History Repeats Itself
In April 2010, I was taking a class called, “Case Studies and Ethics in PR” as part of the undergraduate public relations program at Auburn. It was one of the toughest and most memorable classes I’ve ever taken.
Coincidentally, we had just studied the Exxon Valdez oil spill that had occurred March 24, 1989, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers and causing an oil spill that soon became the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. News coverage of it was the subject of the pilot episode of the new HBO series, The Newsroom.
In Exxon’s case, we learned in class, the oil giant’s leadership was slow to respond, failed to show concern, failed to respond to activists, and, overall, did a terrible job involving the media. I was one-year-old at the time, but I’m sure everywhere those watching at the time looked, they saw images of little penguins, seals and other wildlife covered in oil. (In fact, Dawn still shows similar images today as it proved to be the most successful cleaning agent for the affected Alaskan wildlife.)
When news broke on the April 20, 2010 oil spill, I assumed BP’s PR team would know exactly how to proceed. After all the scrutiny Exxon received in 1989, public relations should have been their second thought upon learning of this terrible disaster (obviously, safety being their first).
I was shocked to watch as BP deflected the blame of the disaster, continually downplayed the damage and barely apologized for anything. Social media exploded – a fake BP PR professional account was created and believed to be true. “BPGlobalPR” tweeted things like, “We are not killing animals in the gulf, we are creating fossils in the gulf. Have a little perspective. #bpcares.”
If only BP would have remembered the old Latin proverb: A wise man learns by the mistakes of others, a fool by his own. Suffice it to say, BP did not control the conversation.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to take such a course during your schooling, I recommend reading a few case studies. There are examples in each of these history lessons that demonstrate “best” and “worst” practices. An important thing to remember however is that news travels faster each day.
Johnson & Johnson will forever be praised for their swift reaction to the Tylenol crisis of 1982, but in actuality the CEO’s response came about 30 days later. That would never be acceptable in today’s world of online news, breaking updates and Twitter.
Not all case studies involve crises. One case study that I often recall when planning campaigns is the launch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park. When Universal Studios went to launch, they only told seven people. That’s right, seven. Not just any seven though – the seven most influential Harry Potter bloggers. These bloggers were given an exclusive webinar, putting them face-to-face time with the creators and designers.
Within 24 hours, approximately 350 million people had heard of the magical park through trusted referrals. You really can’t buy that. From this, I learned that if you want to spread the word – join the conversation. Find out where your target audience is talking and engage. Your campaign will be much more effective when you engage where your target where it is already talking rather than trying to move them over to your conversation.
That way, you might avoid being a case study that students read about in future college classes.