In the realm of new tech, company services are increasingly open to consumer scrutinyNearly everyone reading this column will frequently have a conversation with someone outside the PR industry that involves an attempt to explain what PR is.
It's just as hard for those who write about it as it is for those who do it.
But since "Inside the Mix" debuted, and I can say that I write about marketing, it turns out everyone's a critic. People ask questions about PR, but give opinions on marketing. And when these non-industry people opine about marketing, the topic normally falls into two areas: TV advertising and brands in general (the Aflac duck, Super Bowl ads, GM's employee-discount initiative), and customer service.
It's this subject that elicits the most passion, and it surprises me how frequently and quickly the conversation goes from me saying, "I write about marketing," to people complaining about a company's customer service. People outside the marketing industry truly do seem to equate a company's customer service with the brand as a whole, and when such people talk about a company's customer-facing operations being at odds with its image, they often describe marketing activity (including brand-focused PR) to illustrate the point.
A couple of weeks ago, a small meme in the blogosphere and on PR listservs was a short video, captured via a video-equipped mobile phone, belonging to PR blogger and owner of one-man shop The Geek Factory Peter Shankman. It showed a customer "putting the smack down" on a Chase bank teller, in the words of Gawker.com.
What was interesting about the incident was that, while the surrounding commentary was along the lines of "how shocking! I can't believe you caught this on camera! Ooh boy, I sure feel sorry for Chase right now," the clerk didn't seem to be acting overly rudely. The overheated customer was the one doing the shouting, waving sheaves of paper around as threateningly as it is possible to be while armed only with sheaves of paper, while the clerk was simply saying sternly, "Do not talk to me like that." Since when did "the customer is always right," turn into "the customer is always right, even when they attack you"? Another employee stepping in to see to the unhappy customer was calm and conciliatory, despite the customer's shouting.
What the commentary showed was that the newness of catching an incident on camera transcended what actually took place - even to the marketing pros that commented. Because the altercation occurred on business premises, the assumption instantly was that Chase was wrong, and it had better watch out in the future.
And that's the lesson. What it does show us, no matter who was in the right, is that cameras are with us now, all the time, permanently, unavoidably. The tragedy of the London bombings showed us that, with not only still photos from camera phones, but video too giving citizen journalism ownership of a shocking story that the mainstream media only got secondhand.
And perhaps the salient point that emerged during the discussions about the Chase video is that customer-facing employees will need to be trained to act as if their every customer interaction is being filmed. While the appeal of the 30-second TV ad is under scrutiny, don't underestimate quite how much a grainy, 15-second anti-ad can undermine a brand's best intentions.