Maker’s Mark and the Sobering Truth About PR’s Future

PR’s evolving role during potentially brand busting moments

The PR industry is facing the same crisis as the advertising industry—decades of reliance on old school, data-free focused tactics that drive strategy, messaging, and idea generation. A typical PR strategy session normally involves a senior team brainstorming about the preparation and delivery of a brand’s key messages, and creating a roster of media outlets to target with pitches to spread the word.

There’s little research and pre-planning for potentially negative backlash from a news announcement or when a messaging course correction is warranted, especially on the agency side. Key messages aren’t developed based on what resonates and engages with consumers or by uncovering what advantages a brand can gain in messaging against a competitor’s weaknesses. Going in, most PR firms know that risks are involved in potentially negative announcements, but they turn to senior executives at the brand they represent to be the ones that guide the process. An ill-prepared key message in response to an issue can be just as bad as not responding at all, as it can exacerbate brand erosion. A message that wasn’t researched by brand and delivered can also be detrimental for PR.

PR can offer so much more and can get ahead of message creation and brand position to avoid dissolving brand equity. The controversy surrounding Maker’s Mark decision to “water down” their brand is an example of where PR is heading in terms of its placement at the tail end of the communications process.  PR should be at the beginning as they are the closest to the consumer and audiences in the marketing organization – and not the ones to mop up a problem.

PR is at the forefront of consumer conversations about brands. Every message that marketers create is delivered first through PR, filtered through press and influencers, until it is finally consumed by the masses. Because PR is on the frontlines, they pay close attention to the reception by the masses, enabling them to provide an early warning if a marketing campaign is going sour or simply not resonating.

Traditionally, they have relied on anecdotal evidence, such as reading and forwarding the negative blog comments or Twitter posts they encounter to senior executives, however. At what point should a PR pro make the recommendation to pull the plug on an ongoing campaign though? How do they know when negativity is reaching critical mass? How do they know when the message isn’t being effective and generating attention from consumers?

The only thing stopping most PR firms and professionals from intelligently alerting a brand to a campaign going downhill is a lack of access to the right data and insights. Greater access to the real-time consumer data and insights helps PR identify when a campaign is failing or when it needs tweaking, enabling them to quickly make a recommendation about how to optimize a campaign.

SocialSense, Networked Insights’ marketing decision platform, gives a good illustration of how Maker’s Mark’s quick reaction to the negative backlash swayed the public opinion:

 

As the above screenshot from SocialSense illustrates, there is a tremendous spike in negative conversations on social media the day of Maker’s Mark’s announcement. From a PR standpoint (and based off of years working with brands to grab the spotlight) that’s a negative spike that is hard to recover from if you don’t act quickly and with the appropriate message.

Audience negativity festers, especially for brands that lack strong advocates on social media. Spirits brands are in luck because of the high number of passionate advocates on social media that spread the word about their favorite brand. The announcement by Maker’s Mark however, was a different case. Relying on brand advocates to come to the defense of the Maker’s brand didn’t work in this scenario because something was being taken away from their favorite brand. Something that lessened the product they were passionate about. The research wasn’t done before this message was put into market. In this instance, they could have evaluated what people are saying about spirits and what is important to consumers in the space and align messaging to the positive attributes not the negative.

As well, having real-time insights using the right data could have armed Maker’s PR team with evidence to present to senior leadership, justifying a PR campaign to counter the backlash. This could have been done way before Maker’s internal stakeholders got wind of the backlash and decided to reverse course.

In contrast, take a look at the following screenshot, which depicts the response to Maker’s Mark’s course reversal on watering down its product:

 

In just 6 days, Maker’s Mark was able to recover from their previous downward spiral with an equally big conversation spike that was fairly positive. The longer they had waited, the harder it would have been to achieve this. As well, 6 days is a great many days for a misconception to sit in the minds of consumers and result in slower sales for this time period. A slow reaction to an issue in media and consumers minds can hit a brand where it hurts – right in the pocket book.

I envision a future where data-driven techniques will transform PR from the mouthpieces of organizations to the voice that guides brands—before, during, and after—any major announcement as well as ongoing content that goes into market. The result: Less “wait and see” and more “know and do.”