What’s going on in the Public Relationship (PR) world? Over the past few days, PR departments from big companies keep making blunders over blunders. To wits:

AT&T

An AT&T customer displeased with the service decided to send an email to Randall Stephenson, the AT&T CEO. The response: phone calls from the AT&T legal department asking him to stop emailing their CEO or they will send him a cease and desist letter.

AT&T was quick to apologize but what’s most puzzling to me is to imagine the AT&T PR team getting together in a room and all agreeing that threatening a customer was the best way to respond to a couple of emails.

BP

BP is quite unhappy with the hilarious fake Twitter BP account @BPGlobapPR that popped up a few weeks ago and which is now boasting more than 141,000 followers. The owner of the account, who goes under the pseudonym Leroy Stick, manages to pull off the unthinkable: be consistently funny in less than 140 characters.

BP’s PR’s original reaction was to try and incorporate some of Stick’s piques in their own PR communications, which is nothing short of hilarious in itself, but they seem to have realized the errors of their ways and they are now asking Stick to clearly indicate that this is a fake account.

Right, that’s going to work.

Stick’s response: ask his 141,000 followers to help him rebrand the name of the account and come up with creative meanings for the letters “BP”. His followers were happy to oblige, resulting in quite a few sadly funny names (“birds in petrol”, “broken pipes”, etc…).

BP had an environment problem on their hands, now they have to solve a PR disaster as well.

Some of these names are guaranteed to stick (no pun intended… ok, maybe a little) and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months from now, BP decides to change its name completely in an attempt to distance themselves from the stigma now associated to their brand.

Microsoft

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, was recently quoted saying “The iPad is just another PC”.

It’s not the first time that Ballmer attempt to minimize the impact of a competing product by dissing it. Maybe it worked a few decades ago, but this kind of message no longer resonates with customers, real and potential. It probably alienates them, actually.

When you are trying to enter a market, you can’t be content with just preaching to the choir: you need to do your best to acquire new customers and, even more importantly, steal customers away from the competing product. And insulting their choice is certainly a poor way of achieving this result.

If I had been asked the same question, here is what I would have answered:

The iPad is a great device, there is no denying this, but as a first generation product, it also suffers from quite a few limitations. In the next few months, you will be seeing a lot of new Windows based tablets that will make the iPad look like a first generation iPod.

Here is why I think this kind of passive aggressive message is much more effective than Ballmer’s bashing approach:

The iPad is a great device.

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging a competing product’s success: it will make current customers feel good about their choice and you will get their attention. One gotcha, though: always make sure that you accompany such a statement with one that will show your own product in an even better light.

but as a first generation product

A minor jab, but also a fact that nobody can deny, not even Apple advocates. The iPad is the first of its kind, both because it’s the first tablet that Apple released but also because it’s the first tablet that’s actually a commercial success.

it also suffers from quite a few limitations

Another minor jab rooted in facts. Again, you want the audience that you are trying to acquire to nod. They might love their iPad, but they are also aware that it doesn’t have a USB port, no camera, no wifi tethering and a Bluetooth profile that’s missing network connectivity.

In the next few months, you will be seeing a lot of new Windows based tablets

Done with discussing the competition, time to promote your own product now. No need to give a precise timeline but make sure to hint that these releases will happen “soon” in order to create some hesitation in customers that are on the verge of buying an iPad.

that will make the iPad look like a first generation iPod.

Maybe a negative comparison to a product that doesn’t belong to your competitors would be more appropriate here, but this one will do for now. The idea is to remind your listeners that this field is evolving extremely fast and that in this early adopter phase, waiting a few months before making a choice might be a wise move.

All of these observations sound like common sense to me, but then again, maybe there are more subtle forces at work and I’m just being naive.