What-were-they-thinking Moments

All of us have run across examples of communications that are so inept or so risky that we are tempted to quote Tony Blair in the movie The Queen, when he exclaims “Someone save these people from themselves”! This week I ran across two examples so blatant, that I had to share…

The other day I was drinking my morning tea and flipping through the weekly flyer from my local Carrefour store when I saw an advertisement that stopped me in my tracks.  Carrefour Voyages was announcing a tour package entitled “La Birmanie, un voyage original, qui fait de l’effet !” This translates roughly as “Burma, an unusual trip that will have an effect (or alternatively: that will take its toll)!” Now I know that this offer has probably been in the works for weeks or even months. They were victims of extremely bad timing, but didn’t anyone in marketing stop and think about how risky it was to put the spotlight on this particular tour package?  For me it highlights the fine line between all of the different disciplines of communication. What started out as marketing has now entered the realm of bad PR and become fodder for crisis management.

Another tidbit that caught my eye comes from the European Commission. Speaking at a conference on biofuels, the director for economics of agricultural markets at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development tackled the issue of whether competition between biofuel crops and food crops is driving up food prices. He started off well, by explaining that biofuel crops are a very small part of overall crop production in Europe and therefore have a limited impact on food prices within the European Union (EU). But apparently, he went way off script somewhere along the line, because he is quoted by Agra Europe (the conference organiser) as saying “There is no danger due to our wealth of running out of food in the EU”. You have to give him credit for brutal honesty, but it doesn’t say much about the Commission’s concern for all the people in developing countries who already pay disproportionately high shares of their income for food (and often still don’t have sufficient, balanced diets). This just goes to show that technical experts need to understand the public relations impact of what they say, even if it is technically correct. And to be fair to the speaker, I didn’t hear his comments in person, so maybe the statement was less bad then it appears when quoted out of context, but surely it should be second nature for people in public roles to think about how what they say might sound like out of context. And if it’s not, they clearly need some good PR counsel.

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7 Replies to “What-were-they-thinking Moments

  1. Hi Heather,

    As communicators, I think we have an absolute duty to make it clear how complicated issues are, particularly with regard to sustainable development. People have got to understand that at the end of the day, it’s about judgment calls and choosing the priorities that are most important to you as an individual consumers and as a group in society. Anyone who thinks there is a magic bullet solution is deluding themselves. And any organization that stoops to sound-bite treatment for the issues is being irresponsible in my opinion (and unfortunately this description applies to many advocacy NGOs). There are always trade-offs. I doubt the general public can master the trade-offs of every decision they make simply because there is too much information to process. But I do think that we can help them at least understand what those issues are so that they can choose when to dig deeper.

    The need to have an in-depth knowledge of the issues is why I think it is vital for communicators to be specialized in particular fields and to be absolutely disciplined in learning as much about the core business and its technical elements as possible. While there are core skillsets for communictors, they can only be deployed optimally within a given context about which the communicator is adequately knowledgeable. Doctors all have the same basic knowledge of the human body, but I’d rather that my podiatrist not try to perfom heart surgery on me (or anyone else for that matter).

    And I think that if ethics were easy, it wouldn’t really be an issue. For me, it is less important to always have THE answer than it is to have a spirit of enquiry and to understand that there are almost always different angles to look at any question and to be comfortable with the choice I eventually make.

  2. Kristen,

    Linking the two examples of water and biofuels shows how difficult these ethical decisions are. In terms of drinking tap water, there are arguments that this is better in terms of the impact on the environment of making and transporting bottled water. (Dasani, of course being bottled water just doesn’t stack up in any case since it also attempted to “purify” perfectly drinkable tap water in UK).

    It is really hard for publics to make decisions with all the various rhetoric (even propaganda) they face. If we work from home, is this consuming greater energy than commuting and sharing heating, etc in offices?

    Do we opt for organic, local, fairtrade, or grow our own food (which may be impacted by local pollution and not be good for us)?

    And so on. I agree we need to be read widely as communicators – but sometimes that only serves to confuse (which is what the public face also). Also, we need to be prepared to access the arguments at a deep level and not pick up on the superficial aspects that will show our organisations in the best light.

    We also need to really understand ethical decision frameworks if PR practitioners are to fulfil a role as “ethical guardians” in organisations.

  3. Thanks for all your posts. In my opinion, the Dasani bottled water case raises an ethical question for marketers. I think most consumers would agree that the wording on the label was meant to be misleading. This and similar cases have received so much attention that I think people are mostly pretty clear now when they are buying bottled tap water. That being said, I grew up in a village where the municipal water comes from an artesian well and has beat out bottled spring water in taste tests, so the Dasani strategy may not always be a bad thing.

    With regard to biofuels, future technologies could bring us all kinds of truly useful options, but the ethanol and biodiesel that is currently on the market is mostly derived from crops that could also be used for food, so it is an important (but not the only) factor driving up world food prices at the moment. In addition, there are big questions about whether the current generation of biofuels provide any net energy gain or net environmental benefit. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just released a pretty damning report on the subject called “Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?”

    With regard to the international dimension of such stories, I think it is vital for anyone involved in business communications today to be very well read. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it’s the only way I can think to begin to be prepared for the wide variety of pitfalls that await us in an increasingly global marketplace.

  4. Volkswagen’s “Dieselution Tour” is a traveling exhibit in the U.S. that features information regarding clean diesel technology and environmental issues surrounding grrenhouse gasses and non-renewable resources. It includes information regarding Volkswagen’s research into biofuels.

    You mention “the issue of whether competition between biofuel crops and food crops is driving up food prices.” During my tour of the Dieselution exhibit, a Volkswagen engineer made the point that VW is focused on converting biomass to fuel. This biomass would come from plant waste and other non-food sources, and would not cause a rise in food prices.

  5. The topic of how marketing activities cause a corporate crisis is one of my favourite, so thanks for sharing the Carrefour example.

    I believe, the best public relations practitioners are more worldly wise and culturally sensitive than our marketing colleagues.

    One of our favourite examples in the UK, was the attempt by Coca-Cola to launch the Dasani brand of bottled water – which was “pure” tap water. In the UK, we drink bottled mineral water – or can turn on a tap ourselves. This soon became a crisis – with the media linking to the TV comedy, Only Fools and Horses, where Del Boy Trotter had once bottle a natural source of water – from the Thames via his tap. Even more ironically, the Coca Cola plant was based close to where the comedy show was set in South London.

    Why can’t people in marketing see when their ideas are likely to cause a crisis?

  6. Hey Kristen, it’s great to see your inaugural post on PR Conversations and welcome to the posse of regular contributors.

    It’s interesting that your first topic touches on a lot of themes that have been explored earlier, in particular the impact of “global communications.” Perhaps most poignantly this was shown in João’s Communicating Justice in Portugal: the Madeleine case. In my own recent post, I detailed how Marion MacKenzie (president of GCI Canada) emphasized that the world is getting more complex, “where issues of governance, transparency and globalization take on increasing weight.” She also spoke about the “duty of care” (in that particular instance, manufacturing in China). Ergo, I think the two examples you cited show an organization/individual that didn’t stop to think how their words were going to be perceived within France, let alone when they crossed the border.

    When you highlighted the quote, “There is no danger due to our wealth of running out of food in the EU,” I immediately thought of a powerful documentary I saw (its world premier) at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival: We Feed the World, which was directed by Austrian Erwin Wagenhofer. (I noted that it was released April 2007 in France, so is probably available on DVD now.) The reason the film was so effective was because it brought home how big businesses from the developed world are abusing less fortunate nations/economies when it comes to inexpensive food production and exportation for consumption…even though the developed world has far more food than is needed. That’s why the words you quoted from the director for economics of agricultural markets appeared particularly callous. If you haven’t seen We Feed the World yet, I highly recommend you check it out. As the first commenter on the imdb website details:

    “The film ends with an interview with the CEO of Nestlé, the largest food manufacturer in the world, who muses on ‘attaching a value’ to water, and calls the position of the NGOs, that access to clean water is a human right, ‘extreme’.”


    What was *he* thinking, one might ask!

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