When your PR team is bad for your brand

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Disclosure: Frank X. Shaw is a former colleague of mine from Waggener Edstrom. We’ve never met in person that I can recall, at that time he was dedicated to the North American Microsoft account.

Before I get into the meat of this post I want to share with you a couple of stories.

Gay rights in Ireland
Rory O’Neill is a LGBT activist in Ireland, in many ways he is the face of the gay community being compere at events like the Pride festival. He appeared on a national television talk show and alleged that some members of the Irish media were homophobic. RTÉ was subsequently threatened by legal action and had to provide compensation to those named including the Iona Institute: a socially conservative lobby group.

This unleashed political debate Irish MEP Paul Murphy called the compensation payments

…a real attack on the freedom of speech…

When John Waters says that gay marriage is ‘a kind of satire’, that is homophobia. When Breda O’Brien says ‘equality must take second place to the common good’, that is homophobia. When the Iona Institute campaign against gay marriage because it is gay marriage, that is homophobia.

This has created an atmosphere in Ireland of enhanced empathy to gay marriage and provided Mr O’Neill with a further platform

The video was shot at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and has been seen over half a million times as I write this, which is a big number given that Ireland has a population of about 4.63 million people according to the latest estimates, this doesn’t include the reach provided by media coverage of the YouTube video.  Mr O’Neill has been given a platform and an authority courtesy of his enemies that he otherwise wouldn’t have had.

The next story is that of the UK’s longest running court case McDonald’s Corporation v Steel & Morris; or as it’s better known the McLibel case. A pamphlet was published by a small environmental group: What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know.

McDonald’s took five people it considered responsible to court over the claims in the pamphlet; three of them apologised and two decided instead to fight the case. The ensuing media circus around the case damaged McDonald’s reputation in the the UK, such that McJobs became a linguistic shorthand for a poor paying job with no prospects (this is actually unfair to McDonald’s at least in the UK).

The point of both these stories is that coming out reflexively against an enemy can be counter-productive. Yet we are seeing this used as a tactic more and more.

One of the most visible proponents of this tactic is Microsoft usually using Frank X. Shaw as the delivery mechanism. The latest example I noticed of this was an open letter to New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, but I have linked to more examples about the web.

All of this sits uneasy with me for a number of reasons:

  • Back in the day, I was told that PR people shouldn’t be part of the story. I prided myself on the fact that my work had little to no finger prints on it. Yet now Shaw is the story. One article I read introduced him as ‘outspoken Microsoft spokesperson Frank Shaw’
  • A key element of storytelling is understanding what role that you play in the story. A big brand getting involved and beating up on a journalist or blogger puts the journalist in the story as hero and the brand as antagonist. Consumers get psychological closure on stories when they subconsciously work out which ‘myth’ this is and what the plot is. You may even see other articles describe a dispute as being like ‘David and Goliath’. The attack itself become counter productive and you end up looking like Biff against a journalistic Marty McFly – to use a more modern myth ^^. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the audience and the media and are instead seen as a whiny little bitch or a bully

I get completely why it comes about, we live in a 24-hour world, we need to stay influential. We have moved from having a mediated discussion through journalists, fashion stylists, reviewers and radio presenters with audiences to going direct. The brand is the media. PR itself, the way it is practiced as a discipline is about ‘doing something’: what have you time tracked, what’s in the monthly report, what have you done? There are internal clients or agency clients who want to respond right away and PR agencies aren’t a place for people who say no.

Now imagine the brand as a person who responds to every slight, they would be insufferable, a pedant and possibly get locked up. What kind of dialogue does that set up with the audience, what kind of story does that tell. Brands need to move from being the antagonist in a story to being the ‘godlike figure’ that creates an inciting incident and sends our audience hero on a quest.

As my yiddish-speaking friends would say brands need to be a mensch. There you go a new concept Brand Mensch – I should be able to wrangle a book and a speaking tour out of that.

So how does a brand become a mensch? Quite simply by assessing communications through a simple set of values:
Being civil
By realising that sometimes you have to conserve your ammunition and pick your battles.

Strategic counsel for today: have your brand be a mensch.

More information
RTÉ MD of Television defends Iona Institute apology and payout as ‘most prudent course of action’ | RTÉ News
MICROSOFT PR HITS BACK AT APPLE: The iPad Is Just Trying To Catch Up With The Surface | BusinessInsider
Microsoft’s PR Boss: Here’s Why I Tweet-Slammed The New York Times’ Review Of Windows | BusinessInsider
Microsoft Responds To Google’s Extortion Claim: “Waaaah.” | TechCrunch
Microsoft honcho pleads with media: ‘Stop picking on us!’| The Register
Microsoft responds to ‘extreme’ Windows 8 criticism | CNet
Microsoft Unleashes Anti-Android Rhetoric Following Facebook Home Event | TechnoBuffalo
Microsoft PR Chief Shreds New NY Times Columnist Over His Advice Column | BusinessInsider