PUBLIC RELATIONS: Winning over the cynics

Today’s consumers are more sceptical and aggressive than before. So PR must work harder to convince these doubters. Danny Rogers reports

Today’s consumers are more sceptical and aggressive than before. So PR

must work harder to convince these doubters. Danny Rogers reports

Under growing consumer and media scrutiny, organisations’ mistakes are

now likely to be punished quickly and severely. The result can be

Ratneresque public relations catastrophes.

So how important is PR’s role in dealing with the mid-90s consumer?

In an October speech to the Institute of Public Relations National

Conference, Biss Lancaster chairman Graham Lancaster described how PR

should approach what he sees as the ‘changing paradigm’, a shift away

from the relatively uninformed consumer of the 1950s and 60s, towards

the highly informed and cynical consumer of the 90s.

‘As communications professionals, we should welcome a world where there

is more informed consumer choice, because this thirst for information

from third parties - journalists, stockbrokers, analysts and others - is

the very essence of much of our work,’ he enthused.

However, Lancaster recognises that there is also a sting in the tail of

this paradigm, not least official regulatory authorities, such as OFGAS,

and news-making lobby groups, ranging from the Consumers Association to


In a modern democracy, such groups have on occasion dealt severe blows

to corporations through their media relations prowess.

Obvious examples include British Gas, and its pilloried boss Cedric

Brown, which was the worst perceived company in the country, according

to the Presswatch review of national newspaper coverage in 1995. Another

is Greenpeace’s attack on Shell’s Brent Spar strategy, which led to

international consumer boycotts.

The cynical customer may also act unilaterally. A survey by GGT (called

The Vigilante Consumer) found that two thirds of the population is more

likely to take some form of action against a company it disapproves of

than just five years ago.

This could be a one-off action, such as the woman who began a campaign

against the safety of supermarket trolleys after her child fell out and

was injured, through to the man who went round ripping the tops off

Flora cartons when it ran a competition he didn’t like. Such actions are

also likely to be picked up by the media.

Reputations under threat

Alternatively, consumers may act indirectly by deliberately bringing

their grievances to the attention of the rapidly expanding consumer

media. Either way, the company’s overall reputation can suffer.

‘Consumers are more aware of their rights. Quite rightly they demand a

certain level of service and products to work,’ says Mark Mellor,

managing director of PR agency Firefly.

‘When a company’s mechanism for dealing with complaints is not working,

we occasionally get the end of the cynical consumer. It may be that we

can talk to them directly and smooth the problem out, but if the issue

is serious, it may need crisis management. We will then liaise with the

media to see the issue through to the successful solution.’

Mellor points out that the Internet increases consumers’ lobbying power:

‘A consumer can now broadcast an issue to millions of others in seconds

and there is no media filter. One can put out messages on notice boards

or the company Web site, but consumer criticism may have to be countered

back through traditional media.’

Indeed, whether in response to pressure-group criticism or vigilante

consumers, once a crisis has begun it will need professional handling to

minimise the damage from the media bandwagon. Most larger PR

consultancies claim to offer a crisis-management service, and there are

a number of smaller agencies specialising in this.

There is evidence that in-house PR people are becoming equally

experienced and adept at coping with crises. The speed and confidence

with which McDonald’s and Sainsbury’s acted in the early days of the BSE

scare earlier this year is an example.

Of course, crisis management is a reactive tool. Crises can be prevented

or at least minimised by an enlightened, pro-active communications


‘I feel that businesses get the customers they deserve,’ says Sally

Costerton, managing director of the Abacus agency. Costerton draws a

line between organisations that are ‘customer-facing’, such as Virgin

and Unipart, and those that have paid a heavy price for failing to be.

She places Ratners and Cunard - owner of the QE2, which underwent a

bungled refit while carrying passengers - in that category.

‘Companies must invest in the corporate brand or customers won’t buy

from them. It is an issue for management who must ask ‘how does the

whole business reflect the brand values?’. You can’t say one thing, then

do another,’ says Costerton.

She believes that this necessity presents a big opportunity for PR

professionals, who can look objectively at the customer and create a

helpful dialogue.

Lancaster agrees: ‘We’re in an age when PR has grown up. It’s a time

when, if you advertise and promote a catchy stripe in your company’s

toothpaste - then you’d better be ready to explain just why it is that

hexachlorophene is good, that it contains no nasty additives, and that

it hasn’t been tested on a laboratory full of monkeys.’

Persecution problems

He suggests that companies should lose the ‘persecution complex’ that

the media is out to get them and that it’s possible to have real

influence customers and journalists alike.

‘If you tune into the pulse and cadence of the way the various markets

think and respond, you can ‘collude’ with them, and the media targeting

them, in the selling and influence process. They want to be your

partners - not patronised,’ he says.

Lancaster also believes this dialogue can be extended to pressure


‘It’s better to get to know lobbyists even though they may be implacably

opposed to you, and to do it early. The benefits of dialogue to you are

greater than the risks to a single-issue group, because they are drawn

into balanced, holistic debate.’

Lancaster and Costerton are not alone in recognising PR’s role as the

antennae of a business, gauging the political, economic or media

climate. Increasingly, organisations place PR people in senior corporate

positions, where they can feed information back to senior management and

provide counselling on the way they communicate with key audiences.

There are also companies that use PR to actively target informed and

mobilised consumers, because they represent a lucrative niche market.

A classic example is The Body Shop, which regards its in-house

department as a ‘nerve centre’ for communicating its products, politics

and principals.

Pro-active publicity drives have included an ethical audit of the

company with respect to animal testing, the environment and its

stakeholders, and the high-profile campaign on the plight of executed

Nigerian dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people.

Research commissioned by the Co-operative Bank in 1992 revealed that 35%

of people take ethical considerations into purchasing decisions and 15%

believed banks should stand up and be counted on ethics. It subsequently

based its marketing campaign on these tenets.

PR manager David Smith says: ‘The very consumers that will cause the

problems for other companies are precisely our niche. We are riding the


No cosmetic exercise

The Co-op Bank employs an integrated marketing approach, using PR to

raise awareness of its sometimes controversial advertising campaigns,

the latest of which highlighted the bank’s refusal to deal with

cosmetics companies using animal testing.

Smith says the flip side is that having raised its head above the

parapet, a company must be prepared to use reactive PR to defend its


Perhaps the central lesson is that complacency can lead to terminal

illness for organisations that become distanced from their customers, or

‘stakeholders’. Mistakes will be made but an honest and effective

dialogue through PR can at least ensure the chance to answer back.


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