Typhoo Tea and the boundaries of PR

The ethics police don't grubby themselves with the FMCG part of the PR spectrum that often.

T-gate: Storm in a teacup over alleged paid advocates
T-gate: Storm in a teacup over alleged paid advocates

While public affairs and financial PR are often in the spotlight, I think there’s probably a general, if mistaken, assumption that once you get to those of us promoting food and drink products at the sharp end of marketing, anything goes as long as we get the results.

Backhanders, misrepresentation, economy with the truth – par for the course, no?

Well, no. Indeed, the fact that this is so far from the day-to-day experience of the real PR world is highlighted by the reaction to the alleged use of paid-for advocates posing as consumers to lobby Sainsbury’s stores into bringing back Typhoo where it has been delisted.

Ingenious if true, perhaps. But it's a step too far.

Encouraging real consumers to complain to store managers, write to retailers’ HQs and generally make a nuisance of themselves when their favourite brand disappears is standard practice.

It is part of the PR armoury to demonstrate that the brand is loved and wanted and should be restored to the shelf immediately, whatever the retailer thinks and the sales show.

Harnessing genuine word of mouth for a client or brand's benefit has been part of PR since it began, but paying people to mimic these actions, if this is what happened, is just dishonest.

It’s as bad as the so-called "colour separation charges" that dodgy b2b magazines charge to pass your content off as genuine editorial.

Or paying bloggers to write nice things about you that they present as their own opinions, without acknowledging that cash has changed hands.

Ultimately all of these are probably counterproductive anyway. The mag that charges for editorial destroys its own credibility.

Likewise the greedy blogger. The brand that buys its way back on to the shelf is likely to have paid a high price to be able to demonstrate its unpopularity for a second time.

So maybe T-gate (is it too soon?) has done us a favour with a reminder that even PR, even today, has boundaries.


Rob Metcalfe is MD of Richmond Towers

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