Apologies abound

Another week, another apology. This time it was the turn of Telecom, with a swift U-turn over its try-hard ‘Abstain for the Game’ campaign. It, of course, followed hard on the heels of the adidas non-apology of the previous week for the ‘distraction’ caused by the furore over its apparel pricing.

Rugby World Cup madness has truly set in. What on earth was Telecom thinking? Why did it feel the need to go public with such a tacky little campaign? What realistic objective could genuinely outweigh the obvious likelihood of public backlash (Sean Fitzpatrick as the face of the thing – really?) and corresponding damage to reputation?

Combine the desperation of Kiwi corporates to milk take full advantage of the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity presented by the Rugby World Cup taking place in these remote isles, the heady excitement around the ‘creative opportunity’ presented by this event, and the general race among consumer brands to capture an ever-increasing share of the ‘edgy’ ‘yoof’ market and you have boundless opportunity for cock-up.

I’m just surprised we haven’t seen more campaigns like ‘Abstain’ and their attendant apologies. Perhaps there will be. These are, after all, early days. Or perhaps there were to be, with caution winning out following the red faces in Mount Wellington and Auckland’s Hereford Street.

For me, ‘Abstain’ and Pricegate spotlighted the fact that public relations doesn’t yet play a truly meaningful role in the governance of many Kiwi corporates. It frequently languishes under marketing, clutching a rather sad ‘publicity’ brief. Or it sits in an ivory tower of its own somewhere, busily managing something called corporate communication. I’ve even come across one organisation which chose to bury it deep within HR, for goodness sake. Because internal communication is very important, you understand?

A decent public relations team doesn’t drink the corporate Kool-Aid. It is empowered and specifically tasked with ‘keeping us real’.

Rare is the Kiwi corporate which understands the need for public relations to maintain an active presence across any and every aspect of the organisation which has some form of interaction with a stakeholder group or target audience.

Operating a call-centre – where’s the PR input? Writing to customers – where’s the PR input? Planning a pricing policy – where’s the PR input? Meeting with suppliers – where’s the PR input?

A decent public relations team doesn’t drink the corporate Kool-Aid. It is empowered and specifically tasked with ‘keeping us real’. Keeping the business grounded in the reality of the community in which it operates. It’s given free rein to roam widely across the business and poke its nose into every nook and cranny of operation from whence trouble might spring. It’s the organisation’s reality-check.  Its link to, and window on, the real world.

This is especially important where an organisation has a disparate array of creative and ‘communication’ functions operating in silo or semi-silo environments. Advertising. Marketing. Online marketing. Social media. Youth engagement. New media. Old media. Just media…  All with their attendant creatives bulging and brimming with ‘good ideas’ just bursting to be ‘taken to market’.

Unless and until public relations takes, or is given, that all-embracing reputation guardianship role we will continue to see more examples of “bad PR” emanating from Kiwi corporates. More sponsorship nightmares. More try-hard campaigns that fall horribly flat and, worse, alienate key stakeholder groups. More spoof warehouse burglaries designed for ‘publicity’ that simply erode an organisation’s credibility (yes, Vodafone – I’m looking at you). My point is that with these examples and others it’s not the public relations that’s bad. It’s the lack of it.

I guess until then corporate PR teams are going to have to continue fighting fires of other peoples’ making and we’re just going to have to get used to apologies. But, as I’ve said before, at some point apologies wear thin and just don’t cut it any longer. Just like in any relationship.

I think we’re there already. As adidas has discovered, people are frustrated with bad corporate citizenship being glossed over with meaningless apologies.

They’re in a punishing mood.

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