Come in Spinner: How do you react to “community” outrage?

The bus shelter advertising company, Adshel, has bowed to a ‘community’ campaign about gay safe sex ads and then backed down after some genuine community outrage about the second decision.

All in all it’s a case of the worst of all possible worlds – being gutless and dumb and then belatedly principled with worldwide publicity focussing on the former.

How did they get into the situation? Partly because some of the standard operating procedures used by PR people over the years are believed to need tempering given changing circumstances.

It has been axiomatic that the first principle of issues management is always masterly inaction. Think before you act, seriously consider doing nothing because it might aggravate the situation, and remember that it is probably not as big an issue as you think it is.

Adshel failed the first issues management test because it panicked after some 30 calls (all subsequently shown to be part of an orchestrated campaign) and rushed into taking action. Given that the Daily Telegraph can view two comments as a major community backlash they would no doubt see 30 protests as the beginning of a new version of the French revolution. But for most of us, without an agenda, 30 calls (unless it is a product safety issue) is potentially a problem which needs to be monitored, but not one that calls for instant action. Some masterly inaction would have given Adshel some time to assess the risk and decide it was probably riskier to pull the ads.

By the way, corporate reactions to protests about gay ads are not automatically homophobic in motivation, even if so in effect. Many years ago I had a client who sponsored a G&L festival. Given the client’s target markets it was a very sensible sponsorship. However, one of the client’s international executives pointed out the relative size of the Australian market for its products compared to that in the US southern Bible belt. Sadly the sponsorship was not renewed, but the reasons were strictly commercial.

The culture war which erupted, at about the same time, over the Disney company’s decision to offer same sex couples equality in corporate benefits also indicated how commercially difficult such decisions were considered to be at the time.

The rationale for pulling the sponsorship illustrated a second issues management principle which has been called in to question. Traditionally masterly inaction worked because it helped control the message. If there was a small article in a newspaper in a remote town in a Canadian province reacting to it probably gave it more, rather than less, oxygen. Today that might not be the case although, rather than being the wrong strategy, it is a now much more complicated.

Controlling the message was a seductive illusion much discussed in the industry more than a decade or so ago. It has persisted in political PR even though the Drudge Report, Wikipedia, bloggers and others have shown how difficult it is to achieve.

However, now the opposite has become the conventional wisdom – what do you do in a communications environment where you can’t control the message? You can be disciplined about your own messages but you can’t control the environment in which they are communicated, nor all the other messages competing with yours and, least of all, how all of them are perceived in a society in which perception is reality.

The PR industry initially reacted to this new reality by developing increasingly sophisticated tools to monitor, and respond to, claims in cyberspace. This generates fees for PR consultancies and work for in-house corporate affairs people but (see an earlier Come in Spinner) tends to magnify the problem – just as the response to the Canadian small town provincial newspaper once did.

Today there are very few PR practitioners who imagine anyone can control the message, although those of us who suffer from mild OCD, often get sucked into hoping we can. Adshel thought they were responding to a community campaign, got it wrong, and then discovered they couldn’t control the message about setting it right.

On balance masterly inaction is still an effective tactic. I often used to start issues management classes by asking the assembled corporate affairs practitioners to nominate what was the lead item on the 7 News the night before and the page three lead in The Age. Unless either was about their own companies it was rare for anyone to be able to get the right answer.

The vast majority of the public are not outraged, not engaged, and not as viscerally affected by news about our organisations, clients, Ministers, Shadow Ministers as we are. It is, thus, always a joke when someone reports a poll and then comments that something which seemed terribly important to them, and which happened a few days before, didn’t seem to influence the results. Killing Osama Bin Laden is an exception, obviously, but in most cases the public leads and lags are much longer than those of the media.

However, masterly inaction is not about doing nothing – it is about spending some time thinking before deciding whether action is warranted.

So Adshel got most of it wrong. They failed to practise some masterly inaction. They panicked and rushed into a dumb, poorly thought out, decision which they then had to reverse. The message went out of control around the world.

Most importantly they just didn’t understand the basic realities of a modern, diverse society. There are homophobes out there still. A minority is still shocked by ads about safe sex let alone sex of any description.

But a friend emailed a copy of his and his male partner’s marriage certificate a little while ago. Interestingly it was a US marriage certificate.

I suspect the majority of the Australian population would probably want to do what we did – send congratulations.