Anyone working in the tech space (or who has a healthy interest in consumer technology) will know that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come and gone. Tech companies – as well as their marketing and PR teams – spent months planning for this event, perfecting speeches, product demos and more. However, that doesn’t mean things always go to plan.

Unfortunately for Faraday Future, company executives were left red-faced when the demo failed on stage. The Tesla competitor was introducing its self-driving car, the FF91, but when instructed to self-park on stage, the vehicle didn’t move an inch. Watch the video below, and you’ll no doubt be cringing hard.

These things happen – and actually most of the media scrutiny wasn’t about the failure on stage but about Faraday Future’s reaction. The company opted to play it down but this was perceived as sweeping the issue under the rug, rather than face the issue head on. The result? A backlash of coverage and social posts which attacked the brand.  So, what went wrong?

Don’t launch until you’re truly ready

Freakonomics aired an episode ‘Failure is your friend’ that covered the concept of “go fever”, the phenomena of how when a boss gets “go fever” it can be tough to focus on potential failures thanks to internal politics, momentum, and personal egos.

The most devastating example of “go fever” was the 1986 Challenger launch by NASA. In January 1986, engineers recommended the launch be postponed for the third time due to potential failures that may occur in the motors because of the cold air. But despite the clear risks NASA decided to proceed with the launch.

The space shuttle failed and broke apart a mere 73 seconds into its flight, taking down with it all seven crew members, including a civilian teacher – the tragedy scarred NASA’s reputation for years.

In planning for any kind of launch, do not ignore the warning signs, rather you should scope them out and resolve any issues early on. They won’t fix themselves. You also must test, test and test again so you can be confident in your product. Whether it’s a vehicle that is responsible for people’s safety or not, if your product doesn’t do what it says on the box your brand will be tarnished.

This can be easier said than done though, particularly when time and money pressures weigh in. So, how can this be done in a practical way?

Do the pre-mortem

Cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein, suggests what’s called a pre-mortem method. It involves team members coming together and writing down reasons your project might ultimately fail, and compiling a catalogue of these issues before they cause damage. Each person in the team is then asked to think of one thing they could do to help or fix these issues, which will (hopefully) minimise the chances of failure in the end. We referenced this technique in a previous post on dealing with uncertainty which includes more tips on planning.

When things still go wrong

The pre-mortem technique is an excellent way to plan ahead, but – of course – no amount of planning can prevent things out of your control from going wrong, and that’s why a crisis communications strategy is also critical. At the time of writing this piece, Faraday Future has yet to publicly acknowledge the error on their website or social feeds, despite the public’s demand for answers on the CES failure and the potential safety failures of the vehicle.

People will be critical when mistakes or a crisis occurs, and pretending it didn’t happen will only make it worse. If a crisis situation occurs you must immediately prepare statements, social media posts and responses to address the issue and reassure your potential customers and stakeholders of your brand’s integrity. It’s not uncommon to have templates for common possible issues ready for adaptation at any moment. For example, Uber may have template statements ready around sensitive topics like driver misconduct.

These crisis communications statements need to also appease your investors, if relevant. On-stage glitches don’t inspire confidence in your product, and you need to keep your financial backers (or potential investors) on side.

Stay true to your brand

Above all, it’s also important nowadays to ‘stick by your guns’ and stay true to your company values, rather than try to be something your company is not for the sake of a trend.

It can also be confusing for consumers if a well-known brand starts trying to be something it’s not, and another product making headlines at CES was L’Oreal’s smart hairbrush. Most people think make up, skincare or hair dye when thinking of L’Oreal, so this move into IoT is a little unprecedented and could have an impact on the brand depending how people interpret it. That said, it’s mainly been a positive reception so far, winning the International CES Innovation Award at the show.

Plan for failure

There is no such thing as being “over-prepared”, and doing so can be the difference between a successful launch or black mark on your company’s brand. While Nick Sampson and YT Jia moved on to YT Jia’s speech fairly quickly after the incident and did eventually demonstrate the self-park successfully, a quick search of the media shows some less than favourable headlines in national media, such as The Sun and Daily Mail, and plenty of other global sources. The best solution? Plan for failure, so you can avoid a Faraday Future.

As the song goes, “back to life, back to reality”.  August 2011 has been an eventful month and (social upheaval aside) repeated a long-time trend. For those working in PR and communications, August is rarely ever slow; more often than not, in our profession, August is often breathtakingly frantic. This is due to a number of factors: picking up the slack for colleagues on holiday; end of fiscal year planning cycles; pockets of unused budget being assigned to last-minute projects;  and proposals (that you submitted in the spring) finally getting sign-off for immediate implementation.

This is obviously a good thing for business, but the challenge for all communicators, whether you’re in-house or agency, is giving yourself enough thinking space to plan ahead for even busier periods. Because what’s ahead is autumn/winter, and if you work in the b2b or technology PR world, September marks the beginning of conference silly season.

For one client alone, Firefly is assisting with content for the Intel Developer Forum, IFA, Salon de la Photo and SMAU shows – a real, international event smorgasbord if there ever was one, with the events taking place in San Francisco, Berlin, Paris and Milan, respectively. And this is in addition to the big daddy of consumer technology events, CES, which rears its all-singing, all-dancing head in Vegas come January 2011.

It’s a given that content planning for major conferences should kick off months before opening day. But the need for smart planning even earlier in the process (e.g. six months of more) is becoming more critical because of dwindling attendance numbers coupled with a real need to prove event ROI. Furthermore, new UK bribery laws should get more PR teams thinking about whether old ways of drumming up journalist interest in their company’s products/services – including certain types of entertainment, freebies, etc. – are now outdated or even illegal.

Here are a few our quick tips for surviving conference silly season:

Before the event

At the event

 When it comes to conferences, planning is paramount. So get your whiteboard, dry-erase markers and excel spreadsheets fired up: it’s going to be a bumper-crop autumn.

I’ve already given a broad structure for a PR plan, and the following is the first of a series of tips about how to write your PR plan.

If you are agency-side, as simple as it may sound, your client contact will most likely send the PR plan on to other people in their organisation. Introduce it properly. Keep it short and sweet. It might be forwarded to the MD, FD or procurement team. Gracious words like “thank you for the opportunity” go a long way. Enthusiastic is good, smarmy is not.

Two warnings:

1. Spell the company’s and people’s names correctly, and double-check titles and addresses. If you’re lucky you might get 3 strikes. In tough times, and with bountiful choice in a buyer’s market, don’t even risk one chance of a strike.

2. Add colour, add relevant pictures, add diagrams, add tables and spreadsheets. Help the reader by beginning each section with clear subheads.

Ideally, the PR plan should show reflection and research. If an agency is not briefed thoroughly enough then I suggest you don’t guess or make assumptions – ask for clarification. Perhaps propose that you should undertake some more in-depth research before writing the PR plan.

Too often we pile into writing a PR plan without any clarity and insight on the above basic points. Push and question to get clarity and, if confusion reigns, politely propose that more guidance would really help.

Inspired by the  ‘s**t my Dad says’ twitter feed, I’m motivated to write about the basic principles of great planning. I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about planning. I’ve jumped up at many a white board and flip chart to create the ‘planning vs. activity’ conundrum for numerous colleagues and clients over the years, in order to emphasise the point about the importance of planning.

This is a crude test, but in principle, what is the best approach – A, B or C?

A is tempting with a bit of thinking and lots of doing! It’s all about is being really busy, but are you absolutely sure you’re doing the right things? This is classically when the plan says something vague but the team take off in their own directions. See  this clip. You get my point.

B is balanced – equal thinking and doing. But the plan and the team efforts may not work together and may even conflict. There’s not enough pull back to the plan and goals, or a focus on what absolutely needs to be achieved.

The right answer is C. You should spend more time thinking and planning than doing. If you only do what you absolutely know will be successful, then you are guaranteed to achieve your goal – and you’ll spend less time doing all those irrelevant things. You might even get to go home on time!

I will blog a series of how to put together a great PR plan, with lots of hints and tips. Below is what I would consider to a basic structure of a PR or comms plan and I’ll give more detail on how to build out each section over the coming weeks.

Broadly speaking (and in an agency), a director should set the strategy and an account director should spend their time putting together insightful detailed plans (and not executing the plan). An account manager is responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the plan and account executives are responsible, along with the account manager and the rest of the team, for delivering the plan.

A basic PR plan structure should be along these lines:


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