Category Archives: Consumer Relations

A land of things and ideas…

Today I will blog…ABOUT BLOGGING. I think Rod Serling’s introduction to the Twilight Zone best describes this experience:

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone”

Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do!

The power of blogs and the importance of blogger relations is a phenomenon one could only imagine in a fictional story. Bloggers are like the little man in the Wizard of Oz who rules the Emerald City–but instead of a curtain, they hide behind a computer screen. Bloggers, such as myself, can write whenever (it’s currently 1am), wherever (snuggled in bed), and about whatever (blogger relations) they want.

It’s the PR professionals’ job to scour the internet for the best blogs. So how does one choose from the plethora of active blogs in the cyber universe?  You have to find the blogs with the strongest communities of followers and the material that is most relevant to your cause. Bloggers today are becoming opinion leaders and influencers that should not be ignored. Once you find the right blogs for you, build those relationships as you would with journalists because you never know when you’ll need them!

Just look at how bloggers are taking on the American beef industry. Chef Jaime Oliver recently revealed “pink slime,” or the lean meat grounds that are treated with chemicals like ammonia and pressed into a burger patty. As a vegetarian, I hate to say I told you so, but you know how it goes.

People around the nation were horrified to learn that their beef looks more like play dough than food before it is packaged and sold. Unfortunately, the American publics’ cries of disgust aren’t enough to stop a major American food industry. But when blogger Bettina Elias Siegel gained over 200,000 signatures on a digital petition, they could not be ignored. The purpose of the petition was to have the chemically treated meat removed from school systems and the US Department of Agriculture listened.

Needless to say, the beef business is suffering from this industry-wide crisis. BBC recently covered the incident and took an interesting approach to the dilemma. They discussed how the beef industry had an opportunity to rebrand with this “pink slime,” but have since lost the power. This is a classic lesson in PR—if you don’t control the message, you better believe someone else will!

Bloggers can be your biggest advocate or your worst nightmare. There is only thing worse than an influential blogger working against you; entire communities of them who think you are the spawn of Satan. I’m talking specifically about the One Million Moms (OMM) online community.  These ladies have a problem with everyone who isn’t a Stepford Wife.

They tried to boycott JCPenny when the company hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson because they didn’t agree with her “lifestyle.” Both JCPenny and DeGeneres had to remain composed in the situation and resist the temptation to retaliate.

OMM however, saw how social media can turn against you when they created a Facebook page to represent their protest. Rather than gain support for the boycott, the Facebook page brought an outpouring of praise for DeGeneres. Check out Ellen’s response to the OMM community on her show.

In the end, JCPenny and DeGeneres prevailed and the OMM scampered off with their aprons all in a bunch. So to repeat myself, if you don’t control the message, you better believe someone else will! I’m sure the One Million Moms will think again before they decide to make a public Facebook page on a controversial matter.

As for my blogging career? I’m just getting started! This blog has been a great experiment, but my efforts to gain clout in the blogosphere have been minimal. I think the best blogs can stand on their own, while simultaneously building their own communities of supporters.

"...pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

The Great and Powerful Oz once said, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” But I’m going to disagree with him there. I feel it’s important to come out from behind the curtain and mingle with the munchkins who so fervently support your work.

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Rinse and Repeat

"...or else the whole thing will come undone."

I’ve diverged from my usual corny metaphors these last few blog posts, but I’d like to return to my literary roots to discuss crisis communications.

WARNING: Extended Metaphor to Follow

So you have this wool sweater, right? And it’s like your favorite article of clothing, but the knit pattern poses a serious concern. At any given moment you could get caught on something and cause a snag. So what do you do? Obviously you aren’t going to put it on and sit in bed all day, surrounded by the safety of your blankets.

That would be a bit extreme, but chances are you are going to avoid mosh pits when wearing it. You plan to wear it on a nice calm day with lots of book reading, until—uh-oh! You’re friend’s zipper gets caught on the threads when you are hugging. Now you have a giant loop hanging from the sleeve.

You must act quickly and tend to the snag, or else the whole thing will unravel, leaving a gaping hole for all to see.

This, my friend, is crisis communication. It’s all about awareness, preparedness, and action. PR professionals, and all members of a company, must be vigilant before, during, and after a crisis to achieve effective communications.

All to often, a company does not have a crisis plan in place. A lack of crisis planning can have disastrous results. Preparation can greatly decrease the magnitude of a crisis and make it easier to handle. It’s not rocket science folks, but people make mistakes in crisis management every day.

I will admit, that not all crises can be avoided or even predicted. Skittles, for example, is in the early stages of a PR crisis of a very unique nature. Both the New York Times and the blog Spin Sucks have provided coverage on the issue. According to the New York Times, “Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., last month [was] carrying only a packet of the candy and a bottle of iced tea.”

Since the controversial murder, Skittles’ sales have skyrocketed and the candy has become a symbol for supporters of Trayvon. Some media outlets and consumers are calling Skittles out on the profits made from the tragedy. They feel the candy’s slogan “Taste the Rainbow,” gives the company a perfect opportunity to support racial equality.

Instead. Skittles has only released a broad statement offering their condolences to the Martin family. And in this situation, I think they have done the right thing—for now. If the pressure for a corporate donation continues to build, Skittles’ will be forced to address the public. I am not saying they should donate, but I do think they should at least make a statement.

I don’t think they should concede to the public’s pressure—they did not encourage purchase of their products for the cause—it happened organically. I do, however, think they could highlight other ways people can contribute to the Martin family.

It may not be possible to predict all tragedies, but organizations can still prepare on a broad level. An overall understanding of risk factors can help avoid crises or at the very least make them easier to manage. The lessons are right there in my sweater story:

  • Avoid Mosh Pits = Avoid Risky Situations
  • Plan = Uh…Plan
  • Uh-oh! = Recognize Crisis
  • Tend to Issue or Leave a Gaping Hole = Action
  • Rinse and Repeat = Apply in the Future

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the crisis, or else the whole thing will come undone!

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Assuming You Have a Compass…

"But you know what they say..."

We all have a moral compass…it’s just that some work better than others. Unfortunately ethics, morals, and integrity are not something that can be taught in the classroom or even from a book as good as “Adventures in Public Relations.” It takes years of life experiences and wrong turns to get the damned thing working properly. It’s assumed that we will figure it out by the time we reach the professional world. But as they say, “if you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”

An ethical dilemma in the communications field is both on the individual practitioner and the business as a whole. Sure, your communications person may have a defective moral compass, but it’s up to the entire organization to make sure everyone produces work they can stand behind. Conversely, it is the individual’s responsibility to step down if she feels a campaign is unethical.

Photoshopped diversity is a new classic in my opinion. It’s that thing where a company edits marketing material to include a minority in an attempt to appear diverse. You know?  The Society Pages wrote an interesting post about an incident  of “Photoshopped Diversity” at the University of Wisconsin. Apparently there was only one black student in the whole school. The University decided to take the

one picture they had of him and superimpose it into different school events. They just assumed (there’s that word again) he wouldn’t notice or care. Well, he did notice and he sued them for their actions.

So who is at fault here? The administration for sucking at including minorities, the marketing director who said “more diversity,” or the graphic designer who did the Photoshopping? They all had a hand in the situation, so do you fire them all? I don’t know man, but my motto is you shouldn’t do it if you don’t want your name on it. While you are trying to answer my hard hitting questions, check out these photos of Photoshopped diversity (it’s a real term I swear…kinda).

The Huffington Post was involved in an ethical controversy of a different nature back in August. The internet newspaper held a design competition inviting readers to submit a new logo for them. AKA “Hey you design professionals should create work for free!” The Post assumed (ahem) everyone would be okay with it. They were wrong. There was major backlash from the design community who accused the paper of unfairly treating designers.

This dilemma is a little less black and white than the University of Wisconsin ethics crisis. If the designers willingly submit work–even without compensation–then what’s the problem? There are plenty of jingle writing or logo designing contests out there. Do they all offer some form of compensation or is the recognition and publication of your work enough? Regardless, it would have helped smooth things over if the Post gave the winner some kind of prize.

Some ethical dilemmas are more obvious then others. I can’t speak for entire organizations, but as an individual, it’s important to go with your gut. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yeah, that’s your moral compass trying to steer you in the right direction. If something doesn’t feel right to you, there is a good chance someone else will feel the same way. And for Pete’s sake, don’t assume!

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Soup of the Day: America

So we’ve talked about every public known to man; businesses, consumers, media, communities, and all that jazz. But what about all the little nuances of each of those sub-groups? Take consumers for example, they are so diverse! They can’t just be clumped together in one big ball, you have to treat every one like the shining star they really are.

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"America has been called a melting pot, but I think that is in reference to more of a soup than a fondue."

In Adventures in Public Relations, my dear friends Guth an Marsh discuss cross-cultural communications. The basic jist is that you have to be aware of the differences in cultures–not just internationally, but domestically as well. America has been called a melting pot, but I think that is in reference to more of a soup than a fondue. By that I mean that you can distinguish the different parts of the whole.

Culture can be defined in many different ways, but Guth and Marsh offer an all encompassing definition:

“Culture refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world.”

Different ethnic groups are the most obvious example of cultural differences that may require special attention. A well-known example in the communications world happened when an America company tried to supply African citizens with their product. They offered the African people jars of baby food with a picture of a baby on the label. The people were horrified because they thought they were being served ground up babies. If the supplier had done its research, it would have known that, in Africa, the picture on the label of food is an indication of its ingredients. Yikes!

There are many case studies in which cultural and language differences between a company and its consumers led to miscommunication. It is important to do your homework before positioning a campaign–especially when targeting an unfamiliar culture. The site Kwintessential.com has a few more real life (real funny) examples.There are some valuable lessons to be learned from these PR slip-ups.

It’s not easy to communicate with a population as diverse as America’s. These things happen everyday! Ben & Jerry’s recently issued an apology after putting fortune cookie pieces in a limited time flavor, “Linsanity.” The flavor was intended to celebrate the Taiwanese born basketball star, Jeremy Lin, but it inadvertently offended some people. Ben & Jerry’s is known for their celebration of diversity and did the right thing by responding to their publics with honesty and sincerity. This just goes to show how difficult it is to predict how people will react!

To wrap this up, I thought I would share a touching and quite strategic move in cross-cultural communication. The South African burger chain, Whimpy, gained over 800,000 media impressions (and counting) when they created a campaign specifically for blind individuals. Yes, disabled individuals are a whole other culture to consider.  Trust me, I studied the American deaf culture and language for four years. It’s fascinating, complicated stuff!

Anyway, the burger chain arranged sesame seeds on burger buns to spell out words and phases in braille, such as “100% beef.” They then surprised fifteen blind individuals by asking them to feel the bun before eating it. You have to watch the video to understand the feel-good nature of the campaign! Their efforts showed that they are both culturally sensitive and creative.Image

Other companies could learn a thing or two from this campaign. Plus, it’s just plain nice. Now go watch the video and smile!

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Who pulls the strings?

"Public relations is the string that connects the puppets (businesses) to the masters (consumers)..."

All too often I read how businesses dictate what consumers want, but in my opinion, it’s the other way around. If the consumer doesn’t like something it goes kaput. Public relations is the string that connects the puppets (businesses) to the masters (consumers) and ensures there is no miscommunication.

Some businesses overestimate their power and act on their own accord, but the consumer is always there to put them back in their rightful place. Even corporate giants like the Coca-Cola Company are subject to such scrutiny. This past winter, they learned their lesson when they introduced a special “arctic home” can to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund.

You’re probably wondering what kind of heartless fiends don’t care for polar bears. It wasn’t the cause that bummed customers out–it was the cans that were the problem.

Consumers felt the specialty cans were too similar to Diet Coke can’s in their appearance. They took to social media to voice their confusion and frustration. Some people even complained that the new packaging affected the flavor of the coke.

ABC’s Consumer Report covered the debacle and even listed a few other instances where brands had to backtrack after consumer criticism. The Coca-Cola company finally conceded to consumer outrage and agreed to put red cans back on the shelves once the white cans were out of stock. If I recall from my toddler days back in ’93, Pepsi made a similar mistake with “Crystal Pepsi,” a colorless Pepsi product. Now I think the Coke critics were bring a bit nit-picky, but colorless Pepsi? That’s just unnatural!

What do you think, are the consumers or the businesses in control? And how does public relations fit into this whole mix?

I can only speculate how Coca Cola could have handled things differently… Perhaps a few more focus groups would have given them the insight to axe the polar cans from the start.

Sorry Coke, but you might want to get a hanky–this one’s a real tear-jerker.

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