Counter-productive corporate advertising

When companies are in trouble there is always the urge to ‘do something’ and there is always an advertising agency prepared to roll out some full page print, social media and other ads to meet the need.

But what if that’s the worst possible response? The blog thought this while waiting for the main feature in a cinema and being subjected to an nbn Australia corporate ad with the tagline “Australia we’re taking action” and stating that 3.8 million premises had been connected to NBN already with 95,000 just last month. Given that the blog lives a few kilometres from the centre of the city; might get NBN in 2019; will get a sub-standard version at a grossly inflated community cost; and, will need to employ and closely supervise a non-NBN contractor to prevent the usual connection contractors from vandalising it’s property – the ad didn’t warm it’s heart nor convince it of much. Indeed, in contrast it just made it angrier than normal about nbn Australia (far above and beyond even the blog’s irritation at the faux lower case corporate name)

And that’s the problem with most corporate advertising in such situations. It doesn’t necessarily persuade the public to change its view but rather can reinforce it by reminding the public of what it’s angry about. For instance, the blog doesn’t think much about NBN except occasionally as a policy issue. Annually or so it has checked to see when it might get connected, and what sort of sub-standard connection was being promised, but there’s a lot more in life to worry about. However, whenever NBN is brought to its attention – particularly with things like the self-congratulatory cinema ad – the irritation level goes through the roof.

It’s not the first time nbn Australia has had problems with ads, nor the first time it has had problems with its public statements. Earlier this year it produced an ad depicting young girls using a PlayStation. The message: “Game online in a whole new way — The NBN network. Fast internet for everyone”. Now the blog knows what a PlayStation is but it took nbn Australia’s former digital communications manager, Scott Rhodie, to reveal to it how ham-fisted the ad was. He tweeted: “Hey @NBNAustralia if you want to make people feel like they are getting the future how about not using stock photos showing a PS3 controller when the Sony PS4 came out in 2013 … the controller shown came out in 2006.” Subsequently it was revealed that the device was even older than that.

To complement this effort, just a week or so ago, the nbn Australia CEO, Bill Morrow, blamed gamers for slowing NBN speeds down essentially giving his network that wonderful accolade – it’s terrific if you don’t use it too much.

In some cases, of course, you can’t use it all. One of the organisations the blog belongs to, the Australian Society of Authors, at a time when membership renewals were coming up, found that it lost most of its communications after its NBN connection and had to rely on asking members to call a mobile number and asking for some patience. Such experiences have been replicated in business and consumer situations wherever NBN has been installed.

But perhaps the best example of counter-productive corporate advertising the blog is aware of occurred some decades ago. The blog’s firm was doing some work for an Australian company which had a big problem with one of its overseas operations. The first, and most sensible, thing to do was some research. The research revealed that the Australian public knew little about the problem although a proportion of those that did viewed the company negatively. Our advice was to sit tight, continue remedial work and provide regular updates on progress. The advice was ignored largely because the CEO had been ambushed by some photographers and hated the experience. Instead the company employed an advertising agency which produced a series of full page ads all dense with copy explaining what the company was doing.

Now by this time the blog’s company was off the project although it kept up contact with the company communications staff who were less than enthusiastic about the advertising. After the ads had been running for a while the comms staff revealed that more research had been done. The result: the number of Australians who were aware of the problem had dramatically increased but the proportion who viewed the company negatively had stayed the same. In other words more people ended up regarding the company negatively after the advertising campaign than before.

Regular readers of Tony Jaques’ issues and crisis management newsletters and books would be well aware of other problems such as this. Issues and crisis management solutions are amenable to tried and true techniques but promotional advertising is far less effective than fessing up, fixing the problem and demonstrating that you have.

Nevertheless, one issues and crisis problem at present is that a few corporate and consulting communications people are singing from the same rhetorical hymn book in all situations. From it you get sets of standard words and phrases which limit their effectiveness. The Age’s Adele Ferguson highlighted this when she wrote of communications people in the light of the Banking Royal Commission that: “It seems whenever an institution gets caught in the cross-hairs of a public scandal its first response is to bury its head in the sand. It is PR 101 and it’s why we have a major trust issue.”

Now Adele is a great journalist and there should be more like her. However, the reality is that what she described is less PR 101 and more PR 101 failed. As Tony Jaques said in a recent newsletter: “No, Adele. It’s not PR 101 and it’s only one reason why we have a major trust issue. Ms Ferguson went on to suggest there is a ‘playbook’ which sets out the preferred response to any issue or reputational crisis – diminish the revelations by relegating them to a few isolated cases; sheet the incidents to the past; disparage the sources; and draw on statistics to make the scandal seem inconsequential.

“There’s no denying that some organisations try this strategy. And as (she) correctly concluded, the public can see right through it. Furthermore, there is no disputing that reporters like Ferguson are absolutely justified to call out institutional dishonesty and spin when they see it.

But…. says Tony.

“As she would have learned at any university course or professional training, the accepted crisis communication ‘playbook’ is not at all as she imagines. While each course and textbook states it slightly differently, the essential elements remain consistent: honestly state the facts as known; apologise; express empathy; and, describe the actions being taken to put the situation right or to prevent it happening again.

“Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but those should be the basic steps when an institution – as she put it – ‘gets caught in the cross-hairs of a public scandal’.”

But the ‘lot more to it’ certainly doesn’t include a large role for self-justificatory or promotional advertising.