Pick Your Battles Wisely – an Arm Wrestle is Sometimes Better than Full-Scale Combat

If the PR world teaches us practitioners one thing, it’s learn to pick your battles.

I appreciate, it is often far easier for us to counsel our clients to say something rather than say nothing – being thought-provoking makes people sit up and take notice after all. Being silent on the other hand can provoke suspicion. And as human beings, we are all fiercely territorial when it comes to defending on our own patch.

However as trusted consultants, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the tightrope we’re walking and how easy it is for supposed ‘supporters’ of our clients to suddenly turn into adversaries. A mistimed comment, insensitive remark or throwaway opinion is all it takes to turn the tide of opinion, as recently experienced by London’s largest minicab company Addison Lee (a service I myself have used on many a late night!).

Addison Lee Chairman John Griffin’s recent affront on cyclists in the company’s publication Add Lib was a classic case of a senior executive’s efforts to be “thought provoking” straying way off the mark. Those of you following the saga would have seen Griffin’s comment which read:

Green party candidates and others are up in arms about what they see as the murder of Cyclists on London Roads…These cyclists are throwing themselves onto some of the most congested spaces in the world…It is time for us to say to cyclists, ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up.”

These comments provoked outrage amongst the London cycling community (many of whom are opinionated journalists and politicians), with the Twittersphere going into overdrive. Comments urging people to #boycottAddisonLee (over 220,000 impressions to date) and suspend their accounts were being posted thick and fast. Former deputy leader of the Labour Party John Prescott for example tweeted: “We’ve managed to get the Govt to stop its Addison Lee contract! Well done all #boycottaddisonlee #gottalovetwitter.”

There are times when you want your client to be trending on Twitter, this most certainly isn’t one of them.

This escapade (re)united an already tightknit group of tweeting cyclists around a common hatred of Addison Lee. What started out as being a thoughtful comment from Griffin about inexperienced cyclists needing better training before they’re let loose on London’s traffic-ridden streets, catapulted into a ferocious war of words exchanged on a very public domain.

Morale of the story…it’s fine to counsel your clients to take the moral high ground and to have an opinion that will cut through the clutter but in doing so, throw caution to the wind; because even if your message is intended to be sincere (as Griffin claimed his was), if taken out of context by those on the receiving end it can turn into an almighty firestorm.

Alicia is an Account Director at Ketchum Pleon London. She is responsible for day-to-day client account management, with a primary focus on communications planning, media relations, developing written collateral, executive profiling, and campaign execution.