Public Relations: Rogers shows us a thing or two aobut PR

s a thing or two aobut PRshows uThis is the first in an occasional series by Richard Rotman on the new role of public relations in the marketing mix.Richard Rotman, former publisher of Toronto arts weekly Metropolis, is an independent public...

s a thing or two aobut PRshows uThis is the first in an occasional series by Richard Rotman on the new role of public relations in the marketing mix.

Richard Rotman, former publisher of Toronto arts weekly Metropolis, is an independent public relations consultant.

At the end of December, seven new specialty television services were peacefully planning to sign on, full of high hopes and exalted spirits.

They were ready to face the unknown future in partnership with the cable companies, allowing enough time to build a loyal audience before the 500-channel universe arrives and anyone can choose any program they want on tv.

This report is from one who was there.

I was handling media relations for Showcase Television, one of the seven channels newly licensed last June.

We who were involved felt our mission was creating no less than a missing piece of the Canadian broadcasting system – more specialty program choices.

If the consumer understood our focus – and that of Bravo!, Discovery, Life Network, Women’s Television Network, New Country and rdi – they’d try us, because we’re different – and not more of the same old Hollywood television and movies.

It must have been how the British felt on the eve of the First World War. There would be some quick and glorious battles on the Continent, and everyone would be home before Christmas.

But no – wrong. A general war – The Great Consumer Cable Revolt of 1995 – broke out, and the consumer turned out to be what he or she always is: the very last and most important word in business success or failure.

However, The Revolt and Rogers Cablesystems’ subsequent apology, will now assume a place in the annals of the most notable public relations crises – even though, in hindsight, this was one of the most avoidable ones.

Numerous analyses have been published about what went wrong, how and why. Wild theories about conspiracies and the real intent of the cable companies have also been advanced.

But few have looked at the resolution of The Revolt as one of the most deft public relations performances in recent memory.

Yes, that’s true. The early January news conference by Rogers Cablesystems President Colin Watson in Vancouver was a masterpiece of good public relations, successfully applied.

It was also a true example of the Global Village at work, with everyone concerned finding out the news at once, thanks to CBC Newsworld.

The news conference employed these successful tactics:

- A clear apology and admission of wrong was made.

This tactic worked for John F. Kennedy in taking the heat for the Bay of Pigs, and it carried the day here.

- The consumer was recognized as the once and future king, always right now, and forever.

This rule was also swiftly applied to great success. Canadians finally spoke up; hence, the earth moved.

- There was a quick resolution to a difficult issue.

The problem was not permitted to fester too long, with public agony and media leaks: a decision was made, and The Revolt was over.

By contrast, in the case of the Pentium chip, Intel waffled for months before giving in.

- The key messages were basic and simple. We were wrong, we apologize, we will change. Here’s what we are going to do about it.

- Holding the news conference in Vancouver was also superb; in some ways, it was the only choice – The Revolt was strongest there, and the b.c. government had stepped into the picture.

However, there were two additional important coincidences.

Watson is a former British Columbian, helping his credibility. The press corps in b.c. is also significantly smaller than the unmanageable horde the same news conference would have attracted in Toronto, perhaps with greater insistence that Ted Rogers be present.

The question now is what action the consumer will take. Is there magnanimity in victory, or will the consumer feel that more anger must be expressed?

It’s a difficult call, because now the product – the new specialty services – has been unfairly tainted with the misjudgment of the cable delivery systems.

The retailer is being blamed, but it is the product, which is in good condition, which has to move off the shelf.

Even so, some of the new services will prosper; the initial consumer calls and e-mails at Showcase are highly positive.

But the road to success required breaching a thick wall that no new business should ever have to encounter so early in the game.

The opinions expressed above are Richard Rotman’s, and not necessarily those of Showcase Television.