Post 17: When customer service meets PR

I’ve been thinking lately about the interface between PR and customer service, in the context of an event in which I was forced to play the “I’m a journalist” card.

Let me explain.

I try to run my micro-business like any other, despite the fact that journalists tend to be offered free support for the products they use even if they are using them in their private lives.

For example, when I tweet about feeling frustration with some software products, PR agencies representing the vendors concerned often contact me and offer free support. I decline, as I feel the way to understand what my readers are going through is to live through some tech support engagements. It is also useful to fix the problem myself, as I can learn stuff!

Occasionally, however, a vendor’s service is so dreadful and an acceptable outcome seems so remote, that I play the “I’m a journalist” card by contacting PR representatives of the vendor concerned to let them know about the trouble I am having.

In nearly every case, they escalate the issue and solve the problem very quickly, a response I suspect is honed by years of interaction with consumer advocacy columns in various publications that name and shame vendors who provide poor service.

I played the card recently when a vendor simply refused to put me in touch with the support team responsible for providing me with a replacement for a faulty product. I had already followed a support process that asked us to post the faulty product to a certain facility, but had experienced no response for several weeks. The incident number provided was recognised by the vendor’s call centre, but there was no information whatsoever about the status of the incident. The vendor concerned refused to provide a phone number for the facility to which we had posted the faulty item, leaving no way at all to understand the status of the faulty product.

At this point, having been denied any chance to understand how the vendor proposed to resolve the issue it had created, and feeling mightily and frustrated us mightily, we did what some members of the public would do and let the vendor’s PR team know about the incident.

They resolved it quickly and very satisfactorily.

Had I been a consumer, this incident could have resulted in some ugly press for the vendor concerned.

What I now wonder is whether vendors ever contemplate the fact that PR can be called in – by the general public or media – to explain failures in support and service processes.

In fact, I’d like to have a discussion on these matters on my customer service podcast, if anyone is interested.

Post 16, 2009: Two new ways to fund journalism

I think everyone now agrees that while newspapers in their current form are in strife, nobody wants quality journalism to disappear.

But no-one knows how to fund it.

I’ve got three ideas and in this post I want to deal with two.

1. Industries should fund journalism directly

I cover a couple of obscure industries that have little dedicated media and only a very small number of writers with any appreciation of the technical nuances of the fields concerned. I’d argue (in a self-interested way, of course) that these industries are the poorer for their lack of a full-time focus on their activities, services and products. These industries also lack the vibrant hub that a good publication creates. They also miss out on the chance to reach prospects and customers through a medium they trust, namely journalism.

So I can imagine that farsighted industry associations could start to talk to publishers about subsidising a journalist’s wages, in order to ensure there is a resource dedicated to covering their industry. An Association’s investment in a journo could benefit its members by creating a virtuous circle in which the dedicated writer means a publication becomes more attractive to readers and therefore more useful as a marketing vehicle.

Is this feasible? I do some work with an industry association that could probably not afford to do this. But not by a vast distance.  (Obviously this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the position of the association, in case anyone knows the association concerned)

2. License PRs to access journalists

I think the way PR relies on journalists, but does not pay for them, is in many way analogous to publishers’ complaints about the way search engines monetise their content without any financial contribution.

I recognise that PR probably lowers the cost of operating a publishing house by providing content and/or making it easier to access (albeit with the content groomed for commercial intent, rather than reader value). But let’s face it: PRs are stuffed without influencers to influence!

I can imagine publishers licensing access to their journos to PRs that have paid for the privilege. Such a scheme could be run through a PR industry association and would involve a sliding payment scale,  so as not to disadvantage small PR shops. But unless a PR had paid their dues, a publisher’s journos would not take their calls. Blocking their email would be simple.

I imagine PRs would hate this regime. Everyone hates it when new costs arrive in their industry.

But seeing as the way we fund journalism now is borked, costs are going to land somewhere. And right now, PR cannot exist with media but does not fund it at all. Maybe that needs to change to help journalism survive.

These ideas are both thought experiments and have obvious problems in terms of how this kind of funding impacts’ media independence and the likelihood of fearlessly critical coverage. They both also devolve to industry paying for coverage, either through associations or via. increased PR bills. I suspect that, over time, industry will miss having a media to read about itself in. Or maybe not – which is a whole other kettle of fish and something I will blog about with my third funding idea soon.