Keeping control of the message vs being accountable to customers

This morning my former colleague, now business editor at ITN, Laura Kuenssberg was on Twitter (@ITVLauraK) commenting on the financial results of Scottish and Southern Energy. Ordinarily, financial results are not that interesting outside of a business audience. However, when the company is one of the big six UK energy suppliers with 10 million customers across 3.5 million homes and businesses (and which makes a claim to be “The UK’s best for customer service”) there is a great deal of interest in knowing why bills have gone up so much while company profits have gone up even more.

Laura’s main comments were about the fact that SSE would not be making anyone available for broadcast interviews because the company had already done its own interview with the Chief Executive Ian Marchant and posted it on YouTube. If it’s any consolation Laura the company never did any financial results interviews with us on BBC R4 Today either!

This is not a new thing. Some of the City’s big PR companies have been doing this with clients for well over a decade. But it seems that more and more firms are choosing to use controlled video interviews like these to keep control of the messaging and communicate directly with stakeholders.

It’s a powerful tool. It has an immediacy and helps the viewer (whoever that happens to be) to connect with the company more directly than through words on a page. It helps to bring context to complex and opaque issues and allows a company to explain contentious matters in a setting where they have control over what and how questions are asked. Or to put it another way helps avoid the tough questions.

BUT…. (yes, there always is one) companies should not see these videos as a substitute for communicating directly with customers through the media – and in particular the mass media of TV and radio.

If you take time to watch the SSE Youtube video you’ll hear Ian Marchant say that his company makes – on average – just 20p profit per customer per week. So why couldn’t Laura Kuenssberg’s viewers be told that directly? (there is another point here too – which could form the basis of a whole new blog – if newspapers can use a quote from a press release why can’t broadcasters take a soundbite from videos like this? The answer lies in editorial issues but we won’t go into those now).

Energy companies have never been good at explaining the relationship between their prices / profits – or their tariffs – and the costs associated with their business (things like wholesale prices, infrastructure investment, renewables etc). One particularly memorable monstering was by BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman on British Gas MD Phil Bentley last year (here) … although hats-off to British Gas for being courageous enough to be interviewed on TV and for fielding tough questions.

A TV quiz master from years gone by used to say that there is no such thing as easy or hard questions – just those to which you know the answer or not. I would also add another: there are questions to which you know the answer but would prefer not to.

Sadly too many companies are using that last category as a reason to opt out of interview opportunities where they can communicate directly with their customers. In a market where those customers could choose to leave you at the drop of a hat, I would say that it is a missed opportunity.

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