Northern Ireland: Better off Pink?

Have you got one on order yet?
Have you got one on order yet?

I’m really looking forward to the Giro d’Italia coming to Northern Ireland in May.

It’s a brilliant coup to have secured the start of the race and it will be fun to learn a bit more about such an exciting and spectacular sport.

We’ve had great success lately in attracting big events: last year there was the G8 Summit, the World Police and Fire Games and the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry. This is an area where our politicians have excelled: getting behind proposals to bring visitors here, working together effectively, and using their networks to get results. We should applaud them for this. They do work hard at it and they do get results.

This performance is reflected in the latest tourism figures, which were published last week. They reveal that Programme for Government targets of 4.2 million visitors and £676 million tourist expenditure which were set for December 2014, have been met by September 2013.


It’s not very often that government targets are met, so this is cause for celebration. However delve a little deeper and there are a few more worrying statistics in the report. For example the number of overseas visitors who came on holiday, as opposed to being on business or visiting relatives and friends, actually fell during the action-packed year. The biggest factor in the rise is actually people from Northern Ireland holidaying here. So if, for example you live in Coleraine and spend a night in Belfast, you are categorised as a tourist, whether you think you are or not, and you will find yourself included in the figures. That’s fine with me – if you are staying in a hotel and eating out then your money is just as welcome as someone from Germany, Sweden or Italy.

But the lack of growth in overseas visitors is a concern and that is presumably why the Tourist Board, politicians and others are putting such efforts into making the Giro a success.

So we are being encouraged to deck out our homes, shops, restaurants in pink, which is the race colour. There is pressure on politicians who will be competing for local government and European seats during the time of the race to remove their posters from lampposts and Belfast City Council wants more than £200,000 so that empty and derelict premises passed by the riders look like thriving shops.

You get the picture. We all dress in pink for a couple of days, eat pink themed meals in pink bars, pretend there’s no political action going on, and paint over the dereliction and decay that is blighting our towns and cities.

The watching millions will be charmed by the wild beauty of the Antrim coast, they will warm to the quaintness of our streets and to a people who have taken the race to their hearts. Many may conclude that Northern Ireland is misrepresented and misunderstood and will decide to visit.

I wish the powers that be good luck with this: I hope it works. We need the money and tourism is vital to our future prosperity.

However:  a little advice. One of the biggest challenges for the PR industry is not so much coming up with ideas that make people look good, but matching the image you are creating firmly in reality. Get that wrong and the whole exercise can backfire to such an extent that you end up causing damage instead of boosting your reputation.

This has certainly been our experience here: yes great things happened last year. But there was rioting during the Police and Fire Games, and widespread disorder throughout the year which culminated in Northern Ireland featuring on Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. So let’s not be delusional about this. There’s a reason why people don’t come here on holiday and taking down posters of Anna Lo, Diane Dodds, Alex Attwood and Martina Anderson is not going to alter that, and is when you think about it, insulting to all those good people. As if anyone watching in Italy would decide, after all, not to come here when they discover what the SDLP candidate for the European elections looks like!

No the reality is that disorder and instability are symptoms of a lack of political progress. And tourism will only take off when that is addressed.

I’ve no problem whatsoever in the authorities pretending that everything is just terrific here – and I’ve got my pink shirt all washed and ironed already.  I just wish they would put in just a bit more work to actually make it so.


Asda’s Black Friday – The Great PR Disaster

Asda’s “Black Friday” debacle in Northern Ireland was such a comprehensive PR disaster that it is worthy of further analysis – if only because it is remarkable how often large, well-resourced businesses display such a lack of understanding of how to deal with crises.

It appears to demonstrate a level of incompetence in media relations which, on the face of it appears incomprehensible.

To briefly reprise: the company decided to replicate the American tradition of creating a “Black Friday” shopping spree by widely advertising a range of goods that would be on sale at their stores at massively discounted prices from 8 am last Friday morning.

The campaign was backed by a significant advertising campaign and PR push. The objective was to create a shopping frenzy to stimulate pre-Christmas sales.

The day before the sale PR people representing Asda lobbied Wendy Austin’s flagship BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback Show to be given airtime to promote the sale.

Promotional activity was effective in so far as crowds were beginning to gather outside stores across Northern Ireland in the early hours of Friday morning.

But when the “sale” began it immediately became clear that there were very limited numbers of goods on offer, and in some stores at least some goods advertised were not available at all.

The result was predictable: as it became clear that hundreds of shoppers had queued for hours and were about to be disappointed angry scenes developed. In the West Belfast outlet this descended into chaos, with one woman who had queued from midnight, suffering a broken arm in the fracas. Shoppers in several stores reported that there was no security and that management did not make themselves available to deal with complaints.

Within minutes the story was breaking across social media and making headlines in the regional press. The BBC went big onit, with Talkback devoting half an hour to the issue. Wendy Austin pointed out that although Asda had been very keen to talk about Black Friday the previous day, they were refusing to go on the airwaves to talk about the carnage. Thirty minutes of extremely damaging publicity resulted, with some callers stating they would never shop at Asda again. A statement was read out from the company which characterised the sale as a success.  “This is the first time Black Friday has been done on this scale in stores across the UK and our customers were eager to take advantage of the great offers available to them…”

It struck entirely the wrong note. Meanwhile Asda itself which was tweeting merrily about Black Friday the day before was getting traduced both on traditional and social media across the UK. It was a classic disaster. There was even talk of potential prosecution for the company for allegedly advertising goods which were not on sale.

So what went wrong, and why and what should the company learn from this?

First, when you are planning a major event you have to do a thorough risk analysis and put in place communications strategies should things go wrong. So were adequate numbers of goods despatched to Northern Ireland stores? What was the company going to do and say if this turned out not to be the case or if some goods were missing? What measures were taken to ensure good order amongst shoppers and preventing a frenzy if large crowds turned out?

And if things did go wrong what was the company going to say, and how fast could it get its message out? Big retailers have large customer bases and the widespread use of social media means that negative feedback can reach many thousands in seconds and reputations can suffer huge damage unless companies are in a position to respond quickly.

All of what happened was easily foreseeable and yet it does not appear to have been prepared for.

And that’s before we get on to the issue of who was going to deal with any potential negative comments. The company had prepared someone to go on radio to promote the event, but could not respond when asked to put someone up to explain what went wrong. That is a cardinal sin. Every organisation should have people trained to deal with crisis communications. When something bad happens you cannot tolerate a situation where executives are all hiding under their desks, waiting for the storm to pass. The public know when this is happening: it just makes a bad situation so much worse.

There is, of course, another potential explanation for the affair. Given experiences in the USA it was highly conceivable that there would be pandemonium in stores over here. Could it be that this was envisaged and that the company might have thought that would be a good thing and it was just that they hadn’t quite anticipated the level of mayhem that resulted or else felt that that was not their responsibility?

If so they are taking consumers for fools. Everyone likes a bargain and enjoys the sales. Nobody likes being manipulated into queuing for hours for goods which are no longer on the shelves. Nobody likes being stripped of their dignity trying to get a good deal during recession. People don’t forget this sort of thing very easily. Nor should they. Asda played to the worst aspects of human nature and are reaping the consequences for a shameful, cynical and manipulative exercise. It will be interesting to see if they repeat it next year.