Ulsterbank’s Tea Stand Hijack #PRFail

The banking sector hasn’t had an easy time of it in recent years and there’s not many folk that could muster sympathy for them. Ulsterbank especially, after the technical disasters of 2012-13, have been on the PR defensive for some time.

One thing most PROs can sympathise with is our kin working in the financial sector, trying to promote products while at the same time working on organisational reputation damage limitation.

It was with initial optimism then, that I saw Ulsterbank’s PR teams were out in force at various events offering free coffee in exchange for a sales pitch from staff about their latest mortgage deals. It may be deemed “old-hat” to give away anything at conferences and trade shows, but personally I’m a sucker for the usual free Quality Street and coffee in particular is ridiculously expensive in our cosmopolitan little land, so I would definitely be up for a free cup!

But then, disaster struck. The PR pitch was hijacked by the most emotive of hijackers - one man, a hand-made sign and the fear in all of us that we could lose our homes:

Of course, you can’t lay the blame for mortgage repossessions (fully) at any one bank’s door, but the irony of the image now circulating the social media-sphere is such that it has been shared over 1,000 times in just a few days.

Didn’t they see it coming, you ask? It’s hard to know. I imagine that anyone working in the Communications Department of a bank now assumes that anything they say/do will get a frosty reaction given the depths we have sunk to in this recession. Could they have avoided it? That is a different question. They could possibly have provided someone (either from the bank or an external voluntary organisation) alongside them to offer advice for anyone struggling to keep up payments on their current mortgage, so they could sell new mortgages in peace.

But is it their job to do that? Well therein lies the conundrum. In the same way that it is not an alcohol brand’s job to make sure people drink responsibly, and it is not a fast food company’s job to encourage you to eat a balanced diet, the decision to include such Corporate Social Responsibility schemes in the course of selling us stuff is based on whether it adds to your corporate reputation, improves your brand image and (probably most importantly) attempts to avoid backlashes like this one.

Next time, it might be a good idea to offer a side of Debt Counselling with that free coffee…