Failure to engage: PR lessons from Cats To Go

Dubrovnik Cat

The old axiom that you should learn from your own mistakes gets an important extension in the world of public relations and social media – there’s just as much to learn from the mistakes of others. There’s a number of public relations lessons for businesses and individuals from Gareth Morgan’s launch of Cats To Go last week. While the Cats To Go campaign claim they’ve been very successful in getting their message across, a quick analysis shows that they have failed quite comprehensively. You only need to watch Gareth Morgan’s appearance on Campbell Live last night, notably the moment where Gareth says he’s not responsible for what’s reported.

Actually, Gareth, to a large extent you are responsible. The manner, tone and content of your material is what provides the reporter the context for them to produce a news story on your launch. As much as you’re now out there trying to claim this was all about responsible cat ownership, you’re the one who called your campaign “Cats To Go”, you’re the one whose own material cherry picked statistics and used inflammatory images and wording to depict cats as demonic killing machines and you’re the one whose material refers to a New Zealand without cats.

All the things you did to make a splash are what caused your core messages around responsible cat ownership to go unnoticed. The brunt of the responsibility for the failure of this campaign to genuinely engage the New Zealand public (you only need read the Campbell Live Facebook group, browse the comment sections on news or Gareth’s own website, or look at the numerous polls which indicate only minority support) to see that Cats To Go has only achieved antagonism, not engagement.

So what can we learn from the failure to engage of Cats To Go?

  • Get your timing right: If you’re going to launch a campaign that could be considered controversial, make sure you’re doing it in some clean air. Cats To Go launched on the back of Gareth Morgan already being in the firing line for his perceived “playing football manager” at the Wellington Phoenix and turning their season to custard. As Gareth’s personal brand is attached to both Cats To Go and the Wellington Phoenix, a better strategy would have been to delay launch for a week or two while the dust settled from the Phoenix debacle.Avoid using controversy: Being controversial is like playing with fire and as such it adds a huge element of risk that you’re going to lose any ability to influence the conversation. As I mentioned above, dressing a campaign that should have been about responsible cat ownership with phrases like “I love to kill”, photoshopping a kitten into a devil, constantly referring to a cat free New Zealand and calling your campaign “Cats To Go” might be good for getting you noticed, but it also instantly frames the discussion into a radical and emotional one.
  • Take care with numbers: Quoting statistics and referencing scientific studies can be an effective way to add a sense of authority to your campaign. However you must always remember the saying that there’s “lies, damned lies and statistics”. If you’re going to use facts and figures they must be truly representative of the data behind them. If you choose to cherry pick numbers, as I demonstrated that Cats To Go is guilty of, then the internet is going to find out what you’ve done and undermine the credibility of what you’re trying to achieve. If your campaign is personality driven, as Cats To Go is with  Gareth Morgan as its very public spokesperson, then that credibility damage will spread to their personal brand too.
  • Positive messages work best: Positive messages garner more engagement than negative ones. Had Gareth Morgan put his considerable money and resources behind a positive engagement campaign, there’s every chance he could have generated some meaningful buy-in from cat owners. Instead, by focusing on the negative elements of in the Cats To Go campaign they turned off the target audience who they wanted to change their behaviour. I spent a couple of hours yesterday creating a concept of what a positive campaign could have looked like. You can read about Snip, Clip, Chip here.
  • Roll with the punches, don’t dig deeper: The internet is a fickle beast at the best of times. Often what you put out there isn’t going to be received, interpreted or reacted to in the way you planned. If things don’t go to plan, the worse possible thing you can do is get nasty and get more radical. It only serves to dig you deeper in your hole. Gareth Morgan demonstrated how not to react when he labelled his critics as “feral, self-centered and balmy” in an interview with The Atlantic, when he announced that the SPCA should receive the “Crazy Cat Lady Award”, when he appeared on Campbell Live suggesting people should trap cats on their property, put them in a cardboard box and dump them at their local Mayor’s office and when he said he’d give the SPCA $5 for every stray cat they put down. Had I been advising Gareth Morgan, I would have suggested that he offer a humble apology for offending cat owners, admit he went too far in trying to be controversial and that he’d like to refocus the conversation on practical steps cat owners and local authorities can take to help minimise the impact of cats. However even his attempts to go back to what his campaign claims it is about have been lost in the noise generated by the fresh controversy he generated with what is being construed as the $5 cat bounty.

There are other areas too that we could learn from, such as understanding your key audiences and how to communicate with them, choosing a suitable spokesperson and so forth, but I’ve already gone on long enough. Now it’s your turn. What are some public relations lessons you’ve learned from this or other unsuccessful launch campaigns?

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One response to “Failure to engage: PR lessons from Cats To Go

  1. Pingback: So you want to reference science… | Gwynn Compton·

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