When Customers Fight Back – With Promoted Tweets!

As every PR or reputation expert knows, social media cuts both ways. It can be a critical outlet for real-time promotion and customer relations and a useful branding tool. It can also be a megaphone for unhappy consumers. Any brand who puts itself out there needs to be ready.

Earlier this week, a businessman named Hasan Syed raised the bar for disgruntled customers everywhere. When British Airways lost his father’s luggage and wasn’t sufficiently responsive to the problem, Syed invested $1000 in promoted Tweets to rail against the airline publicly. For those unfamiliar with Twitter’s self-serve ad platform, suffice to say that $1000 can go a long way if you know what you’re doing.

Things really took off when Syed’s tweets caught the attention of a savvy JetBlue marketing executive who was clearly monitoring the competition. Syed then promoted the JetBlue retweet, and his campaign gained more altitude. The angry tweets were seen by more than 50,000 Twitter users in the markets targeted, the UK and New York. The mainstream media, from Mashable to Fox, quickly escalated the story.

British Airways, meanwhile, did post an apology and tried to move the conversation offline, although it may have been too little, too late.

This first known example of customer “complainvertising,” as one agency dubbed it, is an interesting precedent. I’m not sure how many customers would be willing to spend so freely out of pure frustration when normal channels might suffice, but it only takes one.

Pundits already see the potential for disgusted customers with deep pockets to take on large brand, – or, more likely, for businesses to use promoted Tweets to hijack the Twitter streams of competitors. It puts pressure on Twitter to police any kind of trolling more strictly. Yet, more interesting to PRs,  it also offers more brands a way to seize opportunities for real-time marketing, like the creative Twitter observer who suggested that BA archrival @VirginAtlantic buy Syed’s father a new suitcase and clothes. That didn’t happen in this instance, but it would have fueled a whole new fleet of stories.

In any event, it’s a minor PR coup for JetBlue, and a huge red flag for businesses who aren’t prepared for the inevitable social media-fueled customer outrage if they won’t straighten up and fly right.

The "Science" of Spotting A Winning Startup

My first PR agency was founded in 1996. If that year doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re either young, or you’re not very interested in technology startups. 1996 was a fantastic year to start up just about anything, including a New York PR agency. The “dot-com” boom was roaring, there was far too much VC cash chasing after the next big thing, and simply putting your brand online was considered startlingly innovative.

Of course, when the meltdown came, it was ugly. But even before the great collapse of 2000, and during better economies since that time, PR agencies have been challenged with an embarrassment of options – multiple prospective clients, sometimes within the same flavor-of-the-month category. Depending on where you are in the economic cycle, the most important – and the toughest – decision we make can be which horse to back in the great race to a successful outcome.  And creative services professionals don’t always have the keenest judgment when it comes to evaluating clients.

That’s why it was fun to read  Jenna Wortham’s piece on the “freshman class” of technology startup companies and, even more interesting to PRs, a sidebar about how the New York Times decides which startups are most worthy of their time. As the piece was furiously tweeted around this week, it seemed to promise the breathless type of “ten tips”-style insights for PRs and others on how to position our clients to best advantage. Here’s how they do it! Wortham shares NYT secrets!

But the real point of the sidebar was more prosaic. Wortham and her colleagues do their research, of course, They look at the VCs attached to a given company, study data, and talk to entrepreneurs. But the bottom line is that determining the most worthy startups is often “a feeling based on experience. The app, game, service or idea that you have had your eye on starts to pop up all over — in casual conversations at parties or in a conversation overheard on the subway.”

Buzz. “It” factor. The breakthrough, leap forward, or tipping point. Bottom line, even professional journalists at one of the world’s most prestigious news outlets use a blend of experience and gut feeling. Similar to the ways that PR agencies evaluate prospective clients during fat times (and what we should do more of during lean ones.)

So, there’s no magic formula for deciding which startups are most mediaworthy, and perhaps even less so for those trying to gauge which might make the most exciting, lucrative, and successful client case study. By the time a given company get the attention of the Times or other outlets, chances are good that it’s been researched and vetted by others more expert in a given technology or vertical market.

But having some kind of stake in the game makes it fun, interesting and important. On the agency side, we keep trying, and some of us get better at it over time.

Perfecting The PR Pitch

For PR pros, one of the most important parts of the job is to tell our clients’ stories in a concise and engaging way. If this can be done effectively, and with long-term strategy in mind, we’re setting a solid foundation for success.

The role of a great pitch letter in storytelling should not be underestimated. Here are some do’s and don’ts for your next round of media outreach.

Personalize It. Yes, you should obviously refer to the person by name (i.e. Hi Julia, as opposed to Hi Reporter), but go a step beyond that! Mention something that lets the reporter know you’ve really done your research and have a good understanding of his or her audience. Consider referencing a relevant previous story or even a recent tweet.

Include Timely Tie-ins. Without a topical reference, your client’s story may be considered “evergreen,” and the person you’re pitching may just hold on to it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not ideal. In your pitch note, let the journalist know why it’s essential to have a conversation with your client now. For example, if your client’s product is a must-have for football season or if your client has time-sensitive advice for business owners, let the journalist know why there is a sense of immediacy around the conversation.

Don’t Fear Rejection. Journalists and bloggers are going to say no and pass on the opportunity to cover even the most compelling client story. Many just won’t respond to you at all. And that’s OK. Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back, review your outreach strategy, tweak your pitch and start again.

Judge a Book by its Cover (Note)? Don’t underestimate the power of a good subject line! It’s what people see first (and sometimes it’s the only thing they see). What’s written in your subject line is just as important, if not more important, than what’s in the pitch note itself.
Recently, when reaching out on behalf of a client who was interested in offering expert tips for students regarding their finances, a colleague had a lot of luck with the subject line: “More Beer Money for Incoming Freshman? Assess Your Assets as the Semester Starts!” – this intriguing line resulted in interview requests by humorously piquing journalists’ interest right off the bat.

Be Visual. If relevant to your pitch note, include low-res images and/or a link to a video. These days media is very visual, so let reporters know you have images/video to accompany a story. Video and images are helpful for the journalist and also your client – typically, more pictures + video = bigger story!

What are some of your pitch perfect PR tips?