IPA’ (rather than ‘Punk IPA’), specifically for the female market, it then froze in the headlights of the, somewhat predictable, backlash. This undoubtedly hurt the company’s image, despite subsequent claims that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt to highlight gender inequality.
The point is – to some extent it doesn’t only matter what the initial source of the publicity is (within reason obviously). What matters equally is how a company reacts and owns that narrative once it’s live. The smartest brands know their customers by studying how they interact with them online and through other channels, and use this to their advantage. This can be invaluable when mistakes are made and reputations are at stake.
Undoubtedly far more people are now aware of Weber Shandwick than were before this story broke – for all the wrong reasons. How they decide to handle it remains to be seen, although I hear Ricky Gervais is available for corporate appearances...