John Lewis, a dog and a snowstorm

John Lewis has upset a few people, it seems. The final scene of its Christmas ad shows a dog left out in the snow, while a small boy pins a Christmas stocking to its kennel. To say this hasn’t gone down well with dog lovers and animal welfare campaigners would be understating the case.

Dogcast Radio, an ‘internet radio show and podcast for dog lovers’, has started a Facebook page to campaign to stop the ad:

Campaigners are encouraging dog lovers to complain to the Advertising Standards authority to get the ad pulled; but there are dissenting voices, too (one example: “It’s an advert for goodness sake. You get Christmas cards from animal rescues with dogs in kennels on! There are far more important things to protest over than a tv advert!”).

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the ad. What I’m interested in is how John Lewis is dealing with this vociferous minority (for now, at least) and responding.

Here’s an extract from the John Lewis Facebook page, yesterday afternoon:

There’s no rule book, sadly, when dealing with these sorts of issues. It is particularly difficult to get it right when the group you’re dealing with are as committed and passionate – and as resistant to argument – as animal rights and issue campaigners.

John Lewis has done what should have been the right thing, in trying to take the discussion off Facebook, by inviting people to talk to customer service direct about their concerns. But in this instance, the retailer may have underestimated its audience. There’s a camaraderie between people with a shared passion. What’s ended up happening is that campaigners are sharing the responses they’re getting, and pulling them apart on the site.

These same campaigners seem to be concerned primarily with promoting their cause as widely as possible, to bring pressure to John Lewis, rather than taking up individual points of view with the retailer. They are putting pressure on animal charities to come out against the ad (which none have done, at the time of writing) [UPDATE 18 NOV – I’VE BEEN TOLD THAT AN ANIMAL CHARITY IS NOW INVOLVED.]

The other thing John Lewis has done well is to contain the issue on the channels where the comments are appearing, rather than over-reacting. It is responding to Facebook campaigners on Facebook; it hasn’t contributed to the issue by posting statements everywhere and giving the issue more publicity. [This has rather changed since the time of writing. There appear to be mixed messages among campaigners about whether John Lewis has listened to criticism or not, and whether that crticism has contributed to the ad being changed. Perhaps decisive action earlier on would have prevented today’s publicity achieved by campaigners around the ad].

What I think it hasn’t quite got right is to send out identical responses to each campaigner on Facebook – so everyone can see that they’re not getting personal responses, bar a namecheck at the beginning of the message. I can see that if an issue gets to a huge scale, personalising each response would be problematic, but at the moment, it’s still just a handful of people (more than 1000 at the time of writing) complaining about the ad, and individual responses would be possible.

The issue here is, I suspect, that the ‘official’ response has been through corporate communications approval, and is not coming from a team of experience community managers. A more human face would show that John Lewis was listening and responding with a personal touch, rather than trying to ‘contain’ an issue as part of a PR exercise.

I spoke briefly to Tamara Littleton, CEO of social media management and moderation company, eModeration (disclosure: eModeration is a client of Carrot’s), about the handling of the Facebook community. Here’s what she said:

“We’re going to see more of this happening as people use a brand’s Facebook page as a customer service portal and it’s great to see John Lewis responding. They could make the response even more human by addressing people’s concerns. One thing they could consider is saying clearly that the dog was not harmed and it was just part of the story. They could even link to the person who provides the dog, to look behind the scenes of the ad, which would make it clear that this is part of a story, and not advocacy of keeping dogs outside. In these situations, the brand must listen to concerns and address them clearly, but then steer the conversation away in a different direction. If you get it right, other people will help answer comments and complaints on behalf of the brand and spread the word.”

So, the lessons here are:
– Understand your audience
– Communicate with them in the most appropriate way, and individually when possible
– Listen to concerns, and respond appropriately
– Don’t create a firestorm where there isn’t one. Sometimes, the best thing is simply to move away from the debate.

Will it affect John Lewis? The retailer posted an increase in sales last week of 6.8 per cent over the same period last year the week of 15 November (76.93 bn up from 71.99 bn) over the same period last year, so I doubt it.

crisis management, John Lewis,
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2010: the year of protest?

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