Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When Social Media can't fix things

Companies are getting better at countering Internet-led attacks of products. But what about everything and everyone else?

Taco Bell is a great recent example for how a company has learned how to take swift, aggressive action to counter erroneous allegations about their product. The impact of social media and the speed by which rumors fly on the Internet have been widely felt. Companies are learning and realize they need to pull out the stops at the first sniff of problems.

Within hours and days of a lawsuit alleging Taco Bell's meat was more filler, the South of the Border crew hit hard and fast. Bold advertising proclaimed "Thank you for Suing Us." There were Facebook and YouTube postings. They bought keywords "taco," "bell" and "lawsuit" on search engines to ensure their official statement was the first link on Yahoo, Google and Bing.

The impact of all this won't really be known until April 20 when parent company, Yum, issues its next quarterly earnings. My guess: the episode will have little negative impact, and possibly positive financial impact. My prediction is that loyal Taco Bell customers decided to support the brand by eating more tacos.

But what about all the others who may not have the ability to respond?

And, what about the lingering impacts of items in cyberspace?

This week, two emailed videos many thought were long forgotten... resurfaced. The fact they "came back" means PR professionals can't relax.

In one, the video shows people putting their cell phones around a small clump of unpopped popcorn kernels. When people dial these cell phones, the kernels soon pop and popped corn falls around the phones. Within in this video are multiple clips of seemingly random groups of people - including what looks like a group of Japaneses-speaking young adults - all performing the same "test." The implication, of course, is that cell phones emit dangerous radio waves powerful enough to make popcorn pop.

The other video has two clips of cruise ships in rough waters. One is an interior shot of passengers and crew being pushed back and forth, chairs and tables sliding around and more havoc. The other is an exterior shot of a cruise ship being tossed around in a very stormy sea. Both videos are attached to an email that says, essentially, 'watch ships being tossed by the tsunami.' The implication being that the tsunami generated by the recent Japan quake caused these ships to run into trouble.

Trouble is: both emails are misleading. The popcorn-cell phone video was a marketing ploy by a company that sells wireless headsets. This was "uncovered" by CNN and others...back in 2008.

The cruise ship videos? One was from a cyclone off of New Zealand and the other from a serious storm off the coast of Majorca in the Mediterranean. Both incidents occurred in 2008.

A certain percentage of the population will believe emails like these because they are sent from friends. They will simply accept them on face value. Some may try to do a little digging, like through Snopes.com and Urbanlegend.com. But, really, who has the time for that? If they are seemingly "innocent" items, why bother digging?

But for cell phone manufacturers and cruise ship operators, these lingering videos can be troubling. Cell phone manufacturers seem to continually be forced to answer questions about the potential health impacts of their products.

Like a bad penny that keeps turning up, videos and emails simply don't go away. In spite of our best efforts, bad information can come back at anytime. They can inflame sensibilities, provide more "proof" to people who believe cell phones create health issues, cause people to rethink that next cruise and so on.

PR professionals know they can't relax. So, what are the strategies for "old" viral? Consider these options and questions:

  1. Do nothing, particularly if the time frame is more than four years from original to recent occurence. In this case, you are playing the percentages. The "new" audience to these videos and viral emails is much smaller than the one who saw it originally. Sure, this is a gamble. But it's also known as risk calculation. (Talk to the insurance folks in your company). How much time and money should your company/client devote to squashing old emails and videos? If you choose to combat these, what are the risks of creating more unwanted attention? How much time do you spend to figure out the demographics of the "new" audience? Are they mostly older than 45 or under 20? The older age group will tend to be more skeptical.
  2. Did it reach Facebook? If an old video is making the rounds just via email, it's not really a threat. But if it's being posted on FB, now it's a threat and requires some level of response. Don't overdo it. First see if ambassadors can act on your behalf with their FB friends - and tell them to "read this" for the truth. "This" being the link to your original official video or statement.
  3. Is it a weed? One definition of viral means how long this "weed" lives and bothers you. Weeds will die either because of a lack of water, you yank it or spray it with weed-killer. On the Internet, "yanking" usually means lobbying YouTube to pull a video. Typically, YouTube will yank a video in copyright infringement cases, but it can have an immediate impact. "Weed-killer" is your assertive, aggressive social media/media relations/advertising counter-attack. Or, you can simply go silent and hope this weed dies for lack of attention.
Just remember: Even weeds have seeds.

Monday, April 11, 2011

M, M&A, SC and G

Some initials for you: Maui. Mergers and Acquisitions. USC and Green.

Back from Maui and ready for some major PR work and news this week. Hawaii is still a great place, but its dependency on travel and tourism can create turmoil for some of my PR colleagues. Just as hotels and resort properties seemed to have withstood the global recession, now another global event will force another major change in strategy. Some hotels rely heavily on Japanese tourists while others focus on the U.S. market. The devastation in Japan is predicted to create a significant drop in tourists from that country to the islands. Now, resort properties dependent on Japan will begin to focus on other markets - which could lead to some fierce competition.

This was Spring Break time for Hawaii, and I was glad to see many friends taking their families there. Yet, there are signs of lingering trouble. When I last visited Maui in 2006, all the shops at Whaler's Village in Kaanapali were full. Last week, there were many empty ones. The fabulous Ritz Carlton at Kapalua, like many HI resorts, is in default. With higher fuel prices, the question is: When will Hawaii catch a break?

In case you missed it, Ruder Finn acquired The Rogers Group last week. Good news: They report no layoffs. Ruder Finn actually says it's hiring in SFO to bolster its West Coast operations.

The Rogers Group was probably ripe for a sale. The firm lost my friend and a great leader in Lynn Doll when she suddenly passed away last August. She was a driving force behind the firms' steady growth and success. CA budget woes didn't help, and the state was not renewing some contracts, including a large one for the firm.

Ruder Finn has long tried to be a strong presence on the West Coast, with many starts and stops. It had previously tried to build business organically. Now, it appears, RF has the ability to create growth through acquisition and bring in a well-known and very capable leader such as Ron Rogers. Aside from the normal M&A issues, it will be interesting to see if there will be new directions for Ruder Finn/West. Public affairs joins technology?

Don't miss a great, free program this Thursday at the University of Southern California. The annual "Kenneth Owler Smith" Symposium, named after one of our great PR leaders from Southern California, will feature a discussion about the changing relationships between PR and journalism. More information here.

Green PR
A great program is coming to LA on May 16 - Sustainability Communications. This still-growing practice area of Public Relations is now creating new posts, new challenges and changing faster than social media. A very affordable event. Click here for more details.