Tuesday, April 24, 2012

uVent: what happens when financial services brands don't listen

If you haven’t heard of uVent, stop what you’re doing and pay attention.  It might affect your job, your employer or your business. And if it takes off it will certainly affect reputations.

uVent is a consumer complaint platform allowing people to complain about products, service or poor treatment they receive from business.
It kicked off last month. The first time I looked PayPal and AAMI were copping it. Now the opening home page tab has a bunch of finance brands, and their number of vents, listed.

Importantly, the complaint stays on the site until it is resolved – which means the business has to take action or suffer the continual indignity of a semi-permanent public airing of the complaint.


While the site hasn’t been live long it managed to attract a whopping 11,000 complaints in it’s first week.

A side note: the business model is interesting. It allows businesses to have premium access not only to respond to their own complaints but to gain leads from complaints about competitors. At least that’s how I read this StartUp Smart interview with founder Anthony Mittelmark.

uVent has been designed as a sort of neutral complaint resolution centre. The problem big financial services  businesses face is that they’re hampered by internal red tape (also known as compliance ie obeying the law) when it comes to resolving client complaints.  The slower they are the more their reputation will be damaged.  In fact, it’s the lack of response which drives consumers to sites like uVent in the first place.

In the old days clients would complain by phone or letter.  Now they do it in a public forum.

If you think public complaints don’t make a difference, consider this. 

Cadbury chocolate developed a new recipe for its chocolates which involved the use of palm oil, a product that has been linked to deforestation in Indonesia.  A swelling of objections on Twitter and Facebook forced them to abandon the plan.  

GASP clothing store lost its reputation and its customers after their poor service was discussed all over the social media, ending up with spots on the major current affairs shows.  The store at the centre of the kerfuffle closed its doors. Mind you if you saw the footage you might have gleaned a sense that their spokesperson..well...lacked credibility.

But wait, there’s more... Qantas PJs, Domino’s Pizza (ugh), Nestle and even Virgin. 

Social media makes it easy to damage a corporate reputation. At least online. One comment, another comment and then the snowball effect kicks in. So what’s the response?

In many ways uVent is the symptom not the cause. It’s not uVent and sites like it we need to worry about – it’s the way we care for  customers and how we handle negative comments on social media.

No brand is perfect.  And fortunately almost no one participating in social media expects it to be.

What they do expect is speed – a response time that can’t wait for three levels of compliance.  So a good first step is a social media issues management policy and procedure. 

Whether dealing with uVent or other online commentary “winging it” won’t cut it. What can help is listening – and a prepared approach to issues resolution and customer care. 

Knowing what you can do and say, and how - before it happens, is a good start.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The gloomy boom: a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A guest blog by BlueChipper Aideen McDonald
We continue to read in the media and hear from the banks that Australians are saving more than ever. This is a good thing, right? Apparently not, especially if you are an Australian business owner. Whilst we are all too aware of the effects over investing can have on the economy (think asset price bubble…and burst), the outcome of under investing has not been discussed so much.
BlueChip sponsored a CEDA event in Sydney today about Australian business credit – are we prepared for the cost of under investment?
Chairing the event, Carden, MD of BlueChip, cited businesses firing, rather than hiring; businesses saving rather than spending and paying down debt rather than borrowing…all leading to historic low levels of business credit.
The first of the two panellists, Joseph Healy, Group Executive Business Banking with NAB believes it comes down to the current market confidence (or lack thereof) businesses and business owners have in the Australian economy. Or, for short, so-called ‘animal spirits’, that perhaps have business owners more spooked than they need to be.
Healy acknowledged that whilst the Australian system has issues, it is a remarkably resilient, fundamentally strong economy.  A context that makes for golden opportunity – at least if you’re a business owner who is realistic about risk in the current environment, and confident when facing the challenges. Otherwise, he suggested a lack of business investment would lead to longer term problems like a weakened economy, higher levels of unemployment and a cycle that repeats itself.
Panellist, the Hon Patricia Forsythe, Executive Director at the Sydney Business Chamber, addressed the current accessibility of lending to businesses, highlighting that levels of lending collapsed during the GFC and have remained weakened ever since. Citing Sydney Business Chamber research, Forsythe suggested lowered access to business loans has stunted the growth of business investment.
Forsythe believes current government has a central role in supporting businesses during a time of low confidence and weakened lending levels, suggesting a review of the political scene in Australia to de-risk the system and highlight specific sectors that are in need of investment support.
Both panellists agreed Australian businesses need to focus on digital opportunities. BlueChip has advised clients on the social media and digital space over the past few years and is increasingly helping purely online businesses with both traditional and online PR & communication. Referring to Sydney as the key digital hub for Australia, Forsythe encouraged all businesses to embrace the movement into the digital space.
Healy cited an example BlueChip mentioned in a previous edition of PRognosis of Kodak: the demise of a leading brand in the world of technology due to their inability to adapt to a changing and growing world.
The bottom line is this: business owners and business people in Australia should take heart from positive economic signals. But while we all hang back on the edge of the pool, borrowings will stay low – and the overall economy, our customers and our people stand to lose.
If we get carried away by gloom rather than looking, carefully, for boom opportunities we actually risk creating a self-fulfilling (and negative) prophesy.  
Informed leadership will win out for those brave enough to dive in rather than spectate. 

The event was hosted by Angus Armour, MD and CEO of the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation and member of the CEDA  NSW State Advisory Council   

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Getting above it: why a non-PR perspective makes for better PR

Last Friday I caught up with a very clever colleague (Paul) who also runs his own successful professional services business.

Let me be very clear. He's not a PR person. But he and his team do advise many leader in financial services on communication. And as he and I agree, there's a lot to be desired about the standard of public relations - whether in Australia or the world, and both inside and beyond financial services

How does a non-PR person end up giving advice to financial services leaders on communication? Pretty simple - they "get" strategy. And PR folk often don't. Sure they (or should I say "we"?) think they do. But fundamentally, and if you ask a CEO, they don't.

The non-PR perspective in PR seems to be the x factor that elevates communication people beyond being PR people to being a valued part of the management team. 

It's the ability to see beyond the communication that makes communication advice truly useful to leaders in business, in government and the not-for-profit sector. That's simply the ability to "get above" the PR and communication agenda to see the broader business context...and thus offer more meaningful input to content.

I have a personal experience around this that illustrates the point. Years ago, as a fearless sub-30 year old, I thought I was pretty good at "getting" strategy in financial services (thanks to the management degree I had rather than the communication honours degree I couldn't be bothered finishing).

Now, as a business owner, and with experience at creating and executing on strategy to create a culture, deliver services and achieve targets, I'm a much better communicator. Because I "get" strategy in a much deeper way. I've created a business in financial services communication from scratch, set it's strategy, then trialled and refined approaches until we got it right.

I, like Paul, advise finance clients on things way beyond the "communication" or "PR" brief. And our communication and PR advice and execution is much the better for it.

So what can PR people do to "get above it" and improve their ability to advise on  the problems and how do we fix them?

Education: Ideally something other than pure communication...commerce, business, management, philosophy, law, economics, marketing and journalism are some of the qualification in our team. I'm not a massive fan of arts degrees as an employer, for similar reasons to my somewhat anti-PR views....narrowness of perspective being my chief concern. A post-graduate or masters degree is a pretty attractive addition - especially in finance, business or management. The smart move is often simply a post graduate diploma in applied finance. And that's not as hard as it sounds. Yes, you'll need a calculator and some maths ability, but a lot of it is conceptual rather than applied maths per se.

Experience: Ok so what if you have an arts, communication or PR degree? A bit of commercial experience in a line management role might be a good idea. Any role that helps comms people get a more informed perspective on the commercial reality of business will give them a way better ability to advise on communication. That means backing yourself - having the confidence to work your way out of the communication box even if it's only a secondment.

Expectations: In some ways leaders, senior executives and PR firms get the PR capability they deserve. If their expectations of their PR and communication people is to receive only tactical communication advice then that's exactly what they'll get. On the other hand, if they make the effort to ask for more from their advisers, or to seek out those who can "get above it", then they'll lift the standard of PR across the board - and the business will benefit.

If we lift our gaze, our own careers and the organisations we work in, will be much the better for it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Stakeholder engagement: why it’s important

Among the many (often conveniently nebulous) buzzwords we come across in our daily corporate lives is “stakeholder engagement”. Everybody wants it. It’s certainly a topline favourite in any communications, PR or marketing plan.

It’s also an essential requirement for any organisation aiming to build sustainability.

As Dr Leeora Black, from the Australian Centre of Corporate Social Responsibility (ACCSR), explained in an excellent master class she delivered at last week’s Australian Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference, a stakeholder is any individual or organisation which can affect, or be affected by, your organisation’s activities.

To achieve most major organisational goals, be it sustainability or anything else, you need your stakeholders on board: understanding where you’re going, seeing the point of it all (what’s in it for them? Or others? Or both?) and knowing what (if any) their role is in getting there. In other words, you need your stakeholders engaged.

That doesn’t mean they have to think you’re right. But it does mean having them aligned and supportive of the journey.

Why? Because the reality is that many of the issues business and other organisations are facing are simply too large, too complex, with too many interdependencies to be managed alone. 

So, where to start?

First, look at the issue: who it affects and how, the desired solution and what’s involved in developing and delivering it. Because some problems can be resolved without engaging stakeholders. Don’t waste time and effort by defaulting to seeking buy-in and input from the world if it’s not necessary.

If that’s not the case – and sometimes it isn’t – then move to step two: identifying your stakeholders. Sounds obvious, right?  But stakeholders can be hidden. Are there activities your organisation undertakes that affect others in ways you’re not aware of? Ask: who else shares your interest in the issue? You may be surprised.

Conversely, are there groups which may have been considered “stakeholders” who, on closer examination, are not? Sometimes, empty vessels do make the most noise.

Next step is to prioritise those stakeholders. For our purposes – that is, to effect change or manage an issue – that’s not just about identifying who is most affected. Those most affected may be passive or already well aligned with your direction.

Prioritising stakeholders is also very much about identifying which groups are the most organised and united around the issue, and which have the closest relationships with other interested parties. They are the ones most likely to be able to influence outcomes – one way or the other.

And if it’s going to be your way, your next move is using effective stakeholder communication to promote collaboration, build relationships and find the common ground you need to achieve your goals. Which is a story for another day.

Guest post from Kaitlin Walsh, Director of Media & Content at BlueChip Communication

Monday, April 02, 2012

PR - catalyst for CSR or defender of the indefensible?

As public relations advisers we can be a powerful catalyst for change inside business - whether from within or outside - as influencers of leadership. 

Or we can accept the status quo - and end up defending it after it's use by date.

Some PR leaders achieve great change by sensitising their colleagues on the leadership team to the need for change. By actively seeking and sharing signals from the external environment about trends, community standards, and potential issues or opportunities. And then setting out a path that will see their business or client deliver both commercial and social dividends - real shared value as defined by Michael Porter and others. 

Socially responsible business is now about creating shared value. The PR profession can, and should, be leaders of that agenda as they proactively seek information and insights to feed into strategy, decision and management action.

After more than 20 years in profession I'm a great believer that (it's not original) the best PR people transcend our profession. They're smart, commercial and highly aware of what's going on inside and outside their organisations. And they almost always have a broader education, career or expertise than "public relations". It's that last bit, I believe, that makes them truly great.

Other PR people simply defend the indefensible. They don't question, they don't challenge, they simply "do". It's a path that leads to (at best) missed opportunity or (at worst) mis-selling.

In financial services the quality of the leadership in PR matters immensely. Why?

In the words of an industry stalwart we're selling "promises and pieces of paper". These days we're selling promises and online communication. The role of the communicators is to make sure what we sell is in fact responsibly represented. Not mis-represented or mis-sold. 

Surely the single most important socially responsible action we can take as communicators in financial services is this:

"Help people make better decisions about their financial futures."

And, in line with that:

"Help business make better decisions in light of the internal and external environment"

My colleague Kaitlin Walsh blogged and tweeted from the first Asia Pacific regional GRI conference this week and posted this blog. In it she said 

"At its heart, the sustainability story is about making sure your business or organisation is here for the long haul. That it’s prepared not only to survive but to flourish in the face of the constant and unrelenting change that characterises our living and working environments. That it follows practices that are likely to cement its position as a stayer, and not put it – and more importantly the many who rely on it both directly and indirectly – at risk. (Consider here the mammoth impact of the conduct of financial services organisations concerned with stewarding our retirement incomes …)"

So my recommendation to you as a PR person is this: make your choice

Choose either to lead - to be part of the catalytic mechanism that sees our organisations increasingly deliver shared value - or resign yourself to defending the indefensible. 

Maybe not now, but at some stage in the future if you didn't stand for the change that's needed it's guaranteed you'll find yourself defending something not worth saving.

Harsh words? Maybe. Or perhaps just what my colleagues and management writer Patrick Lencioni would call "the kind truth"