Friday, September 23, 2011

Ford Friends Me

My previous post "Fords Lost PR Focus" generated some attention from Ford. A Ford representative emailed me shortly after my post appeared asking to speak to me on the phone to clarify some things I alluded to about the Ford Focus event in downtown Grand Rapids.

I had thought the Ford PR team was on top of social media monitoring to respond to little ol' me so quickly. But it turned out that a friend of mine who works in PR in Detroit, and used to work for Ford, forwarded my blog post to a VP there and it eventually got to Dan Pierce, the Global Environmental Communication Manager, who contacted me.

Chris Knape, meanwhile, told me no one from Ford had followed up as promised to answer his questions.

As Pierce explains it, the event was not intended to be a consumer event. The Ford Focus Electric is not out of production yet and they don't want to offer consumer test drives until it is and they can make the right first impression. Those invited to the event were representatives of utilities, governmental units, and other early adopters such as hybrid owners who are interested in the concept and prototype before the release. While they didn't stop Grand Valley students and others who happened by from looking, they did not have a drive-able car at this event. The consumer events will come later this year when the car is out of production.

As for Knape's questions going unanswered, apparently there was one official spokesman at the event and that person was surrounded by TV and other media in the scrum that followed the official remarks. Still not good for first impressions to ignore the local business editor in any market in my opinion, but I'll let you decide for yourself.

Meanwhile, the discussion I had with Pierce proved productive and a good example of PR fence mending. He's offered to come to GVSU next month with a prototype car and an engineer to talk about it. Then he will address a group of PR students about promoting an all electric vehicle, sustainability and environmental communication. My students from last winter's Fundamentals of PR courses are already getting out their plan books to show their own ideas on promoting the Ford Focus Electric to a college student market.

More to come.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Some Quick and Dirty PR Lessons on Quikster and Quixtar

The split of Netflix into streaming video and a new DVD service called Quikster has grabbed attention on blogs and Twitter lately. See this post on as an example.

Here are some PR lessons learned, including a West Michigan angle:

  • Apologies should be sincere and address what is really upsetting people. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted an "apology" that didn't address the price increase that upset consumers.
  • PR is about two-way relationships, and had Netflix grasped this and learned in advance with on-going dialogue or basic research of consumer brand and price attitudes they may have avoided this crisis.
  • PR involves dealing with multiple publics. Consumers being upset about price led to lots of them bailing which led to a 19% stock drop. Investors are people too. This is why consumers should not just be left to marketing and investors to investor relations or finance pros. PR people should be at the management table advising their management colleagues from all sides about how actions and words affect multiple publics. Some call this "integrated marketing communication"; I call it basic PR and common sense.
  • Name changes don't change perceptions or behavior. Splitting from Netflix to Netflix and Quikster is done for internal reasons. It is not convenient, easy, or better in any way for consumers. 
  • Short-term decisions can lead to long-term brand damage. Notice how Amway and Quixtar are recalled by the Ragan writer? Quixtar re- re-branded recently back to Amway because the name change never worked. But the move--again which probably seemed good internally--backfired consistently. 
Wise leadership and smart PR do not usually come from making quick decisions. They are evidenced by listening, pondering consequences, and managing relationships vs merely the bottom line. It's better all the way around to be patient and clean than quick and dirty.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ford's Lost PR Focus

My Fundamentals of Public Relations students should have been consulted.

In several of our PR classes at GVSU, we take on "clients" for whom students do PR projects relevant to the class content. In upper level classes, these are clients in the community. In the fundamentals class I have usually taken on a client from an on-campus entity to keep the scale and target public simpler for this introductory level class.

But last winter, I was coming off  sabbatical and had not had a chance to recruit an on-campus client. So I took an idea from the newspaper and had students create a PR  campaign plan book that sought to persuade college students that the Ford Focus Electric set to debut  was a great concept and a car they should eventually buy.

The key word  there was  'eventually.' My students themselves emphasized that, after doing research that showed a number of what we call 'barriers to persuasion.' Their peer students at GVSU and around the country had 'range anxiety,' or a fear of being unable to recharge when they needed to. They also wondered if the power would be adequate. Some felt that using electricity derived from coal wasn't really "green" so what's the point. Others were put off by the anticipated cost, mechanical upkeep, and other questions the students had to address in their communication tactics.

The campaign was complicated when Ford delayed the release of the Focus. So students smartly (with some of my counsel) focused the campaign on building brand and product category awareness and appreciation now for eventual purchase when the product is rolled out and when current college students have incomes that they can afford it.

My students came up with a variety of good ideas. Good in the sense that they were based on research and employed strategy grounded in theory. For example, the "diffusion of innovations" theory would indicate that "observability" and "trialability" are key when getting people to accept a new concept. So having students drive a Ford Focus around campus, and allowing other students to test drive it, was a popular strategy.

All of this came back when I read Grand Rapids Press Business Editor Chris Knape's review of a Ford Focus PR event last week in downtown Grand Rapids. After some prepared remarks, the Focus event lost focus. Knape points out:

  • Ford representatives were unable to answer basic questions, like the natural objections my students had uncovered;
  • there was no actual vehicle to test drive, just a mock-up that Ford representatives cautioned GVSU students who attended to not touch;
  • Knape concludes the event "brought little new information to the market;"
I agree. I wouldn't go so far as to call this Ford event a "stunt," which implies sleight of hand or bait and switch to get people out. But it was  a poorly done PR event primarily because it seemed to favor image over substance. The value of events are exactly what Ford  was unprepared for--live and therefore more persuasive interaction with your publics, hands-on interaction of consumers with product. Apparently, the Ford  people were stunned that an event is not "controlled media." I am in turn stunned by this. If any persuasion happened it is that the Ford Focus Electric should not be a consideration when young people buy a vehicle in the next few years.

My students would have been surprised too. Ford should have consulted with them. The wisest advice they could have given Ford would have been to do some research and have answers to common and reasonable questions as well as an actual product on hand. Otherwise, they should wait. 

The market won't be ready for your product until your product (and your PR staff) is ready for market.