Dorothy Crenshaw February 25, 2010 | 05:07:21

What We Can Learn From "Undercover Boss"

When I was 23 years old I worked for a PR entrepreneur who insisted we accompany the sales reps of a large client company on their customer calls at retail. He said it was the only way to learn how the company’s products got to market and to gain a real-world perspective on our PR planning.

What an education. My field experience was a permanent lesson in how even the most strategic marketing and PR programs can miss the mark if they’re developed in isolation.

That’s why I was interested in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” You know the one, about disconnected CEOs who get down with the workforce on the front lines. It also made me think about our business. Getting your hands dirty is not only valuable, it’s more necessary than ever.

It’s not a new idea, actually. HBR reports that more than forty years ago, legendary Avis Rent-a-Car CEO Robert Townsend insisted that each senior executive spend time every month behind a rental counter. Last year, Jeff Bezos spent a week working in an Amazon distribution center in Kentucky. Some enlightened companies even make every employee spend a week per year inside that Siberia of business functions, customer service.

But, customer service means something different today. In a small way, we’ve learned just how different by creating and managing a Facebook community for a major technology brand. Most of the inquiries we field have nothing directly to do with PR. Many aren’t related to positioning or brand attributes, of course. Lots come from outside the U.S. – not our purview. None of this is really our job.

Except that it is. And, in dealing directly with consumers and working closely with our client’s customer service team, we’ve learned enormously about how consumers perceive product quality. And how the quality of even the smallest interaction with the brand has an impact on its reputation.

Many have written about the growing intersection of PR, brand reputation, and customer service. As more customers post, tweet, blog, and shout their dissatisfaction on the social Web, the risks to brand reputation grow. And, with the disintermediation of the traditional press, PR and communications has a new set of rules.

So, whatever you think about reality TV, the “undercover” concept has real relevance to what we do. The customer experience is out there. It’s public, it’s dynamic, and it’s a growing part of brand reputation. As formerly behind-the-scenes strategists and communicators, we can’t hide behind the media any longer. Our cover’s been blown. We’ve been outed, too, and, like the White Castle CEO, we’d better put on another hat and learn the ropes.