We wouldn’t have wanted to be in House PR’s shoes yesterday. No, not even a ticket to the Brit Awards (and the remote possibility of rubbing shoulders with David Bowie), would have made us change places with them after the furore that blew up on Twitter around #PricelessSurprises for their client MasterCard. So what did House PR do that was so wrong?
The agency committed what is commonly known in the PR world as the eighth deadly sin. They presumed to tell a journalist what they should write. They used the sought-after Brit Awards press seat allocation as collateral, dangling the tickets tantalisingly in front of some of the UK’s top showbiz reporters, in return for an agreed list of specific coverage. This even included a suggested Tweet for each journalist to cut and paste.
The relationship between hack and PR professional is a delicate thing, and it’s driven by our news media’s need for authenticity and balance. There is a fine, unspoken line that both parties respect and don’t cross. For the journalist, this means cutting the PR person enough slack to let them ask for a brand or website mention in the article that they, after all, supplied the idea, spokespeople, evidence and statistics for. Within the boundaries of good balance and objectivity, sometimes a journalist will be able to do exactly that.
For the PR person, this means perhaps working some of the brand’s key messages into the story that they pass on or perhaps supplying an image or b-roll that incorporates client branding in it. Or even perhaps asking in a slightly embarrassed, humble tone, if they would mind awfully, if it’s not too much trouble, mentioning their client by name in their piece. But true PR professionals never, ever presume to have rights over what the journalist will finally publish. Once that line is crossed, the trusted relationship is over. Which does nobody any favours.
Telegraph Mandrake columnist, Tim Walker has pointed out, what House PR should have done is to pay for advertising alone. This, in marketing terms, is how you control what appears in the press and is posted on social channels. Well, direct advertising is probably not the right medium for subtle brand placement. But there are an increasing number of other forms of paid and owned media that could have been explored. A paid blogging programme for example, could have delivered the brand mentions and hashtags that they were looking to journalists for. Not to mention targeted, sponsored posts on Linkedin. House PR was already paying to promote #PricelessSurprises on Twitter and we’re pretty sure, if they’d just asked the journalists that were invited to the Brit Awards to use that hashtag, most of them probably would have done so.
As it stands, #PricelessSurprises was hijacked yesterday by just about every p*ssed off hack in London and yet was still promoted all day. But then there’s no such thing as bad PR, so they say…
It might not have helped the PR industry’s reputation, but this story has certainly provided us with a useful case study for our trainees at Racepoint and for those degree students we regularly provide workshops to.