Saturday, 19 October 2013

The dark arts

What is the purpose of public relations? Is it to make a company and its employees feel good about themselves and what they are doing? Maybe.

Or is it part of marketing, creating a climate in which people will buy?

The best PR probably serves both functions and many more (like making shareholders feel good)but sometimes you just can't have the best. Some companies are so incredibly unpopular that no PR on Earth is going to make them look good. The bank shortly after one or other financial scandal has come to light, the oil company that has polluted the bay of Mexico... No amount of glowing words is going to make these companies popular.

So what do you do? A public display of heads rolling probably helps. But when the old bosses are counting their millions in golden handshakes and the new bosses are imprinting their own individual bottom designs into the leather furniture, what do you do next?

Well, here's an idea! How about negative PR?

Sometimes you have to just listen to your customers and go with the flow.

It works.

Here's a video that has had ten million views:

FedEx Fundamentals - Annual Income Statement
31/May/2013 ...31/May/2012 ... 31/May/2011
$44,287m ......... $42,680m ......... $39,304m

The company actually seems to have done rather well since the video was posted in December 2011, though of course the financial returns have to be read with caution especially in the context of a diverse group like FedEx. One thing is clear though: FedEx customers may have enjoyed sneering at the bad practice (and the subsequent humiliating apologies issued by the company) but they did not stop using its services. And given the huge amount of publicity FedEx got there is little doubt that far more people now the name and the sort of service the company provides.

And this is odd. For the most part people don't like big corporations and will say nasty things about them but all the same they prefer to do business with them largely because they know the name.

It's the Homer Simpson effect. There's a cartoon of Homer sitting in front of a tv showing an airplane bursting into flames. Pretty much all you can see is the logo of the airline on the tailfin. The rest is flames. Homer's on the phone ordering a plane ticket. When he's asked which airline he wants to use, he quotes the name he can see on the tailfin. It's a name he knows.

Leave it to Max

Take the example of the gay footballer who's terrified of being outed and having his career destroyed. He's squeaky clean. No-one could say anything about him. So what happens when he goes to a PR man who knows about the power of the dark side?

He gets photographed coming out of a nightclub with a half naked girl on each arm, possibly getting involved in a punch up.

You think the News of the Screws used to exploit and humiliate? Well, sometimes it did. But sometimes it was used and abused itself.

Small shopkeepers are not always beautiful

Then there's the Ronnie Barker strategy in Open All Hours. He deliberately makes spelling mistakes when he writes on his shop window. His idea is that when clever dicks are drawn into the shop to tell him he's got his spelling wrong, he gets the chance to sell them something.

Barker's intention (or the object of his fictional character) is to make money. It's not about achieving the high regard of his community or convincing people that he has a fantastic knowledge of the English language. He simply wants customers in his shop so he can sell them something.

You don't have to have a positive image to be a star. Villains have always made a living out of the dark side of life, but there's also a different kind of dark star. Consider the case of the late Jeremy Beadle. He was so 'unpopular' or had such a dark image, that people started creating Jeremy Beadle jokes:

What was Jeremy Beadle's favourite kitchen appliance?
A microwave.

But he exploited his image, even calling himself Beedlebum at one stage in his career. There are may similar artistes, quite few like Beadle former or present disk jockeys, but they all share one thing in common. You may laugh at them, possibly even despise them; but you respect or admire them for their professionalism.

Whatever you thought of Beadle, you also knew he was rather good at his job.

The Economist recently (October 12, 2013) reported on the phenomena of humour in public announcements. It quoted the example of funny videos created by Australian and American Airlines to make customers pay attention to the safety drills.

In fact it may be that some dark subjects can only be handled with humour. Ashesh Mukherjee and Laurette Dube of McGill Unniversity