Priceless! MasterCard’s social PR nightmare

6a69fa0604.jpgScrew-up or strategy? An interesting question to mull over today as MasterCard finds itself embroiled in what looks like a social media debacle triggered by an email to journalists from a PR firm.

Tonight in the UK is the annual Brit Awards – a sort of cut-price version of the Grammys for readers across the Pond. It’s a major event on the UK music calendar. It comes with guaranteed media attention and usually some form of notoriety.

This can stem from inept presenters, politicians making fools of themselves by trying to borrow street cred by presenting awards to people they’ve never listened to or just pop stars who are super-charged on food, booze or similar stimulants…ahem.

It’s also a major sponsorship opportunity with big brands falling over themselves to get their logos up there in full view.

One sponsor this year is MasterCard – whose advertising campaigns end with the word ‘priceless’ at the end of a long list of items.

It comes as no surprise then that as part of its Brits investment there’s a social marketing campaign based around #PricelessSurprise.

So far, so social savvy.

But the real surprise came when it emerged that MasterCard’s PR firm, House PR, sent an email to journalists wanting to attend the Brits which apparently asks for guarantees about their coverage of the event and the promotion of the campaign hashtag.

To be even more helpful, the PRs have thoughtfully drafted some Twitter messages that they think it would be great if the assembled hacks sent out while quaffing their champagne.

The ‘suggestions’ came to light when Tim Walker, a journalist on the Daily Telegraph’s Mandrake column, went public with the email :

Hope you’ve had a lovely weekend. As you know we’ve been in touch re. accreditation for the BRIT’s but just wanted to check in with you directly to confirm that you are happy with the below.

Firstly as part of our Priceless Surprise we are putting on cars to take guests directly to the awards – we will be booking your car to take both yourself and Katy from the office at 4:30pm. Are you happy with these details?

In addition – in return for this ticket we would like to ask that you agree to the following…

Social media support from both publication and personal Twitter feed

Pre event – e.g. Really excited to be heading down to @BRITAwards tonight with @MasterCardUK #PricelessSurprises

Event night – live tweeting from the event including @MasterCardUK handle and #PricelessSurprises and to retweet @MasterCardUK tweets throughout the night where appropriate

Post event – tweet directing followers to @MasterCardUK BRITs YouTube videos

Pre-event coverage of MasterCard’s Priceless Surprise video edits with either Laura Mvula, Kylie Minogue and/or Pharrell Williams – to include full credit for MasterCardUK and #PriclessSurprises

All features to be pushed on publications social feeds – to include @MasterCardUK and #PricelessSurprises

MasterCard inclusion in post event write-up (print and online) including #PriclessSurprises hashtag and somethingforthefans.co.uk URL

Post event write up presence on publication homepage (where possible)

Inclusion of MasterCard branded event night images in post event piece

Post event – coverage support for MasterCard music activity in 2014 (Beyonce & JT)

The publication of the email has caused a massive stir across the media in the UK with Twitter suddenly filled with a combination of righteous indignation and humorous spoofs such as:

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So a disaster, yes?

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

The hashtag’s certainly getting a lot of use – even if not as might be hoped.

And whatever else is true, everyone now knows that MasterCard is sponsoring the Brits!

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Verdict

Cock up or carefully calculated campaign?

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As ever, I lean towards inept over intent when it comes to these situations, but the whole thing’s going to be pored over for days.

In a statement this afternoon, Ginny Paton, MD at House PR, defended her agency’s actions:

“The role of the PR agency is to pursue all coverage opportunities on behalf of its clients. This includes providing accurate brand references from the outset, for use across all platforms.

“It is a two-way conversation between the journalist and the PR in order to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.”

There might be another two-way conversation to be had soon, between MasterCard and its agency if the credit card firm’s mid-afternoon response to the growing crisis is anything to go by:

“We have become aware of this situation and have been clear with our agency and attending media. Attendance at the Brits is not, nor has it ever been, a condition of coverage or endorsement. To imply such is highly inappropriate.”

The Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) issued its own statement saying:

“Our Professional Charter states that all members have a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations. We also state that a member should not engage in any practice nor be seen to conduct themselves in any manner detrimental to the reputation of the Association or the reputation and interests of the public relations profession. Furthermore, a member has responsibility at all times to deal fairly and honestly with the media.”

Attempting to influence journalists Twitter activities – contentious.

Attempting to defend those actions – difficult to swallow.

Learning how double-edged swords work in the social environment – priceless!

PS: this is totally unconnected with today’s events, but should any media management types out there be interested in a new job, there’s one going at MasterCard:

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Stuart Lauchlan

Stuart Lauchlan

Stuart Lauchlan has been tracking and commenting on the enterprise IT market for 23 years during which time he's managed to amuse, inform and irritate buy and sell side participants in equal and appropriate measure. Lauchlan also helps companies understand the needs of technology readers.
Stuart Lauchlan

@whostu

Tech journalism - the accident from which I've never recovered
2 comments
ladylaff
ladylaff

I must admit to indulging in the collective schadenfreude over this, but with the benefit of some reflection, I want to resist the urge to heap all my indignation on House PR. I am sure there was pressure from the client and it seems like there could be case to plea 'temporary insanity' what with the big thrill of the Brits coming up. My greatest criticism of House PR, is how abysmally (and late), they responded to the crisis. My statement would have been something like this:


"I apologise unreservedly for any unintentional offence my team has caused to Tim Walker and other members of the press for the overzealous way in which we sought to influence their coverage of the Brit Awards and our client. Part of our intention was to be helpful in supplying 'templates' and making the hashtags and various events clear, but I can see now that we took this way too far. Exciting high-profile events like these can cause even the most experienced PR consultants to have a momentary lapse in judgement, but I accept we should have known better. We are in the process of informing all our guests in the media that they are welcome to attend as Mastercard's guest with no strings attached. We've learned our lesson and can assure the press and our clients that this experience has made us wiser and stronger as a team."


PR professionals might say in their defence that journalists happily accept freebies and shouldn't be so high and mighty. However, they often have to largely because publications make such little money these days due to providing content free online. PR agencies and their clients have been huge beneficiaries of this because it has massively lowered their overhead costs and provided a free and easy way to measure press coverage. Therefore it's only fair that PR agencies and their clients reinvest some of this overhead savings into sponsoring journalists to attend events that they couldn't afford to otherwise cover. It's then up to the agencies and their clients to put on a show that's interesting and well organised enough to inspire press to write nice things if they choose. But putting the exact words in their mouths and telling them what they have to cover is pretty crass and clueless.