Virtual reality is one of the most talked about new technologies at the moment, and another popular news topic of late has been the devastation in countries such as Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. These might seem like two very different topics to bring up in one sentence, but the combination did come up recently when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg decided to take viewers on an Oculus VR journey through the damage in Puerto Rico to show what Oculus VR can do.
While the intention was to drive empathy with the victims among Facebook’s audience as Zuckerberg discussed what his company is doing to help the island, the approach missed the mark. The cartoon VR version of Mark Zuckerberg juxtaposed against the backdrop of the disaster in Puerto Rico left many wondering who thought that the stream would be a good idea.
Zuckerberg responded to the negativity, saying:
"One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what's happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realise this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended."
So why wasn’t it clear? Surely someone in the Facebook team raised the possibility this might happen, given it’s so obvious to an outsider?
This VR blunder isn’t the only brand mistake of late, with Dove also in the spotlight after being accused of racism and having to pull one of its latest advertisements. The Facebook ad in question showed a black woman removing a brown T-shirt, changing her to a white woman in a white T-shirt underneath. The white woman then removed her white T-shirt to reveal an Asian woman.
The ad is only three-seconds long, but created an outcry over the interpreted message that Dove’s soap turns black skin white, despite Dove’s intention of celebrating diversity and showing that the body wash is suitable for every kind of woman.
Again – to us outsiders, it seems like an obvious error, but as you’ll also know from working in marketing or PR, certain factors can cloud our judgement or push things over the line that not everyone agrees on. Whether it’s egos, fussy clients, money or another circumstance causing these issues, there are steps you can take to help prevent falling into Zuckerberg or Dove’s shoes.
- Are you ambulance-chasing? Don’t: You may have come across the term ‘ambulance chasing’ before, which in PR refers to hooking your story onto the back of a tragic news item, like you might do in any other issues hijacking scenario. However, in most scenarios, this will never go well. Even with the best intentions, most people will be sceptical about what you really want from it, and will see through your tactics and realise you’re trying to boost awareness or sales at your company
- Don’t take the easy route: In planning a stunt or campaign, do yourself and your company a favour by taking your time to be thorough. If you set an ambitious deadline, you may lose your attention to detail as a result, meaning you could forget to consider consequences or could end up with a Trivial Pursuit-esque Hugh Jackilometrean situation.
- Get out of the echo chamber: With any campaign or big PR idea, it’s good to draw opinions from a wide group of people. Whether they’re internal or external, get a mix of age groups, genders, departments, ethnicities, nationalities – as many as you can, to feedback on your campaign idea and suggest what might go wrong. When working day-in and day-out with the same team, your ideas may start to stagnate or you may all start to agree on the same things. If you can, drawing opinions from a wider, diverse group will help you spot mistakes or problems before you hit ‘go’ on your idea.
- Localise your campaigns: If you’re an international company, listening to what’s happening on the ground in each country and considering cultural references – whether through your own research or via your PR agency – is very important. What is okay and inoffensive in one country will be different in another, so don’t assume you can blanket your campaign across various regions with the same intended effect. A case example is Australia’s “where the bloody hell are you?” ad campaign from 2006, which was banned from British television after the slogan was deemed ‘too risque’. While some may consider this great PR for the extra attention it caused to the campaign, taking risks like this can backfire badly – proceed with caution.
- Check the news before launch: Sometimes, with the hope of being organised, marketing and PR campaigns are scheduled into automated systems ahead of time. However, it’s important that you keep an eye on the news if you’re going to do so, in case of any breaking news that comes out immediately before or during your scheduled campaign in case it now makes your brand appear insensitive. It can be as simple as a single tweet, with clothing brand Dorothy Perkins finding this out the hard way following the EU referendum result when their scheduled #FridayFeeling tweet didn’t strike the right chord with its audience. While it might sound obvious, also consider what news your company or client is sending out on the day of your campaign too. British Gas came into trouble in 2013 when it scheduled a feedback Twitter Q&A on the same day as it increasedg y bills by 10%, predictably steering the conversation one-way.
- Plan for the worst: Finally, even when you take all of these steps, it’s important to be prepared for anything. We do recommend that every company has at least a basic crisis communications plan in place, but be sure to criticise your own campaign and imagine the possible backlash that could come, and prepare your skeleton crisis responses in advance. A crisis will need to be dealt with quickly, but also on a case-by-case basis. While you can’t predict anything, a template and a clear plan for how to manage it will help in spades.
No team can be perfect planners all of the time – even at tech giants like Facebook, but considering this checklist during your marketing or PR campaign planning can help you be braced for anything. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all – and you’ll make your job easier by expecting the worst.