"One way conversations with customers are a thing of the past."

Peter Cross, John Lewis

 
 

A short story about an apple, pink slime and a Facebook conversation or two [hundred thousand]…

This month, Hannah’s been our eyes and ears at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ national conference – “Breaking through the noise”.

Hearing from the Cabinet Office’s executive director for communications, Alex Aiken; John Lewis’ communications director, Peter Cross; and Nora Senior, the immediate past president of the British Chamber of Commerce, to name just three of the eight high calibre speakers, the conference was rammed with priceless insights.

According to the CIPR, and a view echoed by many at the conference, the current and political economic climate in Britain is due (in part) to a failure in communications. We’re not about to get all political here but we do want to share a couple of case studies from speakers which highlight the complexity of communication in the digital age and how two experts suggest we weather the storm.

First on, Weber Shandwick CEO Colin Byrne spoke of the “post truth” digital age – a phrase which has lingered since Brexit and the US presidential election. Colin began by telling us that people tolerate mistruth and that feelings are now just as valid as facts in the post truth era.  

“Pink slime”

Colin gave the example of a viral ‘clickbait’ image that claimed to show the ‘pink slime’ that makes up McDonalds’ chicken nuggets. McDonalds’ communications team was quick to put the record straight by releasing an online video which shows the truthful process. But the image was shared across the globe and for many, who didn’t see McDonalds’ video, this image became their version of the truth.

How are businesses to overcome the challenges posed by this rapidly changing media landscape? Colin’s view is that communicators should think more like Generation Z – a generation which tends to bypass traditional media, instead gathering information from social media news feeds. They no longer check for truth, he explained. The answer is also in prevention rather than cure, in that PR professionals can help by improving the visibility of leaders to help build trust in brands.

He said that social media outlets also have a role to play and Facebook, for one, has already promised to do more to eliminate hoaxes and block fake news sites from its ad network.

An apple

So, what of the short story about an apple? Well, it was most certainly about an apple, but nothing like a short story, as Peter Cross at John Lewis explained. You might have seen it pop up in your social media feeds where a customer took to Facebook to let John Lewis know about an overpriced apple she bought in one of its cafes. John Lewis spotted the story, made an apology to the customer, refunded the wrongly priced apple and sent a gift to the customer as an apology. This story should have ended there, shouldn’t it? Alas for all parties involved, no, it continued.

The story snowballed out of control and beyond recognition. It appeared on major news channels, bringing into question John Lewis’ values; discussions about healthy eating; European food mountains; the customer received a barrage of insults from the public; the issue became fierce.

200,000-way conversations

The internet has allowed customers to reframe their relationships with brands. One way conversations with customers are a thing of the past – they are now more like 200,000-way conversations, via social media. Conversations have gone from a fairly predictable hierarchy to a more unpredictable torrent of water and it is our role as communicators to put a system in place to deal with the torrent, says Peter. 

When asked how the industry should deal with such explosions of seemingly simple customer service issues propelled on social media, Peter answered that the first step is to look through the brand’s lens. The customer is right. They will do the right thing and won’t seek brand currency. He said to respond urgently whilst trying to get the messaging and facts through. Some pretty sound advice, we feel, from a communicator who has lived through it.

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We’d love to relay the whole day but we run the risk of this short story becoming an epic tale of its own, so we’ll leave you with some nuggets (sorry, couldn’t resist) of wisdom from the day, from some of the industry’s finest:

“Reputation has never been so valuable an asset, nor so easily lost.” Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick

“People are unwilling to accept facts if they do not match up to their life experience.” Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick

“PR pros should take responsibility for speaking up and speaking out. The most important skills modern PR practitioners need are leadership skills. That means taking responsibility for initiatives and speaking truth to power.” Alex Aiken, Cabinet Office

“There’s no substitute for great insight.” Antonia Bance, TUC

“Nothing is impossible. Prepare for all eventualities. Look at your risk register and revisit that thing you think will never happen. It could.” Antonia Bance, TUC

“PRs must help CEOs to become comfortable in their own skin. We must help promote their humility.” Nora Senior, British Chamber of Commerce

“Be integrated and diverse to break through the noise.” Claire Foster, Direct Line

“There are some things you cannot plan for. Being ready to seize every opportunity is key.” Alex Willis, Wimbledon

“Keep calm [in a crisis], manage channels and be responsive.” Catherine Turner, Co-operative Group

“Communication should be compelling, creative, relevant, sharable, unique and authentic.” Peter Cross, John Lewis

 
 
    
 
The Partners Group

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