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3 May 2014

Bad Publicity

Tag(s): Marketing
This week the famous, now notorious publicist Max Clifford was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for various sexual offences against teenage girls and young women. In my book The 20 Ps of Marketing I refer to Mr Clifford in the context of bad publicity.

 “It is often said that there is no such thing as bad Publicity but this is palpably untrue. Publicists such as Max Clifford earn a great deal of their fees from prominent celebrities anxious to keep the wrong kind of stories out of the press. In the recent past Tiger Woods, arguably the world most famous sporting celebrity, has been hounded out of the game of golf for a period when lurid tales of his private life became Public. Several of his major sponsors were forced to drop him as spokesman for their brands.

 Products that have suffered badly from adverse Publicity have included Perrier.  Perrier's reputation for purity suffered a blow in 1990 when a North Carolina lab found benzene in several bottles. Perrier shifted from explanation to explanation on the issue, finally stating that it was an isolated incident of a worker having made a mistake in the filtering procedure and that the spring itself was unpolluted. The incident ultimately led to the recall of 160 million bottles of Perrier and arguably it has never fully recovered its exclusive cachet since. By contrast the recall of a drug called Tylenol was much better handled. Tylenol is a North American brand of drugs for relieving pain, reducing fever, and relieving the symptoms of allergies, cold, cough, and flu. On 29 September, 1982, a Tylenol scare began when the first of seven individuals died in Chicago after taking Extra Strength Tylenol that had been deliberately contaminated with cyanide. The crime was never solved and Tylenol sales temporarily collapsed, but the brand was rebuilt and recovered in a few years. The brand was rescued with the invention of the first inherently tamper-proof capsule, recapturing 92% of capsule segment sales lost after the cyanide incident. The scare led to the introduction of tamper-evident Packaging across the over-the-counter drug industry.

I was involved in a major Product recall at Sony. Soon after I joined the company I became aware of a fault in a German-sourced switch used in some of our TVs. On occasion this switch would ignite and could cause a domestic fire. Obviously the company took this very seriously but had only instituted what it called a “soft recall” i.e. as each incident was reported a service engineer would visit the home and talk with the owner and arrange for a replacement set. If the Product was returned for any other service then the part would be replaced. I insisted on a full Public recall with national press ads listing the set numbers of the affected models. This was well supported by the trade who got behind the recall and swapped over the part on all the sets for which they had full records. This way we were able to limit the sets at risk by a substantial margin. The reaction to the recall was entirely Positive as the Public said that was what they expected a company like Sony to do. Arguably the reputation of the brand was enhanced by this experience.

 Bad Publicity about Products does not always stem from quality problems or criminal tampering. Sometimes it can come from the adverse reaction of the Public to the make-up of the Product. In the mid-1980s there was a great deal of negative Publicity about the use of E numbers in food Products particularly those eaten by children. Some ingredients such as flavouring or colourings were associated with bad reactions by some children. Even bad behaviour was attributed to the presence of E numbers such as tartrazine, a synthetic yellow food colouring. This was ironic to us food manufacturers, I was then working for Pillsbury responsible for its Greens of Brighton cake mix business, as E numbers were a classification by the European Community of food additives that were allowed in food preparation because they were adjudged to be safe! Some E numbers were allocated to natural ingredients and others to vitamins. e.g. Vitamin C (E300) or lycopene (E160d), the colour in tomatoes. To have a diet without any components that have an E number is basically impossible. A food manufacturer was obliged to list all the ingredients in his Product in order of the presence by weight. He could choose between using an E number or using the full technical term. This became a difficult choice as the technical term might be an impenetrable chemical expression while all E numbers were associated with bad and artificial things by the Public. Some manufacturers resorted to making claims that their Products were "Free of E numbers" but this referred mainly to the lack of additives, not to the absence of components with an E number.

At Pillsbury we tried to reduce the number of E numbers but some of these were fundamental to the safety or acceptance of the Product. All the Public Relations we tried had very little effect on Public opinion. I went on television and gave a robust defence of the practice of using E numbers but it had little effect. As today with its ignorant misunderstanding of scientific advances like Genetically Modified foods the Public’s lack of scientific sophistication caused long term damage to the industry. The customer is always right.

 On this occasion the government at the European level had tried to help the Public make better informed choices but the practice had been misunderstood. On other occasions governments seek to interfere with established business practice. In the late 1970s the then Labour Government sought to introduce some particularly ill-conceived piece of legislation which would have had the effect of putting up manufacturers’ costs without any obvious benefit to the Public. I was assigned to a working party to represent Mars’ interests in the UK. After a full review of the issue, with all of us agreed that this was a stupid piece of legislation that would have no positive outcome, one very senior Marketer from the confectionery side of the business, Paul Curtis, joked in exasperation, “Well, can we at least get a change of Government?" A few months later the Callaghan government fell and the legislation never hit the books!”

This extract is taken from Chapter 8 on Publicity (Public Relations). If you haven’t yet bought the book there is a direct link to the publisher Kogan Page on the home page of this website.

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

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