FedEx vs. The New York Times

I was astonished to see FedEx’s tweet yesterday! It said,

Wow! That’s some fight they are starting!

Ok, let me see the distortions and factual inaccuracies that they are referring to and then, with that knowledge, let me read the NYT article in question.

So, I click on the link.

It was (as the screenshot was captured by a Twitter user) this:

Or, this:

Huh?

That’s it? What are the inaccuracies? What is the distortion? Without explaining even one inaccuracy or distortion, if you are merely calling the publication for an open debate, it simply looks like a, “Come outside, I’ll see you!” threat!

Understandably, people were asking the same question, to FedEx. In droves!!

This is a horrendously bad example of corporate PR. If you are going to stand up to a publication’s story, without going through the conventional route of, ‘Let’s reach out to the editor and organize a breakfast meeting with between them and our CXOs’, then you need to think through this carefully.

The main objective is this: they have said what they want to. Now we need to say our side of the story.

Before the days of the internet, organizations had limited ways to put their own side of the story in front of the public. They may have had to take out an advertisement in the same newspaper/magazine that put out the first story! (Or, do it in a rival newspaper. Or, call a press conference, that includes multiple media – they’d turn up depending on the interest levels generated by the brands involved).

But, we have the internet. FedEx can put its own side of the story, in detail, explaining every single inaccuracy from another angle. On their own website. And promote the hell out of that page so that it reaches a LOT of people.

The crux here is to offer another perspective. A counter-narrative to the one that has been offered first from the publication’s side. The idea is to color the views of people who have read the first one, with another point of view. Whether they believe it or not depends on how convincing you sound and how much truth/facts you have to offer.

I reckon FedEx realized the blunder soon enough and updated the statement. No, it didn’t clarify that it has updated the statement – it just updated it silently, after seeing so many questions about the complete lack of any meaning or sense in its earlier, short statement.

Notice the 3 new paragraphs above the original statement?

I won’t even go into the details of who is right, who is wrong or who has the facts by their side. That is not the point of this post.

I was involved in such a situation back in 2012 while heading corporate communications at Flipkart. When the cover story hit Forbes, Flipkart had 2 choices – ignore it (while getting Flipkart CEO to meet Forbes editor for breakfast 2 weeks later and talk it out!) or take it head-on.

If Flipkart did take it head-on, they first need to color the perceptions of the people with a counter-narrative. That is precisely what happened with the letter from Flipkart’s CEO, to Forbes, which he requested to be published on Forbes online.

A minor quirk that we had utilized back at that time was that Forbes usually has a 2-week window before a print story goes online, to ensure sales of the print publication. And we had requested Forbes’ editor to take the letter live online. Thankfully for Flipkart, Forbes carried it almost immediately (along with a counter-counter letter, of course).

Result: For the next 2 weeks, most people read Flipkart’s letter first, with no context of the actual article that caused it (since print circulation is much, much smaller, for magazines in India). It was only after 2 weeks did most people read the actual article, after being adequately colored by the counter-narrative. This showed up in the comments to the letter (there were hundreds of comments, by the way – they have now been removed from the website, though).

Again, like the FedEx story, I won’t go into the details of the points raised by the Forbes story. That is a different topic altogether and using hindsight to see those points now isn’t fair either. This post is about a PR tactic and how to consider that tactic if you are pushed to that corner, as a PR person or a corporate.

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