Reputation Management in a Click
Recent events and certain political campaign rhetorics reminded me of something by which I was bemused a couple of years ago. It’s still a bit of a mystery to me.
Earlier that year, I engaged a public relations consultant to give a couple of my non-marketing colleagues some media training. Whilst he was previously the regional head of a global, generalist PR agency, his private practice focusses on issues and reputation management. As he and I both cycle, when an intellectual property spat between a small Canadian bicycle retailer and a large American bicycle brand erupted, I sent him a link to an online article about it because I thought it would be interesting to see how the Americans will handle the situation. Legally, it was a fairly clear-cut case. Actually, it wasn’t even worth discussing. However, on the public relations front, the case called for a comfortable chair and a large tub of popcorns as it unfolded in the court of public opinion. It was a textbook case of both sides doing everything wrong: the ignorant, naïve, self-righteous shopkeeper and the big, bad, arrogant corporation. What made the case more interesting is the fact that a bike brand that is very adept at marketing was cocking it up like amateurs. Over the years, the purveyors of bikes mass produced in Taiwan have managed to develop and nurture, with the use of a very clever tag line, a very loyal clientele by making them feel like a rare breed of cyclists despite, in reality, rendering each customer merely One Of Countless Many. And here they were, making a mess out of a situation that could have been avoided in the first place.
In reply, the consultant told me about a case that a large British general merchandiser had experienced about 4 years prior when just about every business was feeling the impact of the Great Recession. They are known for value-for-money product assortment and have long enjoyed a reputation for supplying quality underwear at reasonable prices. They tweaked the pricing structure of women’s undergarments (big booby surcharge on DD cup and larger), and the members of public were outraged by that move, with the media egging them on whilst rivals gained market share. Under pressure, the retailer retracted the change. In doing so, they made a brilliant move in launching an advertising campaign to apologise for the offending move. The advert featured a model with her E cup assets encased in a pair of their previously premium category bras. The public was so taken by the model (and presumably the campaign message as well) that everyone forgot about the retailer’s offence and took their custom back to the retailer.
I knew about the outrage but didn’t know about the apology campaign since I didn’t follow the saga back then. Because he didn’t tell me who the model was (and obviously, I wanted to know), so I asked him who she was. What happened next had me perplexed.
He sent me a link to a thread in a well known internet forum founded and managed by a former Ku Klax Klan Grand Wizard, for white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The forum has sub-fora in various languages for members around the globe. In the thread, UK-based forum members were chatting about the model, and some members had posted a photo or two of her. Her photos explained why the campaign was a hit, but I simultaneously entered Bemusement Park quite unexpectedly.
Bemusement 1: These forum members were saying positive things in a polite manner about a British subject of Sudanese extraction. To say that the thread content was incongruent with the forum profile is perhaps an understatement. I wonder if the reputation of the thread participants amongst their peers suffered as a result.
Bemusement 2 (more important): Of all the places on the internet where photos of her can be found, the consultant sent me a link to a thread in that forum. If you do a web search on her name, the thread is unlikely to come up in the first few pages, not least because certain search engines in certain countries have excluded the forum’s URL from their index. In other words, you don’t come across the thread by accident if you enter her name in a search engine. You have to be in the forum first in order to find that thread, that is, unless someone sends you a direct link to it. So, is he a forum member?
I never asked albeit I still wonder whether it’s something that might hurt his reputation.