No such thing as bad publicity?

When you’ve got some exciting news people want to hear, the best way to build that excitement… is to do nothing (well almost nothing!). Conversely, if your business has got some bad news for customers, it’s best to tell everyone as much as possible.

The good news…

iPhone 4s
iPhone 4s

Despite there being almost no (official) input from Apple, anticipation of the launch of a new iPhone last week reached nothing short of fever pitch. Media organisations around the world waited with baited breath for news of the upgraded model.

And the bad…

Blackberry Service updates
Blackberry's Service Updates page

Also attracting international coverage this week, were the problems affecting Blackberry users across Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. System outages have left users unable to send messages using the BBM network, access the internet or even receive email.


How did it pan out?
With nothing forthcoming from Apple, every aspect of the expected new iPhone was scrutinised: Would the design of the handset change? What would it be called? Would there be any radical new features? Twitter was ablaze with speculation and tech bloggers did their best to predict the answers to these questions.

Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind Blackberry was similarly quiet over the outages. But not in a good way. A tweet sent after several hours of down time, the firm used its Blackberry Help Twitter Account to Tweet:

“Some users in EMEA are experiencing issues. We’re investigating, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”

A text book example of how not to communicate with customers. Those who don’t use Twitter were left completely in the dark, whilst those that do were told what they already knew. Forums groaned under the weight of Blackberry users threatening to leave for its competitors, whilst bloggers questioned the lack of communication.

Let’s step back a moment
We’ve got two events here: the launch of a new phone, and network problems that have affected a competitor phone and lasted (at the moment) a couple of days. Hardly ground breaking stories in the scheme of things. But nevertheless they got people talking, one to a firm’s advantage, one to a firm’s real disadvantage.

The iPhone launch was lacklustre for many Apple fans. The design remains the same as the iPhone 4, the innards have been upgraded substantially, but remain in the same ball park as competitors, and new features were thin on the ground. The new camera was examined carefully by photographers who found it good, but not quite good enough. A voice control package that Stephen Fry describes as the phone’s USP.

So did this mediocre product launch fair in terms of cold hard sales? Well, it broke a new record, over 1 million pre-orders on the first day, beating the previous record of a mere 600,000.

This is quite something of a sales coup. But how did a fairly basic upgrade encourage so many people to buy premium device? No one can know for sure, but allegiance to Apple is legendary. According to CCN Money, 77% of iPhone users will buy another iPhone. And how many customers are prepared to queue for 11 days to buy a new product? There are other factors, the iPhone 3g launched in June 2009, so those on two year contracts will be eager for their upgrades. One final factor maybe the passing of Apple icon Steve Jobs. The man credited with developing one of the most world’s most successful companies was idolised by fans. The purchase of the latest iPhone may be seen as some sort of tribute.

Research in Motion, by contrast, has turned a fairly minor blip in its service into a PR disaster. Shareholders are murmuring and are pushing for a change in the board. For a company with a declining share in the smartphone market, this is bad news. RIM really should have handled this better. A press conference three days in is too little too late

So what can we learn from these companies?
If you’ve got bad news, get it out in the open. The longer you wait, the more discoveries will leak out in an uncontrolled way. Customers’ frustration grows at being kept in the dark, and where as a brief frustration might be attributed to a local problem, the longer it goes on the more they will talk to each other, and the more apparent it will become that the problem is widespread, and that it is not being acknowledged. If you’ve got some good news to break, get people speculating. Apple’s employees have lost two prototype phones one just before the launch of the iPhone 4 and another just before this latest release. Coincidence or marketing ploy? Either way it worked to build interest in launch.

That’s the obvious bit.

There’s a lesson to learn from the Blackberry debacle. Contingency planning.

RIM should have had a contingency plan for this kind of disaster, it appears to have been caught on the back foot making the leadership look flawed and vulnerable. This kind of problem could easily have happened to any big company, and every company needs to plan for it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, one might argue it is impossible to react to something that is fairly unpredictable, but you don’t need to predict something to have prepared for it. An emergency communications plan is simple to prepare and should be easy to implement: a regularly updated web page, together with social media messages will allow you to take control of communications with your customers and a well timed press conference will allow you to take control of the media.

The old saying “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is partly true. But sometimes you get to run a public relations event and sometimes it runs you. The key is to be able to turn each scenario to your advantage.


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