Drawing a long bow

Published on Tuesday, August 24th, 2021 by julian

Lighthouse Communications > News + Views > Drawing a long bow

PR people have a job to do, which mostly involves promoting your employer or client’s good news and mitigating the bad. Sometimes promoting the good news is easy – a flashy new product, a lucrative contract win or an impressive new CEO are usually stories that don’t need much of a sell-in to media.

But then there are other times you have something to sell, but it’s going to take effort and a bit of creativity to get journalists interested. Such was the case earlier this year when Nestlé Australia tried to promote its Nespresso products to the media, and ended up being called out for it by Australian Financial Review journalist Aaron Patrick.

The strategy Nestlé came up with looks clear – linking the Nespresso product range with one of the big themes of our COVID-afflicted times, namely employees enjoying working from home and businesses’ problem of how to get them back in the office.

As Patrick puts it: “In an act brazen even by the standards of product-pushing public relations, Nestlé’s Australian business, Nespresso Oceania, hired a psychologist and commissioned a survey to find the solution. The result is an 18-slide presentation for journalists this week, containing 21 graphics or charts musing and musings about the future of work from a Nestle executive. They reach the self-serving conclusion that the answer is an office coffee machine”.

Here we see what may have looked like a good idea around the Nestle PR table meeting the cynical eye of a seasoned journalist, and the results aren’t pretty. Wading in to some more commentary on the claims, which he refers to as BS, Patrick continued: “The exercise is an example of how companies generate media coverage by combining semi-interesting market information with pseudo-philosophical business commentary,” adding that FMCG companies in particular specialise in this practice.

From a PR perspective, there’s a thin line here. Getting media coverage for clients can involve mixing data with wider thoughts around the topic or industry, but it’s the link between the two, and the nuance of the client-specific messaging, that shapes how the package as a whole feels to journalists, and if there’s enough in there for them to cover the story in the way you want them to.

A common mistake in this space is to make claims that seem to go against prevailing opinion or even reality itself, which is exactly what Patrick picks Nestlé up on. The company executive quoted in the PR materials states that: “I believe the future of work will need to be flexible, consciously designed, socially engaged and infused with memorable moments facilitated by a workplace that feels like an extension of home”.

Patrick then takes great delight in skewering this, writing that “few people want work to be like home”. Specifically, “a defining characteristic of the office, a place where people are forced to spend time with people they would never choose to, is that it is not home”. Following a dive into the survey results, he points out that Nestlé exaggerates too much by suggesting that the social life of the office is where the real work gets done. “Most office work gets done at desks,” Patrick concludes, “and it is wishful thinking to suggest otherwise.”

So what can PR people and clients learn from articles like this? First, while Nestlé were utilising a tried and trusted PR strategy, they went too far. To a journalist, the commentary provided by the company looks too self-serving and too convenient. They say that to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail, and Patrick essentially suggests that to a coffee company, the seemingly complex solution to enticing people back into offices looks like a coffee machine.

Problem is, that’s too long a bow to draw, too unlikely and not convincing enough for a journalist who won’t take it at face value. It’s a classic case of trying too hard.

Second, while clients love to see their PR companies put creative ideas out there, not everyone sees the world the same way you do. Most company employees, especially senior ones, believe their companies can do no wrong, so why wouldn’t journalists write nice things about you? The next problem is that it’s never black or white. Decent companies acting responsibly while making money will get good coverage, but pushing the boat out too far and making tenuous claims leaves you open for blowback, which any journalist can give to any company.

Third, journalists have their own credibility to think about. In the constant battle for stories and scoops at top tier media, they can’t be seen to be towing the company line, or just repeating what’s in the press release. If they are doing their job properly, they’ll often be adding or subtracting from the PR messaging in some way. For PR professionals, educating your client or execs on this process is a key part of the job, to help them understand that journalists are not just paid to write what you tell them.

As an example, in the timeframe around the Nestlé story, Patrick also wrote about a Federal byelection, ideological divisions in the Liberal Party, Victorian payroll tax and mental health, the same state’s public sector spending, and big tech’s position on climate change, among other topics. Look at that list and you can see why a coffee machine story containing some self-interested woolly thinking runs a risk of public criticism.

Finally, PR people have to sometimes take the wins where they can get them. While Patrick’s article may have made for some uncomfortable reading for Nestlé’s PR team, he did say: “Nespresso coffee is probably delicious”. Job done?


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