Monday, March 15, 2010
Fly in the ointment: Guardian swats Rentokil's PR

If you haven't been following the twitterstorm, The Guardian's Ben Goldacre wrote on Friday that a Rentokil story on how 'Commuters share trains with 1,000 cockroaches 200 bedbugs and 200 fleas' was not all it appeared to be. (Guess what? The study wasn't, as reported, based on real-life tests. It was based on a theoretical model.)

What's interesting about this is not the story itself - extrapolating news from theory is a classic PR approach. The work its agency did got picked up in The Daily Mail, Evening Standard and Telegraph - also known as 'a good day's work'. Rentokil may be teetering on the edge of truth, which is not big or clever, but it's done on both sides of the PR divide.

The really compelling stuff (for me, at least) is how this has unearthed weaknesses in Rentokil's social media strategy. Having dug back through the story, it has had a rocky time of it. Questionable following tactics, an odd tone to their responses on Twitter (we've been 'busy'?), and the blog going down mid-crisis really haven't helped.

Rentokil has missed the most vital ingredient of all to a social media campaign - trust. Their blog lacks personality and a clear, human owner. Their tweets are fake-friendly (leading to accusations of being self-serving sales messages, even though they're generally not). None of their employees or agencies seems to have someone working there who is trusted by the online community its trying to engage with, with a good and established following, who could step in and calm the waters.

The lesson here is simple. Using social media to promote your product or service is fine. But using it to *only* do that is not. PR is relationship-based. The only way to avoid an escalating crisis like this is to already have trust with the public, which could have helped diffuse this story before it became so big.

Instead, we've got a swarm of people baying for Rentokil's blood.