Thursday, January 28, 2010

Audi: volunteering for a black eye

A story running the rounds on Twitter last night drew my attention:

The link led me to a blog by Danny Brown, which outlined the PR nightmare Audi may be about to enter with its Super Bowl ad campaign.

Audi is reportedly using its Super Bowl airtime to advertise its "A3 TDI diesel, which gets 42 mpg highway," and is priming the pump for the ad with a series of YouTube videos like this one, introducing the "Green Police."

In his blog, Danny Brown cautions about a potential PR backlash against Audi:
"The campaign is based around a new creation called the Green Police, who will spearhead a social media program to build interest in Audi’s ad at this year’s football showcase. The Green Police enforce ways to protect the environment, and encourage people to a better understanding of environmental issues. There’s currently a series of YouTube mock education videos as part of the program, as well as a Green Police Twitter account.

The problem is, there’s already been a Green Police enforcement organization, but not one that you’d want to be associated with. This Green Police was part of the Nazi persecution and execution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust of the Second World War.

The implications of Audi’s choice of name for their campaign could be huge, especially since Audi is a German company. The first question is obvious – didn’t anyone at Audi’s PR or advertising arm/agency do any research?"

Since that blog post was first published yesterday, it has received more than 100 comments and has been tweeted more than 275 times (including a re-tweet by me, with the introductory note "Really?"). A debate has grown up around whether this actually constitutes a major issue, as Brown suggests, or whether it's not really a big deal.

The arguments I've read against this being a big deal include:
So, is this a big deal or not?

Even if you don't personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn't matter. As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you've got a potential issue on your hands.

Can you always predict what will offend people? Of course not.

Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.

But you can't avoid obstacles you don't know about.

Before getting too far down the road with creative, research whether there are any historical or cultural connotations to a proposed campaign/company/product name that might create issues. A quick Google search would have turned up the Nazi reference, and I have to believe no member of Audi's PR/marketing team would have considered that and decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Audi's "Green Police" message was supposed to be about environmental stewardship (and, ultimately, the A3 TDI diesel); now, at least in some corners, the public discussion it has inspired is about the company's either disregard for or ignorance of the dark history attached to its new campaign's name.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Think mainstream media is dead?

Think again.

Yesterday morning, many Winnipeggers (myself included) started the day with a bit of a challenge: how to get ready for work/school/whatever with low (and in some cases, no) water pressure. According to this morning’s Winnipeg Free Press, at around 7:30 a.m. a power outage affected three of the city’s water pumping stations, which caused the problem.

In my house, our first instinct was to check our own pipes (no problems). Second: check the street to see whether there’d been a water main break (no apparent problems). Third: call 311 (busy signal: uh oh, this must be a big problem – it’s not just us if 311 is overloaded). Wait it out, and rinse off.

But others had different ideas.

Call CJOB!

As I drove in to work listening to local radio station CJOB, I heard morning show host Richard Cloutier (who’d been at work long before the water problem) say that at the station, they’d noticed a momentary problem with the power, then their email system went dead, then the phones lit up with calls from listeners with shampoo in their hair – I’m sure both wanting to know what was going on, and wanting to complain about it.

Don’t discount mainstream media

These days, social media is the darling of PR conferences, webinars and professional development meetings; it’s our shiny new toy. There are people in our industry quickly re-branding themselves as social media experts, ringing the death knell for mainstream media, and recommending all-social media communication strategies to their clients.

For some clients, whose audiences exist uniquely in the online and social media space, that might make sense. But for the rest (who, I’d suggest, constitute the majority out there), it’s important not to ignore the power mainstream media continue to have to communicate with our audiences.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a social media evangelist, and I firmly believe that its tools give us unprecedented access to certain segments of our audiences – both for sharing information, and for building relationships. From my perspective, social media opens the door for PR to do what it has always strived to do: to establish and nurture two-way relationships with its audiences (at varying levels, of course).

But social media isn’t the be-all and end-all for strategic mass communication – at least, not yet. Many of our audiences are not using Twitter, and aren’t influenced by those who do. Many (it seems, more and more every day) distrust Facebook. Many don’t read blogs, or spend much time online at all. Many others do participate in social media, but aren’t able to determine whom to trust – and turn to mainstream media to make sense of it all.

These audiences rely on mainstream media, among other more traditional communication channels (e.g. calling customer help lines), to inform themselves about the issues that interest them. And as long as they do, good strategic PR will continue to take advantage of those means of reaching them.

As more amazing and revolutionary technologies come along, smart PR people will engage with them, will investigate them, will understand their strengths and weaknesses, and will figure out how to employ them to help clients reach their communication objectives.

But the really smart PR people will always remember to go where their audiences are.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Domino’s Pizza goes negative on itself

There’s an interesting story running in Slate this week about a new Domino’s Pizza campaign, in which Domino’s repeats its own customers’ negative feedback in ads about its new and improved recipe.

At the centre of the campaign is a four-minute documentary-style piece on YouTube, from which 30-second commercials have been made. It opens with negative tweets about Domino’s Pizza from real Twitter users, and goes on to show focus groups in which real tasters (i.e., actual focus group participants, not actors) offer bad review after bad review. The piece then covers how seriously Domino’s takes customer feedback, the process it went through to address its customers' complaints, and how its new product is better than ever.

If you look at the website for the new campaign, you’ll find this video, as well as a round-up of other coverage, including what looks like a live Twitter stream of tweets about Domino’s; it features tweets using the hashtags #newpizza and #dominos, as well as those including the profile @dominos and, as I wrote this blog entry, included both positive and negative reviews.

Multiple-choice question:

A company that’s willing to draw attention to its critics’ opinions must be:

a. Crazy
b. Not business savvy
c. Confident that it has fixed the problems

My answer is “c” – but if Domino’s isn’t confident the market is going to love this new pizza (or, at least, see it as an improvement), my answer changes to “a” and “b”. Domino’s’ customers had better think its pizza is markedly better than it was before, or the company will have a serious credibility gap to address.

Will this campaign get attention? Undoubtedly – and, as Beth Stevenson points out in the Slate article, likely more than a conventional “new and improved” campaign would have.

Is this approach unprecedented? No; as Paul Farhi points out in The Washington Post, other companies from GM to United Airlines and JetBlue – even this year’s Chicago Bears – have apologized for their own shortcomings in advertising.

Will it work? Only time – and how much better the pizza actually is – will tell.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Carnival Cruise Lines: Advertising that improves your PR stunt's image

Media Credit: Oliva Garrity. Source:

I came across a video showing a Carnival Cruise Lines publicity stunt gone awry (sort of) as my first-year PR students were researching pseudo-events this past week.

As this article in The Daily Pennsylvanian describes, Carnival staged a major publicity stunt in Philadelphia in November 2008, in which it built – and invited the public to come and enjoy – the world’s largest piñata.

It sounds like a great idea. Carnival markets itself to a young, fun-loving audience with the tagline “Fun For All. All For Fun.” and many of its most popular cruises include ports of call in Mexico. The world’s largest piñata would seem to be a great fit.

According to another article, Carnival never planned to actually bash the giant piñata with a wrecking ball on-site; rather, the plan was for the wrecking ball to come close, and for trap doors to open via remote control, spilling eight thousand pounds of candy into the square for the public to collect (with cameras rolling).

Imagine the planning that went into this event. Between the actual event plan, the building and filling of the piñata, the procurement of the wrecking ball, the advertising and media relations, dealing with the city for permits, security, first aid, and all the required staging, it would have been a huge undertaking.

But in the end, the moment the crowd was waiting for – the release of the candy – didn’t happen. Why? Because their publicity for this publicity event was too successful… and they didn’t have a plan B.

So why does the title of this post talk about advertising?

Because of this Carnival ad, which I also found on YouTube.

I don't know whether this is done with CGI or whether they edited footage of the event together with footage of a later, smaller, piñata opening; but either way, audiences nation-wide and beyond watching this commercial would have had the impression that the event had gone off without a hitch.

Does it matter?

You tell me.

Either way, Carnival did legitimately earn its Guinness World Record for the world's largest piñata; it'll be able to leverage that distinction for publicity purposes (including the ad, above) until its record is broken by some other publicity-hunter.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Good publicity stunts are good business

When you tell people you work in PR, some people hear C.J. Cregg, the brilliant, principled White House spokeswoman from The West Wing, and others hear Samantha Jones, the flashy and promiscuous publicist from Sex and the City.

The fact is, PR is home to each of those – and more, both between the two and further along the spectrum on each side. There are people calling themselves PR people who do nothing but connect celebrities with nightclubs and restaurants at which to make mutually-beneficial appearances, and there are those who advise CEOs and heads of state.

Bread-and-butter, thy name is publicity.

Many PR pros, whether their clients are wanting customers for products, votes for candidates, donations for charities or support for causes, spend a lot of their time working to generate publicity. As they undertake their major PR campaign of the semester, Red River College’s first-year Creative Communications students are blogging about publicity stunts this week (you can check them out on the CreComm Blog Network under “Class of 2011”).

As you’ll see from the range of stunts or “pseudo-events” they examine, the sky’s the limit if you’re creative and you understand what gets people’s attention. A good publicity stunt gets people talking about your brand, and creates news for your client where none existed before.

Case in point: Richard Branson and Canadian wireless number portability

In 2007, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (“CRTC”) changed the rules for wireless carriers in Canada, making it possible for cell phone customers to take their phone numbers with them when they left one wireless company for another. (Before this decision, if you changed cell phone providers you had to get a new number – a deterrent to switching providers.)

Richard Branson, the founder and chief executive of the Virgin Group (and no stranger to the media spotlight), undertook a publicity stunt in downtown Toronto in which he rappelled to the street from a “jail cell” suspended 80 feet in the air, and “rescued” some Canadian cell phone customers who were “imprisoned” by their current suppliers.

It worked – Branson’s stunt caught media attention (after all, you don’t see many corporate executives doing things like this), and Virgin dominated media stories about the number portability decision.

Would the number portability decision have been news without Branson’s stunt? Of course. But would the media stories about it have singled out Virgin Wireless, among the other cell phone competitors in the market? Maybe, maybe not – but most certainly not to the degree they did.

With this publicity stunt, Virgin Wireless got itself featured in media stories about how Canadian wireless customers were now going to have an easier time switching to different suppliers – like Virgin Wireless.

Smart business – and great PR.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My blogroll's new year's diet

There's lots of talk of new year's resolutions these days. I have a number of them; one of them is to blog more in 2010.

I've also decided to put my blogroll on a diet: I'm removing links that haven't been updated in the last, let's say, quarter; I've also created a new online space to play host to all of Red River College's Creative Communications student blogs, rather than linking to each of them (over 100, at this point) from my own blog.

You'll see the link at the top of the right-hand column; it's called "CreComm Blog Network." There, you'll find links to CreComm student, instructor, and (eventually) grad blogs.

For a quick scan of how CreComms see the world, I'd encourage you to visit the CreComm Blog Network regularly; and add it to your own blogroll, if you have one!