Mark Blackham: what Sue Chetwin gets wrong about PR

Consumer NZ’s Sue Chetwin has ridiculously described PR people as the “original fake news artists” after an incident when a PR agency staffer posted a comment on their website. PR agencies and marketing gurus have gone along with Sue’s narrative and tut-tutted condescendingly at the claim that PR agencies stuff public forums with made-up opinions.

We’re not the sort of agency to go along with that fawning. It gives in to the shallow narrative that businesses and their PR people make stuff up, or present only their best arguments – while everyone else is as pure as the driven snow.

You see, Sue’s story is in itself a kind of fake – or designed – news.

She has used an approach called framing. It’s the thing we all do in retelling stories: we magnify and even modify the failings of others, to contrast with the incomparable quality of our supposed actions. Most of all, we make sure we retell only the stories we can use to put us in the best light.

Sue described the incident in a way that makes the PR agency look deceitful rather than silly or over-keen, and made her organisation look victimised but vigilant and crusading.

A quick dissection of her story uncovers some possible additional facts. The review was under the person’s own name – so there was no attempt at deceit. The person called first to have it withdrawn, so maybe Consumer NZ is not very vigilant of its online fora (and why should it be, they’re places for opinion). Sue designed her description of the reaction she got when she called the person back to interrogate them to sound as if they acted “caught out”. Apparently, they “broke down”. What did Sue say to them to get that reaction? We are not told.

There’s a hint that the real reason Sue pursued the matter was that the post had questioned the organisation’s credibility. It’s possible this is punishment for that opinion being revealed. We aren’t told what the question over the credibility was. Interesting.

At the heart of this issue is a Consumer NZ poll of consumer opinions about electricity companies. It wasn’t strictly speaking, research on facts about the industry, but consumer opinion on their level of satisfaction. The reasons for customer satisfaction can be incredibly varied. Most surveys are relatively superficial, so it can be easy to interpret the satisfaction to suit your own rationale.
Customer satisfaction ratings, while strongly useful, may not be an experience other consumers would want. For example, niche companies with niche products will have a higher satisfaction rating from a customer base with very particular needs. 

For the record, we have always had a lot of time for Consumer NZ, professionally, and as consumers. They take pride in telling the real story about an industry, products or service. Their effort to get straight facts out to the public is almost always helpful to our clients because consumers can be trusted to make good decisions on that information.

Also for the record, we don’t have an electricity company as a client. But would be happy to help them use facts and opinion to fight for customers. It’s what we do.

  • Mark Blackham is a director of BlacklandPR.
  • Chetwin has been offered the opportunity to respond to Blackham’s op-ed. 

UPDATE: Chetwin has responded to Blackham’s op-ed with the following statement: “You would have to go a long way to find a better example of PR spin than this. Mr Blackham might just have invented the fake excuse. It deserves to be framed.”

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