As a PR agency with global credentials and reach, we like to keep our ear to the ground on the international PR scene. So our interest was well and truly piqued by a unique celebrity chat app called Sociabl, which was launched amid huge fanfare in Australia recently.
It bombed. Critics, of whom there are many, lament that it made history by both launching and folding in the same day. With our professional development hats on, here we take a look at the lessons we can learn – for PRs, media and the fresh-faced young entrepreneurs themselves.
Firstly, the background: The twentysomething founders of the philanthropic app promised to allow people to pay to connect with their favourite celebrities via intimate, one-on-one video calls, with a 50% chunk of revenue going to the celebrity’s nominated charity.
Where the masterplan fell apart was allegedly false claims Sociabl made about celebrity clients it had on its books. The app’s credibility was most notably called into question in a launch-day broadcast on national breakfast TV.
On the Today show segment, host David Campbell held co-founder Brandon Reynolds to account about himself and his musician father, Jimmy Barnes, both being plugged on the app, despite never having agreed to participate. The piece makes uncomfortable viewing.
Furthermore, while press releases touted ministerial guests and celebrities lined up to attend a swanky launch party afloat a multimillion dollar super-yacht, a wave of negativity saw many industry and VIP contacts distance themselves from the venture.
While the sorry episode has significantly damaged the fledgling brand, it hasn’t done huge favours for the PR industry either. A handful of observations from The Tonic:
Preparation is everything: We’re not Scouts, but we wholeheartedly ascribe to the mantra of being prepared for any eventuality. In an official Sociabl response to the Today Show fallout, Reynolds cites his understanding that the interview was going to be a positive promotional piece, and it was to his surprise and dismay that it effectively turned into a hatchet job. To what extent the producers misled Sociabl and its PR folks is unknown. But Sociabl admits the show raised concerns before recording about the celebrities actually locked in and they confirmed this would be a topic of questioning. In this scenario, a thorough investigation of the status of each celebrity should have been executed immediately, with key messages developed to show the app was not intending to mislead consumers. A review of whether to go ahead with the recording would be recommended.
Media training is vital: While the founders say the breakfast TV segment was heavily edited, a better portrayal of the company may have been possible with media training for the Sociabl spokesperson. There are a number of techniques to manage a confrontational interview and practical tips that will limit reputational damage within the most challenging of environments.
Don’t overhype: A dirge to the PR industry at large is the concept of ‘spin’. It’s an unfamiliar practice at The Tonic. While we pride ourselves at getting to the heart of a story and finding the relevant hook to reach the target audience, this does not – and should not – misrepresent the truth or mislead media or the public. It’s a lesson Sociabl learned the hard way. Before officially launching, it was forced to withdraw a number of celebrities with questions over their contractual involvement, and within 24 hours the app itself was no longer in operation.
Undertaking due diligence: Some journalists turned to the PR agent to pick apart messages within Sociabl’s media materials. The response, from the renowned Australian PR, was essentially that he took the information told to him on face value. Although PRs can only act on the facts provided in good faith, it is always good practice to operate due diligence. After all, your own reputation as a credible PR agency may also be at stake.
Having a long term strategy: In the eye of the storm, it’s often a challenge to make considered decisions that will repair brand damage in the long term. Interestingly, Sociabl seemed to critique the Australian media for being unsupportive, essentially turning on the very people it may need to have relationships with down the line, if another business venture is borne from the wreckage of this promising tech start up.
Despite a $9million pre-launch valuation, so far, it’s unclear what the future holds for Sociabl. In terms of the PR fallout, when questioned on his relationship with his agency and its founder, Reynolds told Australian media: “I have not fired him as of yet, but I can imagine we’ll be parting ways.”
You can keep tabs on developments from Sociabl via its website
With a wealth of expertise in the technology sector, The Tonic Communications can support start ups bringing new products to market. Check out our track record launching the Emojicate app, or get in touch with our team to find out more.