The current Instagram furore is being touted as a PR disaster, with the company’s co-founder Kevin Systrom appearing to blame poor communications of the new Terms & Conditions for the resulting crisis.
However, I wonder quite what the involvement of public relations within the organisation was prior to the issue of the revised approach. Was PR involved in the discussion and decision making process? Indeed, does Instagram have an internal PR function – or a retained agency? Its online press centre is as vague as the wording around the controversial T&Cs – with zero information, including on the latest issue. Its Twitter account is one-way rather than engaging. Instagram’s statement intended to sooth public concerns is carried on its blog and promoted via Twitter (ironic given its recent spat there too).
This approach to communications is common with online and tech companies. Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook acquisition of Instagram via a post to his 16+ million subscribers. The direct route offers the benefit of complete control over the exact timing and wording of an announcement.
Missing out the traditional media gatekeeper may seem a great step forward – particularly for those in PR who tout their ability to control communications. But it misses a critical point – that others are going to talk about you, and there will still be interpretation particularly by influential people and a spread of information increasingly by new gatekeepers who react emotionally, instinctively and rapidly.
The ability to announce information direct to millions – or at least thousands – using ‘owned media’ reflects a marketing mindset. In contrast, public relations practitioners should understand that earning a positive response takes more than making a statement. Relationship building with the media and other influencers is an essential element of effective PR.
It isn’t just relationships with these intermediaries that are important. Employees and customers are both strategic stakeholders. There is a clear arrogance in the way that these groups of people are often addressed. Terms and conditions are changed with immediate effect – often within small print or a sense of arrogance that there is little that those affected can do about it.
Redundancies and restructures are routine with employees forced to accept whatever occurs. My brother recently went through a situation where large scale cuts were made with little consideration or care even of the legal requirements.
As customers, we’ve all experienced the hubris of companies. Banks, utility companies, mobile phone providers, train firms and airlines, numerous shops, professional services – and the public sector – are all guilty of such arrogance. They presume they have the power to do as they wish.
Social media combined with traditional media attention may be able to change the response of companies like Starbucks and Instagram. There are small people-powered victories.
But have any valuable public relations lessons been learned? I doubt it. Arrogance is not so easily tempered. Instead, resentment is likely to be the internal response with ways around a situation being sought. That means employing legal and other counsel whose advice seems to count much more than that of expert PR people.
I can only conclude that such arrogance is the enemy of public relations.