PR advice: Lessons learned from Facebook, Lush & Elon Musk
Comms legend Stephen Waddington wraps up the year with his key insights and takeaways.
As we barrel towards the end of the year, it's always nice to take a moment to reflect on the lessons we learned, train wrecks we witnessed, and amazing PR strategies that we gushed about over the last year.
We all know that Covid-19 drama abounded this year. It's exhausting for everybody, but PR professionals have had to overcome unique hurdles in both trying to communicate about Covid, and trying to communicate despite Covid. Either way, it's been a whole lot.
That being said, there were a few snafus that were particularly cringe-inducing. One such incident was when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson came under fire for throwing a 2020 government Christmas party during the height of the pandemic, while his citizens were on strict lockdown. It culminated in him and his colleagues looking like pretty massive hypocrites.
If your brand is clean and vegan, don't be caught red-handed with a hamburger (metaphorically). Nothing will turn your audience against you faster than sensing disingenuous virtue-signaling and a "do as I say, not as I do" mindset. Consistent branding and integrity are incredibly important, possibly now more than ever.
Everybody knows that Facebook had a pretty rough year as far as PR goes. A former employee along with the Wall Street Journal published the now infamous "Facebook Files". These made public some pretty damning evidence about how the social media giant targets young children despite known negative health impacts; spreads misinformation; and fails to prevent anger and violence from breeding on its platform.
How did Facebook respond? By apologizing profusely, restructuring its platform and installing a mental health board to help run the show.
Nah, just kidding.
Easy peasy. But, at the heart of it, Facebook doesn't just have a public relations issue. It has an ethical issue, mired in politics, mental health, and international relations that go beyond corporate communications.
So what is our takeaway as communications professionals from this dumpster fire? Practise transparency. Operate ethically. Run your organization in such a way that you won't need to worry about crisis communications whistleblowers going rogue to protect the public from you.
Lush publicly went off social media on November 26th in protest against the aforementioned Facebook Files and the increasingly negative effects of social media on mental health, particularly the mental health of young people. But is this really an example of corporate social responsibility, or is it just pandering marketing tactics that capitalize on a potential emergent public mental health crisis?
Lush CEO Mark Constantine admits they stand to lose quite a bit of money by eschewing social media, but he's prepared to take that risk, while claiming it is not, in fact, a PR stunt.
Are we relying too much on "rented land" when we use social media for the majority of our outreach and community building?
The conversation amongst comms professionals zeroes in on the fact that social media is an unreliable, erratic, and inconsistent place to house content. Algorithms are always changing and your foolproof social media strategy will be out the window with even just one or two (confusing, unnecessary) algorithm updates.
Plus, social media can be just as much of a detraction as it is a benefit if it isn't handled well, as in the case of Wetherspoons or any other number of embarrassing social media mishaps that we've seen in the last decade or so.
A major theme of 2021 as a whole is "social media is really bad, and yet we need it kind of a lot". But many people (including comms professionals) are recognizing the need for owned media and making the transition away from their content and data being hosted on socials, and simply using social media as a tool to get people onto owned media.
The key is making sure you own your content and its distribution. Rand Fishkin gave some sound advice about precisely this during his episode of PR Roundtable:
You need to have your own platform where you can publish your content, that you control, that can at least capture email addresses.
If you take a controversial public stance, stick with it in earnest, otherwise people will call you out on what appeared to be simple marketing tactics. Companies that routinely play the on-again-off-again game with CSR end up looking foolish.
Whether you love him or hate him, Elon Musk is an interesting lesson in chaotic PR strategy. He's has amassed a massive following, and an equally massive set of detractors, almost exclusively around his Twitter persona. Some would say he's a strategic marketing genius, and others just shake their heads in amazement that reputable journalistic sources are having to write about his Twitter shitposting on a near-daily basis.
Stephen does feel like corporate communications are moving away from stuffy formality and embracing a more natural, relaxed tone:
Gone are the days where brand narratives were filtered through multiple people before being released to the public. Your brand is no longer shaped by carefully curated messages from the people up top. It's now whoever saying whatever they want, as a representative of your business, whether you like it or not.
This can go very well, and boost your brand. Gary Vaynerchuk is an example of someone whose Twitter persona has elevated his brand and made him remarkably popular. But "unintermediated" (to use Stephen's fantastic word) communication can also go not-so-great and make your brand look downright silly.
Burger King attempted a cheeky International Women's Day campaign that went, well, poorly.
Now, the intention was good. They attempted to highlight the fact that the majority of professional chefs tend to be men. It's a male-dominated field, and they were trying to rectify that by supporting their female employees to pursue this career.
Of course, nobody really heard that part of the message because they were too busy being angry about the clickbait-y, charged, and seemingly sarcastic nature of the initial tweet.
Wanting to go viral through the power of controversy isn't a new phenomenon, but it definitely requires a certain level of "reading the room" to be successful. And ultimately, the internet has a mind of its own. It will interpret what you say, very possibly in vastly different ways than you intended.
Having a diverse team of PR and comms professionals weighing in on campaign ideas will help prevent these kinds of tone-deaf and embarrassing mistakes. If your communications affect a certain group or population, make sure to ask them before you let loose on that edgy-but-oh-so-clever,-really campaign, and seek advice from those communities to make sure the message lands without feeling disingenuous, pandering, offensive, or otherwise off the mark (see: June's annual LGBT rainbow-washing).
To their credit, Burger King did handle the backlash well and apologized with dignity.
The Baldwins have had a pretty controversial past few years, but nothing quite like this year when Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer of his upcoming movie. This was, of course, huge and tragic news. Despite the gravity of what happened, a lot of people showed sympathy for the star.
When you make a mistake, own it. The public is often willing to forgive when people make mistakes and admit to them – after all, we're only human. But they really, really hate blame-shifting.
Two big suggestions from Stephen Waddington for his breakouts of the year are the podcast This Week in Google and the book Post Corona by Scott Galloway. Don't forget to check out Socially Mobile, the not-for-profit recently started by Stephen and his fellow PR pro wife Sarah with the aim of providing PR training for those who may not otherwise be able to afford or access this education.
Thanks so much for joining us, and thank you to Stephen Waddington for taking a break from his busy schedule to chat with us! Check out his always informative weekly newsletter to keep current with all things communications, and of course, if you enjoyed this episode register now for our upcoming PR Roundtables – we're excited for more conversations with interesting comms thought leaders in 2022!
Published December 2021