They say that a week’s a long time in politics and that old adage certainly applies to the communications business if OVO Energy’s recent experience is anything to go by. For Boris Johnson, the stage was set for a disastrous week (or two) by the revelations that parties had been staged at Number 10 Downing Street while the rest of us were facing tight lockdown restrictions.
Our Prime Minister was left fighting for his political life after he claimed: “nobody warned me it was against the rules” for a drinks party to be hosted in Downing Street during the first lockdown, as reported by the Guardian.
For Bristol-based OVO Energy, what turned out to be a disastrous week for the company was set in motion when it emerged it was offering households tips on cutting down their heating bills this winter.
How the OVO Energy story started
There was, of course, widespread fury when the Financial Times told all in a story after getting hold of an email sent to customers of SSE Energy Services, the electricity and gas retail business bought by OVO two years ago. A link to a blog containing energy-saving tips went to customers that included 10 included having “a cuddle with your pets and loved ones to help stay cosy” and eating ginger but avoiding chilli “as it makes you sweat”.
Before they know it, OVO, Britain’s third-biggest energy supplier, ended up being subject to fierce criticism from all quarters.
There was uproar on social media while Bristol North West MP Darren Jones, chair of the Commons business select committee, joined the chorus of disapproval and was quoted by Bristol World, as saying the blog was ‘plainly offensive’.
The story grows
American media giant CNN then explained how the blog had been deleted. They also put into context why the advice had struck the wrong chord, explaining how, according to National Energy Action, more than 4 million UK households are in the grip of fuel poverty.
Unfortunately, things from bad to worse when OVO’s founder and chief executive Stephen Fitzpatrick did a round of broadcast interviews to say sorry as the damage limitation exercise swung into action. But that was overshadowed when Sky reported how OVO was set to cut 1,700 jobs to save costs amid the deepening industry crisis.
The drama lurched on into a second week amid reports Scottish politicians said they were “extremely disappointed” at OVO failure to give a “satisfactory answer” on jobs losses.
While there is no end in sight to this chapter in the OVO Energy journey, there are still lessons that can be learned from the communications saga and here are reflections on what they have done well and maybe what could have been done differently.
The OVO Energy way
OVO has veered away from corporate speak to communicate with the modern consumer with personality. This certainly underlines the notion you’re closer to being an individual rather than a corporation. OVO has won admirers and customers by coming across as affable and friendly rather than being a green-eye corporate monster.
Know your audience
It’s vital that you think about how your audience is whenever you’re producing marketing and communications material. It’s a good starting point to get your language right and ensure your material hits the target. Empathy is important when it comes to effective communications
Content is king
There is ongoing pressure on marketing teams in big corporations to create fresh and engaging content. OVO deserves credit for aiming to do something different that would get people thinking and long may that continue – but in a more measured way. In bending over backwards to be cute and be one of the people, they failed to read the room.
Keep track of the news agenda
The energy crisis has been making headlines here, there and everywhere and anyone with their finger on the pulse would have known that any content on energy-saving would have got the alarm bells ringing. Earnest energy-saving tips are always welcome but there’s not always a time and a place for light-hearted ones so keep your finger on the pulse.
it’s important to keep your eye on the proverbial ball even when you know you’ve got something really substantial – like job losses – on the cards. When there’s a chance you could be distracted by a major issue, it’s a time to either put everything on pause for a while or to call in extra help just so there are no embarrassing slip-ups.
Sir Elton John famously sang that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’ and Boris Johnson has shown just how difficult it is to say it with real meaning. In contrast, Fitzpatrick’s apology earned him plenty of praise on social media with Twitter users saying it was “sincere” and the right thing to do.
Someone somewhere misread the current climate and one way to make sure that doesn’t happen is by making sure that all areas of your workforce are diverse. This includes the marketing and communications department, so they are more in touch with people from all walks of life.
Have a plan and stick to it
Every business should have a plan of action in place for when negative things happen and corporate negativity puts a lot of extra pressure on your in-house team so be ready to seek outside expert help. It’s vital that you monitor and identify possible reputation threats and put in place remedies to mitigate any effects.
Look and learn
We all make mistakes but the key thing is to learn from them and avoid being light-hearted about a serious issue, which is something energy firm E.ON has also done, angering customers by sending out socks in the post to ‘lower’ heating bills as energy price soar. Not surprisingly they were accused of putting their foot in it in media reports. It’s possible to factor in issues management as part of any comprehensive PR and marketing strategy.
Lead by example
That redundancies bombshell demonstrates that it’s vital that communications professionals should be right at the heart of everything senior management do, even at the biggest corporations. They should be valued enough to be privy to every key development to make sure there is no disconnect between leadership and their marketing and communications teams. They can be an invaluable go-between and lessen the prospects of that perfect storm.
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