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Talespin: public relations disasters

Gerry McCusker details some of the world's worst PR disasters in this new book, published by Kogan Page. Read a sample chapter here on Think.

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Ambassadors - clearly there’s no substitute

Media spin: ‘Keane saga exposes high risk of personality ads’, Sunday Business Post

The tactic of using a sports star or celebrity as the public face of a brand has been deployed to great effect on numerous occasions. A ‘brand ambassador’ can bring a product to life, lending his or her unique personality traits to an otherwise inanimate product. And, when the star is in the media spotlight, the brand is able to use PR tactics to increase its own profile - gaining fame by association - and securing a greater share of media voice.

The Pepsi-owned soft drink brand 7UP sought to ‘up’ its visibility and credibility by making the Republic of Ireland and Manchester United soccer captain, Roy Keane, its ‘ambassador’ in the Emerald Isle.

Keane to communicate

The deal with the Hibernian hard man known affectionately as ‘Keano’, was an absolute beano for 7UP and its biggest ever promotion in the Republic of Ireland. The soft drink hooked up with Ireland’s most famous sporting son at a time when the Irish team was about to compete in the world’s biggest and most watched soccer tournament, the 2002 World Cup. The deal allowed 7UP to use Keane’s picture in a national advertising promotion that boldly asserted that when it comes to soft drinks, ‘Clearly there’s no substitute’.

At this time, 7UP was also the sole sponsor of the Irish Schoolboys Football Association, so intended to use Keane to influence kids, its key target audience. The ‘Clearly there’s no substitute’ slogan resonated strongly given that Keane was viewed as an immovable foundation stone in Ireland’s attempt to do well in the Korea/Japan tournament. Keano’s immediately recognizable, stone-chiselled face was featured on 7UP billboards, cans, bottles, packaging and in-store merchandise and he also appeared in TV and radio advertisements courtesy of a reputed £750,000 marketing spend.

Sending-off offence

As news of the sponsorship hit news pages everywhere, awareness of 7UP - and its involvement with the apparently indispensable Keane - went sky high, doubtless sending the 7Uppers into seventh heaven.

However, in the team’s pre-tournament preparations, the fiery-tempered Keane was involved in a major bust up with the team’s manager and former Ireland international, Mick McCarthy. It was widely reported that Keane had launched a vitriolic attack on what he believed were his country’s shambolic pre-tournament preparations. In front of a full squad meeting, Keane directed his ire at manager McCarthy calling into question his capability, suitability, nationality and, as ranting sports stars are wont to do, his parentage.

McCarthy, sensing his authority not so much being undermined as blown to smithereens, consulted the squad’s senior players and officials. Labelling playmaker Keane as ‘a disruptive influence’, they sent the hot-headed captain home to Ireland. The spat polarized the entire Irish nation. Most adored Keano, but felt angry that he was letting their team down by his self-engineered exclusion.

Meanwhile 7UP’s position was becoming uncomfortable to say the least. All over Ireland, people were defacing 7UP’s Roy Keane posters and publicity material. Their anger was directed at the brand that was providing visible and painful reminders of the nation’s angst.

7UP couldn’t disassociate itself from Keane, the public face - albeit a red one - of the brand. Changing its campaign or ordering a product recall at such a late stage would also have cost the brand a fortune and shown it to be weak-willed. Yet every time Keane commented on the spat - and the media hung on his every word - it cast the 7UP brand in a particularly unflattering light, especially given the player’s surly intransigence. The irony of the situation facing 7UP was reaffirmed when the Football Association of Ireland drafted in a virtually unknown player to replace Keane.

Clearly, there was a substitute.

Attacking options

The 7UP brand was thrust into crisis management mode and controversy by a petulant display of temper from someone who had been paid a handsome sum to be its ambassador. 7UP had aligned itself with Keane, believing that the player granted it proxy access to the hearts of the Irish nation. Yet this incident makes it easy to see how involvement with celebrities and sports stars is a double-edged sword.

Did no one at 7UP think to question the wisdom of sponsoring a player whose abrasiveness, volatility, conceit and ‘play hard’ lifestyle were widely known? To borrow or hire Keane’s good character traits - passionately Irish, unflinchingly reliable and a peak performer - necessitated an evaluation of some of his negative ones, too. These included petulance, loner status, lack of respect for others and perhaps emotional immaturity. As many of the ads that Keane had been involved in for a clutch of other sponsors played on his aggressive image, could 7UP really have expected sweetness and light?

Lessons learnt

A brand is a living entity whose image is mirrored by those who are seen as its representatives. Caution and care are required when choosing a brand ambassador, especially one whose self-control and destructive tendencies have a habit of exploding - on and off the field - with documented regularity.

Announcements - the information super highway

Prior to the opening of the newly improved South Eastern Freeway in Melbourne, the old road had been dubbed the South Eastern Car Park due to the traffic bottlenecks that regularly built up, particularly around peak traffic hours.

Motorists demanded improvements to the road's infrastructure and, faced with mounting pressure, the South Eastern Freeway project became a top priority for the local transport authority, VicRoads.

Following an extensive series of major project works, the new freeway was completed with VicRoads’ management looking to bask in the glory of their splendid work by making a very public announcement of the road’s opening. In fact, the project was such a success that the authority’s management decided to handle the media relations effort themselves, dispensing with the need for input from its in-house communications team.

A central reservation

Against the strongest of advice from the authority’s in-house PR staff, who clearly saw a PR pile-up in the making, the management team arranged an onsite media photocall for 4 pm in the afternoon. The PR team’s concerns were waved aside. Apparently, 4 pm was the only time that all the VIPs from the roads authority could agree on a window in their diaries. One insider later suggested that the time was actually chosen to coincide with the home journey of one fairly important - or self-important - bureaucrat.

To create the impression of clear and uncongested roads for media purposes, several lanes were closed off so the management team could cut a ribbon at an opening ceremony. This caused a traffic snarl-up that far outstripped anything the old South Eastern Car Park had ever been able to generate. Motorists and media alike were quickly up in arms about the lunacy of the self-congratulatory indulgences of the officials involved in declaring the route open.

Hazard warning

Talk radio was the first to vent, damning the bungling bureaucrats and totally overlooking the fact that they had successfully completed an impressive piece of civil engineering infrastructure. The radio coverage raged, further fuelled by the well-intentioned but hapless intervention of the wife of one of the project’s engineers. She called the lead talk radio station to offer a spirited defence of her husband and his colleagues who, she insisted, had worked tirelessly on the project. Her unscripted intervention only served to prolong the on-air debate, elevating its significance on the media radar. This encouraged the evening TV news and several scribes to add their take on the bungled announcement. Everyone certainly knew about the new freeway after that!

Lessons learnt

Clearly, this episode shows the folly of allowing egos to dominate where common sense should prevail. Quite simply, the lure of self-aggrandizement should never supersede the needs of the audience you wish to communicate with. So, what could the PR person have done to preclude this event, especially when the whole shebang was instigated and personally championed by the organization’s top executives?

Ideally, PR should be represented on every executive management team so the PR implications of any decision can be evaluated and planned for. But if not, the PR person can do nothing but simply wait for the furore to die down and look for opportunities to repair the damage to the organization’s battered and maligned reputation. In this case, it looked like a long road back.

Astroturfing - PR creates smokescreen

Media spin: ‘Behind fuming bar owners is savvy, well-heeled group’, Los Angeles Times

In the early 1990s, when the commercial interests of the big tobacco companies in the USA were coming under increasing pressure from the trend towards ‘smoke free’ zones in public places, a group sprung up to defend smokers’ rights. This is perhaps not surprising in what purports to be the pluralistic home of free speech.

But while the National Smoker’s Alliance(NSA) appeared to be an independent body representing the rights of individuals who wanted to smoke, it was eventually revealed to be a sham organization funded by big business and administered by one of the world’s largest PR companies.

Paid a packet

Dubbed an ‘Astroturf’ group due to its fake or synthetic grassroots nature, the NSA was thought to be the brainchild of PR firm Burson Marsteller, who set it up with the backing of several notable ‘ciggy biggies’ including Philip Morris, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson.

So how do we know it was a fake? Well, we paid heed to the words of Morton Downey, Jr, a former NSA Advisory Board Member who admitted the group was a front for the tobacco industry. That was a big clue. Then there was its funding. Internal Revenue Service documents showed that in its first three years of operation, less than 1 per cent of NSA earnings came from membership dues, which left lots of room for corporate donations.

Although claiming to have a membership of around 3 million people, analysis of the NSA’s annual reports by media vigilantes PR Watch revealed that income from membership dues stood at just $74,000 - enough for just 7,400 members. There’s a discrepancy - if not a lie - between 3 million and 7,400. In fact, so lacklustre was the response to the NSA’s initial membership drive that it eventually ran full-page ads and not only waived joining fees but even paid people to join the group.

While the NSA appeared to be a group that represented the rights of smokers, it was a front for the interests of people who make money from people addicted to nicotine. Its rationale was simple; the less places people are allowed to smoke, the less people will smoke and the more this will hurt ‘big tobacco’s’ financial interests.

Ciggy stardust

So what did the NSA do to create its smokescreen? It recruited local businesses - bars, restaurants, etc - whose wallets could be hit by anti-smoking legislation. The NSA showed these businesses how trade and profitability would be adversely affected by legislation that sought to restrict or prohibit smoking. It also showed how the bans infringed upon smokers rights, of course.

Then, the NSA used these credible businesses as channels for distributing pre-printed master campaign materials - generally created by Burson Marsteller - tailored to contest smoking bans and aimed at local media. The PR puppeteers even seconded their own PR staff to roles as NSA Action Team Leaders, whose job was to run local campaigns. The Leaders’ responsibilities included identifying and managing all local media relations and lobbying opportunities and rallying NSA representation at local stakeholder meetings. Nothing was left to chance or, more tellingly, left to any genuine grassroots locals.

No doubts

Clearly, the NSA was not an independent ‘smoker’s rights’ group. It was heavily influenced and bankrolled by the interests of fee-paying clients - tobacco companies - with a vested interest in contesting smoking bans. Until rumbled, the strategy was highly effective at generating media coverage biased towards the pro-smoking lobby and duping a range of news-hungry media. However, the real PR disaster in this case only really surfaced when the PR initiator’s cover was blown, uncovering the sleight of hand. The entire PR industry’s image also suffered because the NSA and Burson Marsteller had managed to hoodwink media and public audiences and influence legislation before being ‘outed’.

This case shows how half-truths provided a smokescreen for tactics deployed in a strategy designed to influence public opinion and further the needs of paying clients. It’s no wonder that so many people are suspicious of PR campaigns and the practitioners who carry them out, especially when one of the world’s biggest and, it’s claimed, most reputable PR firms is involved in initiating and executing a covert campaign such as this.

Lessons learnt

Transparency is one of the fundamental tenets of most of the world’s professional PR associations. Member consultancies - including the famous ones - are supposed to conduct their business in an open and honest way, although there are no enforceable rules that seriously penalize or disbar companies who contravene what are, in the final analysis, voluntary guidelines.

(This case is also expertly documented by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of media vigilante organization, PR Watch,

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