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.

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