Why You Always Need One Cynic in the Room - Veritas Communications
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Why You Always Need One Cynic in the Room

Recently, two fine brands made news for all the wrong reasons when a joint promotion turned into a rather massive fumble. It’s the kind of thing that makes the blood of one with my title run cold – and, as is usually the case, also the kind of thing that a perceptive question or two could have prevented.

The incident at hand involved the Calgary Airport Authority (YYC, as it’s known in the aviation biz) and its client/partner on the campaign, Lexus of Canada. The experiential PR initiative was quite simple, and would have been pretty cool, had it turned out right: a handful of primo parking spots at the Calgary Airport parking garage – we’re talking the George Costanza “dream spaces,” that holy grail of vacant spots right beside the entrance to the terminal – would be marked as “reserved parking for Lexus vehicles.”

If you drive a Lexus, how cool would that be? Wheel up, lock up, stride into the terminal. Very cool. Great fun.

Except for the part when somewhere along the line someone decided that, to execute the stunt, they’d use the spots right beside the door which are – you guessed it – reserved for people with mobility issues.

In fairness, they didn’t outright eliminate the disabled parking spots – they just moved them to another nearby location. But the damage was already done.

The predictable outcry hit hard, led by advocates for the disabled, and generating a raft of devastatingly negative national news stories, most with a lead line to the effect of “From the ‘who thought THIS was a good idea department’ …”

To their credit, both parties issued an immediate apology. YYC took it on the chin, saying in a statement “YYC Calgary International Airport would like to apologize to our passengers impacted by the decision to change the location of the accessible parking stalls at the airport; it is clearly out of touch with our commitment to being an accessible facility.”

YYC also noted that in addition to restoring the displaced accessible parking spots to their original location, the additional/alternate ones created for the PR stunt would also remain in place.

For its part, Lexus Canada said: “Lexus Canada would like to offer our heartfelt apologies to anyone who may have been affected or offended by a recent marketing campaign at the Calgary airport. We were not aware that accessible parking spaces would be used for this campaign, and have asked the airport to correct the situation as quickly as possible by returning these parking spaces to their intended use.

“In the future, we will more carefully scrutinize the details of these types of marketing campaigns.  We were truly embarrassed by this mistake. It shouldn’t have happened and we are taking steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

YYC echoed Lexus Canada’s comment that all logistical decisions about parking spot placements were made by the airport alone.

“The Calgary Airport Authority would also like to apologize to Lexus Canada. For clarity, The Calgary Airport Authority was solely responsible for the selection of the stalls identified for the parking campaign. Lexus Canada did not play a role in selecting, and was not aware of, the locations for the campaign.”

Did Lexus throw YYC under the proverbial Park ‘n Fly bus? Absolutely. Was it justified? You betcha. There was no way to soft-pedal this one. A clever idea got utterly shredded in the execution, and by extension, so did Lexus Canada. A brand which cheekily plays off its upper-crust perception took a pair of black eyes when that rep got inadvertently taken to the max, in a way that smacked of crass and callous consumerism run wild.

I feel for Lexus Canada on this one. The outcome was clearly not their intent, and if it the execution had been carried out cleanly, the whole thing would have been a cheeky bit of fun for the benefit of the brand. And, in the aftermath, full points to YYC for owning the mistake.

Which brings us back to the media’s question: who thought this was a good idea? Someone on the YYC side decided to relocate the parking spaces for the disabled. How was that decision made? Who was in the room? And, most crucially, why didn’t anyone say their spidey-senses were tingling?

Sometimes, especially when you’re shooting for “edgy” or “pushing the envelope,” the most cynical team member in the room is the most valuable link in the chain. Because they can see the disaster potential. They can put themselves in the shoes of an offended member of the public or a reporter who smells blood, and raise the red flag before it bites you in the butt.

It can be hard when you’re in a room of creatives who have fallen in love with their big idea. It’s not fun to be the skunk at the garden party. But gut-checks for potential disaster are imperative in any campaign that tries to get a little out there in the name of breaking through the noise.

How could this go south? Is there room for misinterpretation? Can we proactively inoculate our campaign ahead of time, by consulting with or even getting standby support from an appropriate third party or relevant stakeholder who will stand by our otherwise noble intent if the thing starts going off the rails?

These are the questions that must be asked ahead of time. And re-asked at every decision point in the chain from concept to execution. Your reputation may depend on it.

Bob Reid is Director of Brand Reputation at Veritas, and a weekly commentator on communications, branding and media issues with his “Touchdowns & Fumbles” feature every Friday morning on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and across Canada on The Morning Show on Global TV. For more, follow @VeritasComm on Twitter.