I have, on more than one occasion, used this blog to draw attention to what I consider to be unethical, sloppy and just plain boneheaded things PR firms do in the name of ‘client service’. Yet a recent incident involving a PR firm’s client pitch strategy caught my eye because, in fact, the PR firm handled the crisis expertly in my opinion. So well that one could argue the PR firm may be perceived more favorably by the client – and other prospective clients – than if the entire episode never took place.
Basically what happened is that a Canadian company working with Fleishman-Hillard Canada developed a pitch for its client Backcheck (which, as the name implies, conducts background checks), piggybacking on the “body parts killer” male porn star who stands accused of killing and dismembering in Canada. The gist of the pitch being that failure to perform tenant background checks could expose one to insane killers such as this one.
The pitch was in poor taste, no doubt about that. Piggybacking on topical news events is a tried and true approach for PR firms, and there is always, ideally, an understanding of what news should be off limits. If a heat wave knocks out power to thousands and your client has a technology to prevent blackouts, no problem. That’s an acceptable piggyback. If 15 people die in a horrific roller coaster accident and you represent the amusement park’s primary competitor then, well, a pitch in that case is not exactly kosher.
Needless to say, Fleishman-Hillard took some backlash. But in developing a response to the backlash, they did multiple things right in the apology letter:
1) Visible and quick apology letter – Fleishman didn’t bury the apology. They placed it front and center on the website.
2) Right level of CXO involvement – Too many apologies are issued by in-house marketing and communications staffers rather than a CXO. Apologies from that type of employee conveys spin rather than sincerity. Fleishman’s apology came from the President – an appropriate level given the situation to show they took it seriously.
3) Didn’t try and pass the buck – What many firms would have done is craft some BS that it wasn’t actually Fleishman-Hillard but a “firm they used for the outreach.” Fleishman didn’t pass the buck, instead taking full ownership for the mistake.
4) Demonstrate capabilities – The President’s letter did a fantastic job of connecting the need for crisis communications in this case to the crisis communications services they provide for clients. By handling it well the situation can, if needed, actually become a case study of how the firm turned a potential PR disaster into something that, at the time of this writing, was somewhat mitigated.
Evidence that Fleishman-Hillard got it right can be found in the comments by the president and CEO of BackCheck to the Ottawa Citizen. It is certainly not without precedent that clients fearing backlash would abandon ship on the PR firm. But here, BackCheck acknowledged that while the approach was flawed, the message was sound, almost as if to say you might not like the tactic, but at least it shows how serious background checks can be.
There may be more to this story going forward, but at this point Fleishman earns top marks for handling a crisis situation.