Lessons from a bad PR and marketing mistake

These are confusing times to say the least. From the environment to the economy, politics to TV programming, it seems nobody can agree on what’s definitely right, or wrong. Elsewhere in the world, though, some things are clearer, and mistakes much more obvious.
Although every week we feature an example of bad PR and marketing in our Blagger’s Blog, sometimes misdemeanours require a little more space on the page, or indeed a post of their own. Such is the case in this instance, which we’ll call, for argument’s sake, HP-FT-gate. Catchy little title, eh?
So, here’s what happened. The management columnist at Financial Times criticised part of a talk delivered by Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman at the Davos summit. Specifically finding fault with the claim that “You can always go faster than you think you can???, the writer in question, Lucy Kellaman explained that in reality “[s]ometimes, when you go faster you fall flat on your face.”
Cue an angry email from the head of marketing and comms at HP, Henry Gomez, which included one particular line that has caused a lot of fuss. “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.???
Kellaway responded simply by saying:
“Dear Henry,
Thank you for your message, which I’ve read with interest.
Yours sincerely,
Lucy Kellaway”
A little while later, the scribe followed the reply up with a longer version, going in to detail about editorial standards, the need to freely publish articles and opinions without fear of financial reprisals on the part of brands that may or may not be about to buy advertising space, and, perhaps most importantly, the empty nature of Gomez’s apparent ‘threat’. In short, there’s a reason his firm advertises with the FT, and there’s a reason it will carry on doing so despite the comments included in the editorial space.
You can take a look at the full response here, as it has been published on the FT’s website.
It raises an interesting point that everyone from company directors to quick-tempered marketing and PR pros should have noted a long time ago. There’s a two-way relationship when it comes to commercial interests and journalistic content, and one that’s very rarely over and done with in one encounter. There may very well be an instance wherein HP needs to call upon contacts at the FT, or any other publication for that matter, and therefore muddying the proverbial waters over a very small criticism is definitely not the right way to go about things.
Before you start to accuse Smoking Gun PR of being in the pockets of journalists and editors, though, let’s dig a little deeper. Whilst we don’t believe in an ivory tower model, wherein those writing the words are untouchable and beyond criticism, we do believe in their right to pen and publish what they honestly believe, and/or what they understand to be true. And for more reasons than simply wanting to stay in the good books for future campaigns.
The press hasn’t had the easiest time of things in recent years. Aside from recent stories circulating on social channels that suggest Britain has the most right-wing news industry in Europe, public trust in the professions involved in this sector is relatively low, and as budgets become more strained there’s ever-greater chances of criticism being directed at outlets as a result of the perception that pages are being filled with less and less articles created from in-depth research, as this costs more money than the alternatives.
As such if we- as the PR, comms and marketing industries- expect journalists to simply repeat our chosen messages without paying due care to the accuracies and legitimacy therein, then we risk making positive outcomes from press campaigns impossible. The more party lines are towed on the part of editorial, the more chance public trust will be further diminished, and therefore when good press is achieved the impact on the public’s opinion and purchasing choices will be reduced. Editorial outlets need to speak their minds, both in favour of and against private interests, otherwise they will be viewed as nothing more than a soapbox for profiteering, which does nobody any favours- particularly in an age when inclusion in an article, sponsored content and native advertising are much more effective ways to draw attention to a brand than traditional advertising itself.