When people power means chaos

We say that PR is a people business, which I feel is about giving a human face, or a personality, to organisations as part of managing relationships, reputation and risk.

So I’ve been interested in how more and more services are becoming automated. I’m a big fan of being able to book flights and undertake online check-in as this not only saves time, but money too (especially with Ryanair who charge more for using the check-in desk and taking luggage).  In the case of the low cost airlines, efficiency enhances their reputation.

Similarly, as my father is currently in hospital in France, we booked my mother into an Etap hotel, again online.  Going a step further however, is the fact that reception is entirely automated (with access controlled by your credit card) producing a six-digit number to access your pod-like room. All perfectly functional and an excellent price – although impersonal.

In contrast, McDonalds now expects me to make my own cup of coffee as the many starred staff simply give you a cup and direct you to a machine.  It may save them money with fewer staff required – but the cost to me is the same.  We’ve become used to fast food meaning no waitresses.  Is the next step total automation?

I found this also to be the case at French filling stations where there were no people in evidence; but prices aren’t reduced either.  Ditto at the motorway toll booths.  I don’t mind do it yourself, but why should the organisation save money for my effort, without passing any of the cost advantages my way?

Also, if there are no people present when we interface with a brand, its entire reputation comes down to how well (or otherwise) the technology works.  Maybe that is more controllable than a changeable, low-cost workforce, but can PR and marketing professionals evoke emotional connections when all interaction is reduced to a commercial transaction?

Having said that, I had an experience on the way back to my flight from Gerona yesterday, which showed how people create chaos. Suddenly on the A9 motorway at Perpignan, cars were re-directed.  No information or alternative route was provided.

Fortunately, I knew the back-road, but it was of course, already backing up as time ticked away eating up the 90 minutes allowance that I’d calculated for a comfortable journey.

As I discovered when I ran to the queue to board my flight with minutes to spare, around 100 French taxi drivers had blocked the Spanish border.  They are protesting apparently at government plans to liberalise the sector.  Whose reputation is harmed here?  Certainly, it doesn’t help the French government create an image of modern efficiency.

Hundreds of trucks were affected by the resulting chaos – impacting on businesses throughout Europe.  I was lucky that by checking in online and also organising a quick drop off for my hire car, I made the flight by the skin of my teeth.

What wouldn’t I have given though for an automatic solution to my travel plans – beam me up Scotty?

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

3 thoughts on “When people power means chaos”

  1. Heather, I think the more automated our services become, the greater demand there will be for organisations to provide the personal touch.
    I hope your father is comfortable and I send you and your mother my very best wishes.

  2. Ellee – thanks. I had to fly to Toulouse with British Airways at the weekend. I could have had a two-week holiday somewhere exotic for the cost of two return flights, and frankly, the lack of personal touch was appalling. At least with Ryanair (at 49p plus taxes), there is the option of buying a sandwich, where a £300+ ticket in economy with BA offered up a bag of nuts and a mini-tin of Diet Coke.

    The real secret of successful businesses will undoubtedly involve value and matching service to price. If you charge premium pricing, you’d better deliver accordingly.

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