Black Friday and the PR blues

As  ‘awareness’ campaigns go, Black Friday was an undeniable hit in the UK last week. It has been bubbling under for a few years with Amazon cited as starting it here in 2010, the Mirror reporting £200 million spending taking place in 2012, followed by media focus on customers fighting over bargains in Asda supermarket in 2013 – and Visa predicted sales of £520 million on its cards alone for 2014.

Judging both by the volume of Black Friday promotional emails hitting my in-box and conversations with non-PR people, the concept had certainly cut through this year. Many have reported the event turned into a “PR disaster” – or as it is now known #PRFail – for Asda with round two of the customer brawls broadcast on live breakfast television, and wider negative media and public opinion around a lack of actual bargains being available.

Indeed, some major brands in the US don’t open on Black Friday reportedly in respect of their employees’ enjoyment of a long holiday weekend.

The term is alleged to have originated in Philadelphia in the 1930s or 1950s, becoming a national US phenomenon in the 1990s. Others claim the ‘black’ refers to profits generated by the day. Via PRNewser, are two 1966 pieces uploaded by Bonnie Taylor-Blake:

Cream Consultancy has an interesting blog post: Today is a black day for Britain, discussing the reputational damage to brands – and the contrast of ugly commercialism and the increasing importance of food banks for many charities this year. I’ve observed that many of the supermarkets who championed Black Friday as a spending feast are also holding or hosting collections for food banks.

What gives me the PR blues about Black Friday is how PR practitioners jumped on this bandwagon as a promotional opportunity for any brand (even the Public Relations Society of America offered a deal on membership – hardly the mark of a professional organisation IMHO). Of course, public relations tactics can be used to achieve marketing – and sales – goals, but for me, this should be undertaken with strategic insight. Not only are Black Friday discounts quite tacky in the main, but they also counter the longer-term focus of PR on building reputation, and likewise, for marketing on building brand equity, and for sales in ensuring profitability.

No doubt the ‘success’ of Black Friday is being evaluated in terms of media coverage and social media chatter by numerous PR agencies and in-house teams. They will be arguing for ridiculous advertising-value equivalent figures (or even more unscientific PR value) as they stack up the big data – even in a week where (unsurprisingly) problems in interpreting social media datahave been noted. Marketing colleagues will be claiming credit for public awareness and the rush to purchase, whilst sales teams will be touting the volume of business done. Whether or not this reflects profit is another matter. Particularly for retailers who have relied on price cutting regardless of the negative impact on suppliers, customer relations or any of the other factors of a sustainable business.

Of course, it is hard to buck a trend and argue against the excitement of getting footfall and online clicks. But surely that’s what strategic public relations is all about – and if Black Friday means delivering a positive result (as opposed to being in the red), let’s hope a few more organisations boycott the hype and focus on delivering better service to all their stakeholders as we approach the season of goodwill.

I’m already aware of various firms that are planning to cut jobs as the end of year figures come in – short-term promotions are unlikely to deliver the type of financial turnaround that is necessary to avoid more families joining those foodbank queues.

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