I was speaking with a class of management students this week at the University of Georgia. My topic was on getting customers, but I veered off topic a little when we got to communication to customers and word-of-mouth marketing. I mentioned that bad word of mouth marketing – the media saying bad things about you or your business – can actually help you if it is played well. Since it was a group of students and Thursday is the unofficial start to the weekend, I was impressed when they sat up and took notice of my statement.
There are exact times and places when bad word-of-mouth marketing works when nothing else will. Seems counter-intuitive, but it is true and we have real world examples of this to point to. BP has been dragged through the mud (or mucky oil if you wish) with little hope of recovery. When the oil platform exploded and people died, that was a low point for them. When millions of gallons of oil washed up on shore killing wildlife and the economy of several states, that was another low point. It seemed that there was no end to the bad news and the CEO, Tony Hayward, was not helping the situation…except he was.
When bad things happen (and bad things will always happen) you have two ways of handling it. Fight it or deal with it. The first part, fighting it, seems to be what Tony wanted to do and we can see how far that got him. He was covering his company’s rump with as much actions as he could stand, but he was ill prepared to make much positive change since he really did not understand why everyone was upset with him. He wanted things to “go back to normal” as fast as possible since the accidents did not impact him directly. He was mad and all of the actions he showed indicated he wanted to fight back. To the families who lost a loved one or the people who live and work by the Gulf coast, they wanted to fight too. One man against a population who have been harmed is ugly.
So, when the cap was attached to the pipe and the oil stopped gushing out of the well, they fired old Tony. Look back and you will see, the bad press for the most part stopped as well. All of the bad word-of-mouth marketing ended when the target – Tony Hayward – left the scene. BP and the Board of Directors were smart enough to see that they had a chance to let the bad press go when they let Tony go. No face to the business means the press is unable to fight and the population has no target for tough words. Did the problem go away? No, but the bad word-of-mouth marketing was carried away on Tony’s shoulders. Now, any news is going to be compared with the bad news that Tony endured.
Timing is everything. If they fired Tony before they capped the well, it would still be BP that was the bad guy. With a built in bad guy, they waited and made the change when good news was available. BP is a media savvy company.
I was going to add in examples of other industries and celebrities, but you get the idea. Since bad things happen, you have a choice in what you can do. Fighting is sometimes an option. Tony Hayward thought so. BP let him fight. Then, they let him go away with the bad press. Will BP bounce back? Yes. Exxon did and they did the same thing with the Captain Joe Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez. There are ways to let things work out without losing your business. Are you ready for all of the kinds word-of-mouth marketing?