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The Sniff Test

It has concerned me greatly this past few weeks seeing a flurry of beyond poor decision making by big brands and powerhouse individuals that should, quite frankly, know better. The absence of a moral and ethical compass coupled with greed, has been astounding and reputational fallout is, I’m afraid totally deserved. Money and power does not equal reputational success and brands need holding to account when they get things wrong.


The two situations that have emerged in recent weeks that have piqued mine and others interest are BetFred’s court case after refusing to pay £1m prize money to a player due to a defect in a game, and the highlight of reputational WTF’s, is the ‘as quick as it was launched it was debunked’, European Super League (ESL).


And that brings me nicely to the topic of this week’s blog - the sniff test. In a nutshell this means that regardless of whether decisions brands take comply with certain rules, laws, regulations etc, often the biggest and most important test is whether they morally and ethically stack up or do they in fact, stink? Taking the time to get proper insights in place to inform good decision making is absolutely key as well, of course.


Nobody should underestimate the power of the moral compass; if something doesn’t feel (smell) right then explore the reasons why, and in doing so, it will likely uncover and help everyone, face into any uncomfortable truths or as some would say ‘the elephant in the room’ that people and brands often overlook.


Aligned with the sniff test is a big lesson for all brands about involving Comms and PR expertise at the inception phase of projects, campaigns and strategic decision making. All too often this is an afterthought and comms experts are handed a poison chalice and expected to work miracles when the damage is already done. I’ve been there. Many times. There is one particular poison chalice that still makes me gulp and cause a cold sweat to this day - it scarred me and many of my then team for years! Just for insight, we did salvage what appeared unsalvageable, but it came at a huge price with longstanding fallouts.


‘Salvage the un-salvageable’ is a comms person’s worst nightmare and is often the consequence of decisions being made behind closed doors by the wrong people who are out of touch, and most often without comms expertise present to guide the way.


But there are also many examples I have of comms expertise being used brilliantly to influence and focus decision making. I’ve lost count of the amount of times good Directors have involved me early on in a project or decision that started in one guise and ended up looking and feeling very different because research, insight and the ‘sniff test’ had been undertaken and solid comms advice had been listened to, understood and acted upon. More of this is needed.


Let’s be clear though; reputation matters. A great deal. Any business, individual or organisation that takes their reputation for granted and thinks they can run roughshod over their customer base, will come a cropper at some point.


I always see my role when working with brands as not only their critical friend but their brand conscience too - but only if they let you in at the right time and are open minded enough to hear truths and respond to solid insights.


Organisations that don’t value comms teams and don’t have communications expertise embedded at a senior management level in my view, leave themselves seriously reputationally exposed. Comms and PR expertise should be there as much to help deliver successful communications and business strategies, as to challenge the moral compass of the organisations they work for and ask those all important uncomfortable questions. I wonder if in hindsight (ahh, that wonderful thing), those spearheading the ESL would have approached things differently following the fallout of their naive decision making? If time had been spent on really understanding the objectives and impacts of the ESL idea, with good research and insight on the table and bringing in the right comms experts in at the right time and listening to their advice rather than railroading them, anyone with half a brain would have run a mile from the stench coming off such a flawed proposal and would have gone back to the drawing board.


Equally, in the case of BetFred, an innocent consumer was taken to court after winning prize-money and being denied it due to an alleged technical issue. And let’s not mention the alleged smaller payout and NDA put on the table to make the situation go away. Thank goodness that the player in question had the strength to stand firm - and it paid off.


Now, public trust has without a doubt been compromised in both cases. But in good news, the public either as a collective or individually have stood their ground and held those brands to account when they smelt something was off.


Not to labour the point, but the ESL is still baffling - a monumental misjudgement of epic proportions powered by greed and elitism. In the space of 24 hours it had launched, been pulled to pieces and buried, leaving behind huge mistrust and ongoing reputational impacts for those spearheading it and the clubs that had signed up. Now heads are bowed in shame, tails are between legs and there is a trail of cringeworthy apologies coming from all directions that reaffirm just how wrong and out of touch this decision was. The comms expertise that could have been used to prevent all of this had it been used effectively, is needed now more than ever to rebuild trust.


What is clear is that some brands are incredibly out of touch and their priorities all wrong. They need to wake up and smell the coffee, get back to reality and never underestimate the power of the public who can smell a rat from a mile off. And critically, recognise the value of their Comms and PR experts and the role they can play in helping shape and guide organisations to make informed and good decisions that assess risks and benefits constructively and put the customer, client and supporter front and centre; because a brand is worth nothing without them.


Nobody gets it right all of the time, but the public can be far more forgiving of mistakes if they are not borne out of greed and selfishness in the first place. We are all more likely to have loyalty towards brands that smell of roses rather than those that smell of sewers, wouldn’t you say?

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