Paddy Power’s taking the Pistorious

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that’s always been pretty forward-thinking about PR and social media. Because of this, I have a certain admiration* for other businesses when they really get that stuff right.
*jealousy

The latest Three campaign – #SingItKitty – has me fuming, simply because they did it and we didn’t. It’s genius – catchy, infectious and the kind of thing you feel compelled to share. Then there are the players who are great at social media; from the whimsical brilliance of Innocent Drinks to the sassy awesomeness of my colleagues over at Tesco Mobile. And then there are the ones that gain their notoriety by sailing close to the wind. Like Paddy Power.

To date, I’ve liked pretty much every stunt that Paddy Power have pulled. Most recently, they crashed the red carpet at The Brits with Daft Punk impersonators, decked out in Paddy Power Y-Fronts. It had all the traits of a great PR campaign – bonkers enough to make people talk about it as part of their ‘did you watch The Brits last night?’ conversations at work the next day, but not stupid enough to prompt a ‘wtf?!’

In 2012, they flipped the middle finger at one thing that frustrated PR people at almost every brand in the UK (including me. ‘North Greenwich Arena’?! Ugh). In the run up to London 2012, I remember reading a brief on what non-sponsors could and couldn’t say. We jokingly referred to the event as ‘The O word’ around the office. Paddy Power? Not one shit was given. They found a way around it and pulled off a brilliant trick:

The Paddy Power billboard at London Bridge Station

Also in 2012, they hired a skywriting team to post ‘Sky Tweets’ above Medinah, Illinois, where the Ryder Cup was in full swing. The messages, such as ‘Tiger loves a bit of rough’, had me giggling at my desk. They ventured up to that ‘line’ I’ve spoke of in previous posts, but stopped short of crossing into outrage territory.

This week, if I worked at Paddy Power, I’d wish I was in outrage territory. They’ve sailed right through that town and out the other side:

paddy-power-oscar

For some unknown reason, they thought it’d be a good idea to take bets on the outcome of Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial, with a refund if he’s found not guilty. Not only that, but they’ve also chosen to promote this decision far and wide, using both print and social. And, just for good measure, they decided to poke fun at the double-amputee’s disability, incorporating the line ‘if he walks’ into their copy.

Hang on, WHAT?

Confession: Personally, I’m not offended by it. I don’t find it funny and I consider it to be in bad taste, but I’m pretty thick-skinned and laid back, so stuff like this doesn’t really upset me. Unfortunately for Paddy Power, not everyone feels the same way.

There are people out there who do find it genuinely offensive and upsetting. Then, of course, there are the professionally-offended – those who occupy social media, looking for a bandwagon to leap on, just for shits & giggles. Admittedly, some people think this campaign is hilarious. But they’re generally the same people who are amused by many of the news stories that the rest of us find disturbing, like the Madeleine McCann disappearance – the professionally-offensive.

For the most part, though, the People’s Republic of Cyberspace thinks that it’s an idiotic idea, and this is the point at which I get confused. From a PR perspective, I’m baffled as to how a group of people sat down at Paddy Power HQ and talked this proposal over, without a single one of them stopping to consider that this was one of the stupidest ideas ever conceived. HOW?

I’m not a betting man – my gambling expertise begins and ends with a few (not so lucky) Lucky Dips on the lottery – so I’m certainly no expert on wagers. Looking at various websites, though, I can see that it’s possible to bet on almost anything these days. It’s far from being limited to sport; you can place a bet that Tom Hiddlestone will be the next James Bond, that Zuckerburg will be succeeded by his first-born child, or that Julian Assange will leave the Ecuadorian Embassy using a jet pack. I’m not even joking.

It seems that people will bet on anything and, with that in mind, I can kind of understand why they’re offering odds on the outcome of the trial. They’re a business after all, and a gambling business at that; an industry which isn’t exactly known as the hub of moral responsibility. What I don’t understand is their choice to publicise it. This is the kind of bet that they should’ve kept a dirty little secret, visible only to those who know how to explore the obscure depths of their website.

For whatever reason, right or wrong, they chose to offer odds on something that would likely appeal to gamblers. But, given that the wider audience would consider it to be way off-key, there was absolutely no right reason to serve that wager up to the general public – it should’ve been obvious that it’d cause an outrage.

Since the scandal broke, a petition has been set up, urging Paddy Power to cease bets on the trial and make a donation to a women’s charity. Started it around midday on 2 March, it’s gathered over 118,500 signatures at the time of writing – after 60 hours. That’s almost 2000 signatures per hour, and that’s the kind of public opinion that no PR campaign ever wants to attract.

I’m starting to wonder if Paddy Power thinks ‘PR’ stands for ‘Public Reactions’.

Amazingly, Paddy Power appear to have have remained utterly silent on social media about the whole thing, even apparently blocking a twitter account which supports abuse victims. In my view, ignoring the problem is the worst thing they could possibly do. They need to wake up, smell the outrage that’s relentlessly unfolding over them, and fix it. They’ve already tainted all the great work that they’ve pulled off in the last few years, and they need to act fast to avoid tainting their reputation as a business, possibly forever.

-UPDATE-

The ASA ruled that the advert was offensive and ordered Paddy Power to remove it. Obviously.

tl;dr – Paddy Power have offered a refund on the Oscar Pistorius verdict ‘if he walks’. Now they’re getting trampled by the internet, and definitely ending their run of great PR stunts.

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The Shed – where the tools live, apparently

We’ve all been there: someone says something you disagree with, you tell them they’re talking bollocks. Perfectly acceptable – unless you’re a business saying it to customers. That’s not okay.

On Friday, customer Helen Forsythe visited The Shed and left what she considered to be an honest review on their Facebook page. She said that the cakes looked so delicious, she wanted to try them all, but that she was prevented from doing so because she felt that the cakes weren’t adequately protected from being ‘breathed on, (or worse)’ by customers.

Luckily, The Shed avoided a social media disaster by replying: “We’re sorry that’s how you feel, Helen, although we do think that our cakes are suitably shielded from the public, so that everyone can enjoy them as they’re meant to be enjoyed. If you take a look at this photograph, you can see that it’s pretty difficult for the cakes to be affected by passing customers, but we’re always open to suggestions on how we can improve.” – along with a picture of some pretty well-shielded cakes. And that was the end of that. Feedback was gracefully received, gently disagreed with and even respectfully disproved as an overreaction with the evidence of a simple photograph. The story ends, life goes on and The Shed continues as it always has done.

Except that’s not really what happened. Here’s the actual reply:

shedreply

Oh dear. Ohhhhh dear.

And it didn’t stop there. As I write this, the story’s spreading across Twitter and Facebook. I expect both of the people on Google+ have seen it by now, too. People are (mostly) in agreement that it’s the worst possible way to respond, yet The Shed continues to retaliate. They’re poking fun at the review by posting pictures of their ‘hygienically prepared’ cakes, despite the preparation never being drawn into question. They’re even citing UK defamation law (incorrectly) – I’m not sure if this is a genuine threat of litigation but if it is, they really wouldn’t get very far:

shedlegal‘You have to be more responsible for your comments’, said the pot to the kettle.

Basically, right now, they’re using their social media channels to commit commercial suicide. Sound familiar? It should – remember Amy’s Baking Company?

Some people say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Sure – before this all started, I’d never heard of The Shed. Now, because of this, I have.

But on the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ theory, I disagree. I’ve also now seen The Shed’s official hygiene rating, as published by the Food Standards Agency, because people are posting it as a direct result of the way in which they’ve handled this review.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 21.59.48

And there’s your knockout punch. Helen’s review probably wouldn’t have put me off buying cake from The Shed if I ever visited Bath, and I suspect the same could be said of most people – not least because most of us wouldn’t have even seen the review. It would’ve made almost no difference to their business, had they handled it properly in the first place. Their attitude towards customers would prompt me to hesitate, though – would I take my kids into a place where ‘All the family is welcome’ according to their social pages, but where they’re happy to yell ‘bollocks’ in the face of an unhappy customer? Not for a gold pig. And their ‘Zero – URGENT IMPROVEMENT NECESSARY’ food hygiene rating would stop me dead in my tracks. That’s an official rating from an official government agency.

I should specify at this point that I’ve never been in The Shed. In fact, I’ve never been to Bath (I’ve been in the bath, though, before someone starts). I don’t know Helen. I have no involvement in this story other than that of an outside observer. I don’t know how much of what Helen’s said is true. But that’s not even important any more.

To clarify, this blog post isn’t about The Shed’s cake display, or their hygiene standards as a food vendor. It’s about their use of social media as a member of the service industry. My rating on that? Also ‘Zero – URGENT IMPROVEMENT NECESSARY’.

TL;DR – Cake shop gets bad review on Facebook, posts worse than bad reply.

– UPDATES –

19 February:
Despite the story spiralling on Twitter, The Shed originally remained steadfast in their seemingly unshakeable mentality of ‘bollocks to you all’. Inevitably, it spilled out of social media and into mainstream media. BBC Radio Bristol was the first outlet I spotted, asking Helen if they could interview her on Breakfast the following day (You can listen to a clip HERE). It seems that’s when The Shed finally realised they were getting into a sticky situation.

Naturally, I wasn’t the only person blogging about this. Nigel Morgan, of Morgan PR (he’s commented on this post, prior to this update), also wrote a post which said – essentially – the same as I’ve said here; that it was a PR disaster (Yay me, I concluded the same as an actual PR pro!). He was even quite sceptical of their social veracity in general – pointing out that their twitter following kind of looked, well, more ‘shop-bought’ than ‘home-made’. Anyway, I wrote my blog post to keep my hands out of mischief, but for Nigel, it’s his business. As such – quite rightly – he used his post to encourage businesses to contact him before ‘going nuclear’ on social media. As it turns out, that’s exactly what The Shed eventually did.

Since then, things have slowly improved. But I mean slowly. At first, their approach seemed conflicted – a bizarre mix of humility and arrogance that combined about as well as oil and water. Tweeting about learning a lesson, but then RTing tweets from others, in which Helen was labelled a ‘silly woman’ left me baffled as to what their strategy actually was. And then came this pearler:

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 23.45.17

Sorry – what?! I’m not sure which pop-up book of PR this came from, but it’s not one that I’ve ever read.

In any case, this morning (60 hours after Nigel was retained), The Shed finally posted an apology to Helen Forsyth. In my opinion, that was 48 hours too late.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 00.47.36

I’ve never owned or operated a PR firm. I’ve never studied PR on any level. I’m not a qualified PR professional. Clearly, Nigel ticks some – perhaps all – of these boxes. I’m not sure how heavily-involved he’s been in the social media activity since the morning of Monday 17 February, and far be it from me to be telling PR experts how to manage a crisis such as this but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I would’ve done:

Apologise: The apology to Helen should’ve been the first thing to come out of The Shed after Monday morning’s radio show, followed by a series of sincere ‘we got our response wrong and we’re sorry’ replies to anyone who mentioned the episode.

Nothing else: That’s it. Say you’re sorry and then get back to business as usual – maybe toning down on proactive comms for a few days until the dust has settled. Distance yourself from the thing you got wrong in the first place. Stop talking about the thing. Don’t even refer to the thing unless you’re reactively apologising to people about it, or even gently mocking yourself about it.

Most importantly, be humble: For God’s sake, definitely no bragging about busiest ever days, no RTing those speaking out in support of you about the thing, and no getting drawn back into the argument about the thing. Not ever.

25 February:
I honestly thought that my previous update would be the last one on this post. But then things took another turn, once again leaving me gobsmacked at The Shed’s attitude towards social media.

Whilst writing the previous update, I noticed a comment on The Shed’s ‘apology’ post to Helen Forsyth. The comment went on and on about how people should think before abusing small independent businesses in social media. It was posted by Janet Stansfield (who is presumably so impassioned on the subject because she herself runs a small, independent ‘design your own jewellery’ business in Newcastle), and I felt compelled to reply to it.

JanetStansfieldShed

I was particularly careful to ensure that my reply was balanced and fair, while conveying my views clearly.  They were that, although a business owner is indeed entitled to rebut criticism of their business, they must do so in a way which isn’t offensive. I pointed out that only one party in the original exchange had been ‘openly abused’, and it wasn’t The Shed. I gave my opinion that, from a PR and social media perspective, they handled it incorrectly, and that their ‘rebuttal’ to Helen’s criticism had caused them far more problems than the criticism itself ever would have. My reply was essentially a very brief summary of this blog post.

As I type this update, I’m kicking myself for not capturing a screenshot of my comment, because it seems that The Shed have learnt nothing about good social media practice from this experience – or from their newly-recruited ‘PR expert’. They deleted it.

When I discovered this on 24 February, I commented again – this time taking a screenshot:

FinchShed

They deleted that one, too. And then they banned me from posting on their page. But that’s not all…

Helen Forsyth – the very subject of their ‘heartfelt apology’, who ‘will always be welcome at The Shed’, isn’t welcome to comment on their Facebook page. They’ve banned her, too.

I should point out that Helen wasn’t banned at the time the ‘apology’ was posted, as I saw a comment on it from her, acknowledging the post.

Perhaps this development wouldn’t be so astounding, had The Shed still been in charge of their own social media channels. But, as I mentioned in the previous update, they’re now under the ‘expert’ guidance of their PR consultant, Nigel Morgan.  Ever willing to give the benefit of the doubt, I tweeted Nigel and The Shed three times (count them – one, two, three) to seek clarification on who was deleting fair, balanced comments from their Facebook page. All three tweets were, apparently, deliberately ignored.

Now, in my update on 19 February, I talked about Nigel’s PR pedigree, and my lack thereof. I was kind to him, despite my having reservations about some of his methods. Well, here’s the thing: I don’t care who you are, or how long you’ve managed to keep a PR consultancy afloat. If you advocate the censorship of your critics for no good reason, you’re doing PR wrong. You’re no expert.

From a PR perspective, forcefully suppressing fair and reasonable criticism doesn’t work in your favour – ever. Morgan PR’s ‘about’ section on Facebook says, ‘We help businesses understand how to use public relations and social media to promote their business.’ – Er, not like that, you don’t.

As I mentioned before, Nigel has commented on this blog post, taking issue with the fact that I referenced a government agency’s published findings on The Shed’s hygiene. As he seems to promote a policy of deleting things from the internet, here’s his comment for posterity. Y’know – just in case:

Entertaining! My own blog on this brought the opportunity to work with The Shed and I would take issue with is the Food Standards Agency Rating – I saw this and dismissed it understanding how those ratings work.

As a new business (they started in November) they start with a zero as there is nothing to rate but are given help and guidance etc so it will be the score they get in the near future that matters! This stops new premises trading on an old premises’ rating.

Easy mistake to make to think it reflects the actual standards – real zeros tend to be closed!

Hang on a second. Firstly, two months is plenty of time to be getting your hygiene act together if you’re serving food to the public. Secondly, am I supposed to believe that when Gordon Ramsey or Marco Pierre White first open up a posh-nosh restaurant, the council rocks up and gives it a zero rating because it’s a ‘new business’? I suspect not.

Oh, but wait. Two days after leaving his comment here, the tune had changed – in an interview for a Bath Chronicle story two days later, Nigel was blaming the floods. Okay then.

Which is true? Or are they both verses from the bad PR bible of half-truths? Well, I’ve just submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Bath & North East Somerset council, so we’ll soon see.

Social Media ABC (or How To Commit Social Suicide)

This week, I saw something in social media which was so unbelievable that it actually prompted me to start this blog. It’s the story of Amy’s Baking Company (ABC) in Arizona.

The story started back in August 2010, when a customer named Joel LaTondress ate at Amy’s and was underwhelmed by the experience. As he was entitled to do, he shared his experience on Yelp. Owner and chef, Amy Bouzaglo, responded with a jaw-dropping tirade of abuse, complete with accusations that he worked for a competitor (Check out the review and response HERE).

The exchange was posted on Reddit, growing in popularity and causing a headache for Amy and Samy – her husband/co-owner. Business suffered and so, when the opportunity arose for high-ranking celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay to help them turn their fortunes around with an appearance on Kitchen Nightmares USA, they jumped at the chance.

Undoubtedly, Amy assumed that Gordon would taste her delicious food, tell the world that there was nothing wrong with it and that they didn’t need his help, then skip merrily off into the Arizona sunset. Roll credits.

Yeah, that’s not quite how it went down…

[Edit: Channel 4 are clearly trying to ruin my life and keep blocking the YouTube videos of this episode, on UK regional copyright grounds or some such gubbins. I’ll keep trying to find versions that aren’t censored, but I can’t guarantee that it’ll work. Sorry about that.]

The episode’s 40 minutes long, but seriously – you need to see it. I sat watching open-mouthed through most of it. I actually thought at one point that it was a spoof. If you really don’t have the time to watch it, here’s a brief overview:

Amy is a brilliant chef – in the same way that many cringeworthy X Factor audition attendees are wonderful singers. She believes that her culinary creations are epic and refuses to accept any suggestion to the contrary. Before Ramsey arrives, she and Samy are filmed fighting (almost literally) with unhappy customers – telling them to ‘fuck off and don’t come back’. Gordon rocks up and, not surprisingly, thinks the food is shit. Not surprisingly, Amy and Samy disagree.

For the first time ever, Gordon Ramsay admits defeat and leaves without completing his mission. Add that to the fact that the ‘freshly prepared’ food they serve is often bought in and reheated, plus the owners keeping the tips meant for their staff, and you get a pretty amazing thing to watch.

And that’s when the floodgates opened. Social media exploded after the show aired. Amy – bless her – exploded right back:

ABC Resell

She starts by calling visitors to their page ‘stupid’ – then takes it up a notch by calling Gordon Ramsay ‘horrible’ and claiming some kind of divine right to act like a complete cockwomble. She also threatens to procreate:

ABC God

Okayyy… *backs away*

Then she just goes all-out batshit, referring to her cats as her ‘kids’ and claiming to be a 1970’s comic book hero:

ABC Cuckoo

Finally, Amy & Samy just resort to abusing anyone and everyone:

ABC abuseWow.

As the story picked up traction, it spread across to Twitter and quickly went viral. Eventually, the page changed and all the venomous posts were replaced with one taken directly from the social media disaster handbook:

ABC hack

Naturally, it’s been met with a degree of scepticism by the entire internet – me included. This post was followed by one which announced a ‘Grand Reopening’ and gave clear indications that they’ve FINALLY hired a PR firm, who have no doubt advised them that swearing at customers on your official Facebook page is frowned upon.

Remarkably, a new ABC support page has appeared, posting compliments about Amy and her batshit bakery, as well as firing a wide range of insults at Gordon Ramsey and abusing sceptics with wild abandon – all in an oddly-familiar tone of voice. Hmm.

My view (the long version)

Anyone who knows how the internet works should know that it’s predominantly fuelled by the fires that burn in the guts of trolls across the globe. Some of them have a gripe against the page’s owner, many are just like-whores who add their ‘witty repartee’ to a post, in the hope that they’ll be accepted by their peers with a symbolic ‘like’. Some of them are natural born tossers, but most are just bandwagon passengers. Whatever the reason, the hills of the internet are alive with the sound of trololol.

As you probably know, I’m an admin for the O2 social accounts, including the Facebook page. Being an admin is hard when the trolls are out, admittedly – but you absolutely cannot just turn around and outright abuse them. You need to use your noggin.

You may remember that in July 2012, we had our fair share of, um… ‘negative sentiment’ in social media when the network suffered an unprecedented failure, leaving a fair few customers without service for several hours. Understandably, people were mad as hell, and they told us so. The vast majority of them kept it fairly civil, although there were some who just went over the top and took trolling to the next level, hurling vitriol for shits & giggles without even mentioning the network issue. The abuse got more and more obscene until one guy took the biscuit, suggesting that we go ‘arsefuck your mothers, you twats’.

And that’s when I kinda lost it a little bit. At this point, I can *almost* kind of empathise with Amy and Samy – the levels of abuse were getting pretty extreme and, as a fiercely loyal advocate of the brand, it was almost impossible for me to avoid taking it personally. But I saw the line, stopped, and thought for a minute. If I jumped across the line, it’d spell disaster for the brand I care so much about, followed by P45-shaped disaster for me. No ta.

But this dude needed something a little sharper than our cotton wool tone, so I took a deep breath, stuck my toe across that line and hit him with a rather dry ‘She says no thanks.’ And that was that. I’d got it out of my system and was ready to carry on as normal. The end.

Except that it wasn’t the end. It got picked up by various people and news outlets, and things went a little crazy. People LOVED it, and I couldn’t really understand why – I’d basically trolled a troll – something that wasn’t in the book. We’re told that a brand should never retaliate. But we kinda did and it worked, so we built on it, adopted a new lighter-hearted tone where appropriate and somehow managed to mitigate a full-scale PR disaster.

The difference between our response and that of Amy’s, however, was rationality and restraint. Whereas we quietly deflected a snipe from someone acting unreasonably, Amy loaded a shotgun and blasted it repeatedly into the crowd. I think a huge part of successful crisis communications is being human, but not TOO human. There are some human traits that simply don’t suit any brand’s persona. Empathy does, though – always try to understand what’s motivated their comment in the first place, and don’t ever demean that motivation.

Directly abusing someone as a brand is never a good idea – saying something like ‘We would, but we’re too tired from seeing your mum’ would’ve been an Amy’s-esque suicide run, whereas ‘She says no thanks’ shot down the troll without actually returning fire.

The key to social engagement is matching someone’s tone – but only as far as ‘the line’. This is where Amy’s went horribly wrong. They saw the line, screamed at it to fuck off and ran past it whilst babbling about cats and Wonder Woman.

My view (the brief version)

Amy and Samy Bouzaglo shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of the internet. Or an oven.