10 December 2015 Guest Contributor

While the silly season's just started, a few of us have jumped the gun with some high-profile brands 'acting out', or in accordance with direction from an industry expert whose judgement is seriously in question. Either way, the end result is as appetising as a spam omelette, but with a longer lasting afterglow.

In my humble opinion, 2015 is overflowing with nominees for the PR Stinker Gold Logie. For those responsible, sheez... what were you thinking? Perhaps you've had a series of brain proverbials. Either way, I've asked some astute PR pros to join me in identifying the biggest home-grown PR stinkers, and here's what we've come up with.



Someone (who's now ducking for cover) once said: "I know! How about we invite the public to share their taxi experiences using the hashtag #YourTaxis." I mean, what could go wrong? Quite a lot, according to Managing Director of Good Business Consulting Phoebe Netto: "While some PR fails are a result of unforeseen circumstances or poor performance being noticed, the #YourTaxis campaign was organised by the Victorian Taxi Association and resulted in them paying for a social media campaign that highlighted their flaws and broadcasted them to a large audience." And it did. In spades. Feedback like:

  • "It smelled like a wookiee's armpit..."
  • "Sat in a taxi seat with poorly cleaned up vomit a few cm deep. Refused to pay $10 fare, and police fined me $500. #YourTaxis"
  • "@yourtaxis Every single woman I know has, at some point, been sexually/verbally abused by a cabbie & now every single woman I know uses uber"

Netto continues: "Part of the motivation to use this strategy may have been the success that Uber had in using Twitter to encourage Victorians to show their support for the car riding app. However, a quick keyword search on twitter and even very basic consumer research would have shown the Victorian Taxi Association that there was a strong dissatisfaction with taxis in Victoria. Basic human behaviour principles teach you that by nature people are more likely to remember a negative experience and that it would be easier to recall than an average or good experience."

I completely agree. If, as VTA chief executive David Samuel said in the campaign's defence, they really wanted to open direct lines of communication with their customers, the # should have been ‪more along the lines of #‎wearelistening‬. But that's just a wolf in sheep's clothing. They would not have embarked on this campaign unless they thought it would unearth support for the industry. Personally, I haven't had many bad experiences in taxis but I'm not about to come out swinging in their defence. They should have realised that at best community sentiment was ambivalence. And social media is definitely the wrong platform to try to turn brand 'meh' into brand 'love'.

In some ways, the VTA was trying to put the cart before the horse. Or, as Netto puts it: "A much better strategy would have involved listening to their audience first, addressing their concerns and sharing what the plan would be to improve the taxi services. Rather than celebrating its achievements, it should have still been focused on making improvements. This would provide better context for sharing the good news stories that they have compiled on their Your Taxis website, and would be a step towards restoring faith in the taxi industry in Victoria without being patronising. " I couldn't agree more Phoebe.

Woolworths (Multiple Mentions)

Founder of WordPlay Public Relations Penny Smits highlighted what a challenging year Woolworths has had. Let's rewind back to April, when they ran a "fresh in our memories" campaign to correspond with ANZAC Day. As Smits puts it: "Using a tragedy or commemorative occasion to blatantly push your brand is only ever going to come across as grossly opportunistic." (Hear! Hear!) She also goes on to point out that: "Woolworths created a meme generator for the Fresh in Our Memories campaign, asking Australians to share a memory of someone affected by war. This backfired spectacularly and was quickly seized upon to mock the supermarket giant." And while Smits agrees with Woolworths quickly apologising and withdrawing the campaign, their justification for doing it in the first place (as a show of support for the RSL and Camp Gallipoli) was not enough. "Had the 'fresh in our memories' campaign been of direct benefit to (and only to benefit) the ex-services community, rather than a blatant plug of the Woolworths brand, it would have been better received."

We should know by now that every campaign we embark on carries with it a great degree of risk. As Smit puts it: "We are now a generation of anywhere, anytime, any device users, which means your community can receive information as it happens. Communication between brands and consumers is also far more democratic than ever before. Brands need to factor in contingency planning for potential reputational fallout from their social media campaign (no matter how well intentioned). This involves reviewing (or better still having another party review) their campaign and considering all potential reactions before execution."

Timely advice, but not heeded before the next social media storm struck, this time involving Michelle Bridges who described home-grown vegetable growers as 'freaks' in a tongue-in-cheek promotion for a new frozen meal range. Smits puts this judgement error down to the creatives being "too close to this idea and reaching their target audience (who most probably use the term 'health freaks' with some regularity)." That makes sense. But Smits goes on to highlight that "it showed an apparent disregard to the general public, made worse by the implication that people who grow their own food are 'freaks' and the connection with the Woolworths 'Fresh Food People' tag line. Woolworths pulled the offending ad, apologised via Facebook and copped the public flak in the comments section of their post, which was the right thing to do." Absolutely. So while Woolworths may have got it wrong this year, by facing the criticism head-on and quickly removing the offending promotions, it's gone some way to minimising the fall-out of both ill-conceived blunders.

7-Eleven Pay Scam

While both of the nominees already mentioned are more than worthy of the top gong, my vote goes to 7-Eleven for 'turning a blind eye' to the appalling but rife practice of 'half pay' (paying staff on working visas half their award rate of pay under threat of deportation should they notify authorities of the abuse). When approached by Four Corners and Fairfax Media about the systemic underpayment of wages, 7-Eleven company founder Russ Withers did not respond to any questions or provide any comment whatsoever. However, when he did fall on his sword shortly after, it wasn't before attempting to shift the blame to executive Warren Wilmot, in this statement: "Mr Wilmot offered his resignation following the recent realisation of the extent to which 7-Eleven franchisees had underpaid workers." He then went on to add: "Mr Wilmot acknowledged it would be difficult for him to play a central role in navigating the company through the current challenges it faces, given his longstanding executive role, and that a new independent chief executive was appropriate in the current circumstances." [Insert handball action.]

Then, in an outward display of solidarity with its workers, the franchise company appointed former ACCC chairman Professor Allan Fels to chair an independent panel to seek out and repay underpaid workers. A nice touch, but by then the mud had firmly stuck. And while this was a good indication it intended to redress its wrongs, it didn't convince everyone that the organisation was undergoing a cultural overhaul. Particularly when the franchise ran a promotional meme campaign 'when payday hasn't come' just one month later. Would you like a bit more salt rubbed into your wounds aggrieved 7-Eleven workers?

All in all, aside from the abuse itself, the handling of the abuse in the public domain has been truckloads too little and years too late. And while it might not count for much, I haven't walked into a 7-Eleven since.

Silver logie nominees:

What say you? Do you have some better suggestions?