What to do when the chief executive doesn't mean what he says
Andrew Cave is a freelance journalist, who writes the weekly business profile in The Sunday Telegraph as well as several other regular features for the Daily Telegraph. He has recently published his first book, The Secrets of CEOs
It’s not every day in one’s business journalism career that one comes a cropper with a global megastar with 41.6m Twitter followers.
Then again, in 27 years of writing for newspapers, I can’t recall a chief executive that I’ve interviewed performing a swift about-face and confessing that he “mis-spoke” when he gave me an exclusive story. Until now, that is.
Here are the facts. While researching an article on the communications challenges of the new market for electronic cigarettes for CorpComms Magazine, I came across Blu eCigs – a company virtually unheard of in the UK.
The brand has only really existed here since April, when the US company renamed Skycigs, a British e-cigarettes company it bought last year.
Blu got in touch too late for the CorpComms article, which appears in the June/July issue but I took up its offer of an interview with Jacob Fuller, chief executive of Blu Cigs UK.
It is he who has to somehow persuade the British public that they should try a brand that claims 45 per cent of the US e-cigarette market.
So an obvious question when he claimed that Blu aims to have a 50 per cent UK market share by the end of next year was how on earth is the company expecting to achieve that.
This is what he said (I have it on tape and in a shorthand note). ‘In the US, Blu is working with Lady Gaga on a video with Blu in it. It’s a global video that’s going to allow us to piggyback on that brand exposure in the UK.
‘Kevin Spacey uses Blu eCigs on The House of Cards and it’s been on The David Letterman Show. As those episodes make it over here, we’re getting great UK exposure from that.
‘Blu also uses actor Stephen Dorff as its celebrity spokesman in the US and he came to the UK for our launch.’
An archive search revealed that the Lady Gaga connection had not been written about before. The CEO quotes stood on their own, telling the story and The Sunday Telegraph ran them under the headline: ‘Blu lines up celebrities for UK assault’ and next to a picture of Gaga wearing American football body armour over a Ziggy Stardust-style leotard.’
Nice story, thought I and so did websites gagadaily.com, popreport.com, operationgaga.com and quite a few others.
The website informationsociety.co.uk ran the story under the headline: ‘Lady Gaga’s Deal to promote Blu eCigs is a Public Health Nightmare,’ while wcignewsedge.com went one further with: ‘Lady Gaga will pitch e-cigarettes to teens and other little monsters’.
Then I received an email from Resound Marketing, the PR agency that represents Blu eCigs in the US. It reads: ‘This article has caused quite a stir here in the states – and to clarify, Jacob Fuller with Blu UK misspoke. He did not provide accurate information, and Blu eCigs does not have any relationship or associations with Lady Gaga.’
Three days later, Blu eCigs UK pushed out a statement through its public relations agency W Communications alongside a request (declined) for a print correction.
It reads: ‘Blu eCigs regularly receives sponsorship and product placement requests and, in this instance, Jacob Fuller was mistaken regarding this comment. Blu eCigs does not have any relationship or association with Lady Gaga.’
The CEO ‘mis-spoke’ and was ‘mistaken’. Well that’s a first in nine years of regularly interviewing chief executives. Did he deliberately misread or had he just been misinformed himself?
Either way, neither he or his PR adviser at W saw fit to correct his statement at the time. And Blu is not exactly a beginner at all this. Its US parent Lorillard is America’s third largest tobacco company.
Anyway, the US retraction statement was released and has got quite a bit of coverage. It made an article in Business Week and Advertising Age, while the website lady-gaga.gossipler.com ran it under the headline: ‘Lady Gaga not pushing Blu-e-Cigs after all, brand says’.
What to make of all this? Well, the tape doesn’t lie. The CEO said it. Did he mean it? Who knows? And what is the actual state of affairs, behind the PR guff about no relationships or associations. Presumably, talks at least took place, given that the UK CEO thought his parent company had a deal?
None of it looks too clever and the PR response on both sides of the Atlantic has been particularly clumsy.
What could they have done differently? Well, Walmart recently sent a shudder down all journalists’ spines when, instead of taking New York Times reporter Timothy Egan to task over an article entitled ‘The Corporate Daddy,’ it reprinted the piece on its company blog – complete with a load of handwritten red ink giving the company’s particularly lively responses.
Closer to home, an interview I conducted for the Telegraph this year with Premier Foods chief executive Gavin Darby prompted the company to take out a series of full-page adverts.
In the interview, Darby had prevaricated over whether he was planning to ditch the “Exceedingly Good Cakes” slog of its Mr Kipling cakes brand.
The adverts, which were apparently directed by Darby himself, featured a picture of an iced tart alongside the message: ‘Mr Kipling doesn’t do rumours but he does make exceedingly good cakes’.
As for Blu, it does seem to do rumours rather well. Maybe it should put them in its e-cigarettes and smoke them.