Corporatespeak Is Not Good Public Relations

In PR and communications, negative news
can sometimes have a positive side just by way of the delivery. And
what an opportunity that can be: either to recast in a positive light,
to minimize damage… or to make it worse.

We have more respect for clear, direct communication, especially when
something goes wrong. Owning up, making things right, and letting
people know about it is not only the right thing to do, but can also be a
PR win, a point completely lost last month on Best Buy as it addressed
customers about orders that they weren't going to be getting in time for
the holidays.

At Forbes.com this week, Larry Downes expands thoughtfully on “Why Best Buy is Going out of Business…Gradually.”
Among other salient points, Downes slices and dices the following
corporatespeak issued to some about-to-be-very-disappointed customers
(you know, those who keep the company in business):

“Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on BestBuy.com
during the November and December time period, we have encountered a
situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online
orders.”

And then Downes totally pwns them:

"Let’s parse that sentence for a moment.  The company 'encountered a
situation'—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it
couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it
acknowledges were 'hot' buys.  This happened, inconveniently for Best
Buy, during 'the November and December period,' that is, the only months
that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties
itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the 'situation' occurred
during the holidays."

Ugh. I can see Best Buy’s directors from marketing, legal and
fulfillment all in a conference room drafting that missive, the poor
souls. I don’t envy them, and I will not get on some high horse about
how this kind of bad news could be better delivered — because it’s so
obvious, as Downes rightfully notes. He continues:

"The situation that Best Buy 'encountered' has 'affected redemption'
of some orders.  Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems. Rather,
customers 'redeem' them. So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have
the problem. And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only
been 'affected' in efforts to 'redeem' their orders. It’s not as if the
company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all."
Larry Downes, for Forbes

YIKES. To Best Buy’s credit, they did apologize later in the same
communication. Yet I can’t help but slap my forehead and wonder what
could have happened If only they were more direct, maybe even going out
of their way to make things right (free $20 gift cards, store credit,
etc.) — they could even have turned this into a PR win… instead
of something bloggers are writing about weeks later as a burgeoning
harbinger of disaster.

Though I’m not sure I agree with Downes on Best Buy going the way of Circuit City
in the immediate future, it certainly does not look rosy for them at
present. And I’m not even talking about their finances. I’ve had great
service and lousy service there, but the culture hinted at by this kind
of language does not sound like that of an organization built to last.

At least, if it doesn’t want things like this written about it in Forbes.

Richard Smith

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