Some people shouldn’t be let loose on PR and social media. Particularly during a crisis or a major reputational issue.
Today giant Scottish retail outlet Braehead Shopping Centre finds itself at the centre of a damaging controversy. A father photographed his daughter eating ice cream and was accosted first by security staff and then by police.
Tracking the fallout from this has been an exercise in watching, incredulous, between fingers (I started a Storify link here). Poor judgment was compounded by heavy-handed authority, institutional arrogance and stone age customer relations. A toxic blend.
A lack of understating of digital and social media created a bone try tinder mix, so that all it took was a relatively minor flashpoint to set it smouldering.
Read this response from Braehead Shopping Centre, issued as the commentary started to gather pace. This served solely to worsen the situation in every possible way:
Where did it all go wrong?
The photograph which sparked this incident looks for all the world like exactly the kind of happy family image any shopping centre would be thrilled to see associated with its name.
It is – or at least should be – a positive by-product of a world where there’s a camera in every pocket, a publishing platform on every mobile phone and 800 million souls with a penchant for sharing their lives publicly.
So how come when Chris White, 45, caught this happy snap of his daughter he unwittingly set in motion a personal ordeal, a public campaign - and a PR disaster?
First he was detained by security staff and made to feel like a pervert. Next he was questioned by police and made to feel like a terrorist. Thirdly he was interviewed by traditional media and portrayed as a victim. Now he is being championed by social media and becoming a cause celebre.
Blocking isn’t the answer.
This all starts with Braehead’s blanket ban on photography: a red flag if ever one was needed that this is an organisation failing to grasp the modern, connected and untethered world.
Photography does not belong to terrorists and paedophiles.
Even the most basic, dumb, feature phones come with powerful cameras which allow virtually anyone to take pictures virtually anywhere. And people do.
So Braehead’s ‘no photography’ policy ends up being exposed for exactly what it is. A heavy-handed, over officious exercise in what the Americans call CYA – cover your ass.
In its statement Braehead claims to use ‘discretion’ when dealing with photography.
So how does that square with a blanket ban?
It doesn’t. In fact, a blanket policy banning photography means the starting point in Braehead is that ALL photography is dodgy.
Understandably then that security staff end up confused and behaving in such an overbearing way.
From a PR perspective the Braehead shopping centre also poured petrol on the flames when its staff started deleting angry Facebook comments from customers.
This isn’t just blocking – it is an exercise in hamfisted censorship which shows an utter lack of transparency and a contempt for customers.
In the past three years there have been dozens of examples of brands making such ill-advised attempts at ‘moderation’ only to end up with their reputation in flames.
I don’t know if the centre management had bad advice from their PR people – or simply rode roughshod over good advice.
Either way it was a catastrophic PR fail.
Shopping is intrinsically a social past time.
Braehead’s photography ban seems even more ludicrous in light of this.
Fashionistas are urged to try on clothes then send photos to each other for opinions.
Brands on Facebook urge customers to share images of their latest purchases.
Smartphone scanners encourage shoppers to snap product barcodes to compare prices online.
Location services like Foursquare encourage shoppers to ‘check in’ at their favourite outlets to earn rewards (and yes, to upload pictures).
Beyond the marketing, there are simple, shared human moments.
One of the most popular shops in Braehead is its Apple store. The iPhones, iPod touches and iPads flying off its shelves are built to let people share photographs anywhere, anytime, just like the image of wee Hazel White grinning over a spoonful of shopping centre ice-cream.
How is it possible that a centre dedicated to promoting around 100 retail brands could so singularly fail to grasp this is now the era of the social shopper?
A Social customer is a vocal customer
While being questioned by police and security staff, Chris White insists he made it clear his photographs had already been uploaded to Facebook.
Whether he did or did not may be disputed by those other parties.
What is beyond doubt is that within hours Mr White had most definitely taken his complaints to Facebook, setting up a Boycott Braehead page.
No brand or business should have a gun put to their head just because a disgruntled customer can now take to social media.
However, there is a fine line to be walked. The simple reality is that customers most active on social media are more likely to be more vocal – and more influential.
This isn’t rocket science.
In every area of life we see examples of ‘Pareto’s Law’.
Simple reality is that you do have to treat the noisiest customers with a bit more care and attention.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that had this been handled with more care, understanding and tact, Chris White would actually be online commending the staff at Braehead.
Don’t turn a drama into a crisis.
I understand there are still people in PR getting to grips with social media: how fast it moves; how unpredictable it can be.
I understand it can seem terrifying; how unbiddable social media is; how it fails to follow the same rules of influence as the traditional media which used to be all we had to work with.
So I can still sympathise (to an extent) when PR people are caught out by social media. Like so many industries we are playing catch up.
However this story quickly made it into mainstream media – and at that point, with negative coverage both on and offline, it should have been moved onto a crisis footing. Immediately.
That should have meant:
- Acknowledging the public disquiet (we hear your comments which are overwhelming negative – so we’re taking a look at all our policies and procedures)
- Apologising to Mr White (we’re sorry that in this instance our efforts to safeguard children resulted in distress being caused to father and daughter)
- Moving on positively (we are going to work with police and child protection specialists to work out better ways of doing things)
Instead Braehead issued one of the worst responses to an incident I can recall. It manages to be patronising, badly written, contradictory and inflammatory all at once – giving the whole crisis fresh impetus and winding up more and more people.
As the old Legal & General adverts would’ve put it – Braehead managed to turn a minor drama into a full-blooded crisis.