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
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.’
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
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.