An Interesting PR-Social Media Blunder! Audi India This Time

A post republished with permission from Omkar Sapre's blog on the recent PR-Social Media Blunder by Audi India with Vishal Gondal

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The post has been republished with permission from Omkar Sapre’s blog.

(Disclaimer: I have known about, spoken to and met Vishal Gondal earlier. However, that familiarity is kept aside for the purpose of objectively writing this as a pure academic and insight based piece and my opinion on how would I have handled this if I was in the position.)

I have always been a fan of reading about how-not-to-do certain things. If you analyse closer, an experience of how-not-to-do actually teaches you more about how-to-do, than learning about the latter in the first place. Among other things, how-not-to-do a social media-PR-public communication blunder is particularly of my interest. As I write this today, 26 Nov 2012, a PR-Social Media blunder involving Audi (the Ravi Shastri fame car) is underway, generously distributing critical learning on how-not-to-do-it. This is the first time I am watching such a thing live, so this post. 

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Is film kee  kahani shuru hoti hain Friday 23 Nov, 2012 ko subah 7.57 baje (the story of this film/movie starts on Friday 23 Nov, 2012 at 7.57 AM). The lead or the hero of this story is Vishal Gondal, based in Mumbai.  Statistically, the hero is a popular person in real life. Has a Wikipedia page on his name, and Google search for his name throws up 53300 results, in 0.33 seconds.

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Google also throws up suggestions as you type in his name. Here it is. Mind you, the suggestions are based on historical user searches. Again statistically, someone whose net worth is being searched, seems to be quite a popular person.

Of Facebook, he has 11,250 subscribers. Add on 5000 friends that he might have accepted. So he has an audience of 16,250 plus people. Assuming there 16,250 people have average 50 friends each. (number has to be more, but mathematics isn’t the subject matter of this post). That’s a potential reach of 8,12,500 people. That’s huge. At a ballpark, 25% of this potential reach is easily achievable for his broadcast on social media. Critical Red Flag: In his friend list are journalists and editors of large newspapers, national and international.

The film opens with the hero getting an SMS from his heroine’s bodyguard, a little after midnight. The heroine is what the hero fondly calls Bat-Mobile (an Audi Q7 car, market price over half-a-crore rupees), the bodyguard is a GPS tracker supplied by a company called TechnoPurple (didn’t know this company earlier). The SMS says that the heroine is not in her room where she was supposed be resting for the night. The hero is shocked. His beloved heroine never goes anywhere without telling him. Today he had sent her to her mayka (maternal place) to meet her parents and relatives. (For the confused, he had sent his car for servicing, and it should have been stationed in the service centre for the night)

The hero is scared; where has his heroine gone, is she kidnapped, has she eloped? Throughout the night, he keeps getting updates from the bodyguard that his heroines is going places where she should not go or does not go and doing things she does not do. He tracks her positions real time and in the morning makes an announcement to his world.

vishal_gondal_audiq7His babe was kidnapped, and the culprit he found was none other than her uncle from her mayka, who should actually be taking care of her. His Audi Q7 car, as the GPS tracker showed him, was taken out of the service centre in the night, driven for about 160 kms, over-speeding on the way, made some stops and was returned to the service centre in the night.

A quick glance at the hero’s online profiles makes it reasonably clear that this is not an April Fools joke. Again, going by statistics, this isn’t a person that should be ignored. This very broadcast is extremely critical, has the potential of vociferously shaking customer confidence and has to be taken care of on a war footing. If I was the MD of Audi India, I would have treated this as a Black Swan and put my best team on the job. This is not only a grave challenge, but a great opportunity too. The broadcast has come early morning and I have a full working day at my disposal. The first step would have been to send a senior official in the next one hour to meet the hero at his home and have some free breakfast while personally looking at the bodyguard’s updates and then another meeting with the head of the GPS-tracker provider. Another person to instantly get in touch with the dealer and investigate thoroughly. I want the first information report before 10.30 AM.

However, that was me. There was no response from Audi India, or at least nothing is visible from Audi India on Vishal’s broadcast or on its own page till the evening. That is a HUMONGOUS mistake.

In the evening comes an update from the bodyguard’s boss.

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Wow, now more people have their skin in the game, apart from the hero. That makes things more difficult. Audi India seemed to make no move.

Alongside, on Twitter, the MD seemed to be in discussion with Vishal, also made a call to him. Meanwhile, other people were tweeting to the MD Michael Perschke and he kept responding that he is looking into it, personally taking charge, etc, while tweeting other things about Audi. No urgency was visible or evident to the public. Bad signal. Just saying ‘I love you’ is not enough. The love should also be felt, which was missing here. (Edit at 6.00 AM, 27 Nov) Along while, he tweeted to Neha Dhupia. She did not respond to his tweet for over 16 hours now; she wasn’t off Twitter all this while. There are ample tweets from her in this time. Maybe she was angry he asked for a free car freshener sample; Neha endorses Ambi Pur. Ok, the last line was  was a joke.   WORST PART: The Audi India MD MISSPELT the name of his brand in the tweet.

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Continuing from the update from the bodyguard’s boss, about an hour later, Audi India made a move, but an excruciatingly horrible one. It sent a handwritten record to show the car didn’t leave the service centre.

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In legal matters, they use a term ‘proved beyond doubt’, which means that something is not only proved, but for a sane person who can use his jurisprudence, there is no room left for doubt. Can’t a handwritten record can be created anytime? And CCTV footage that does not show the car’s number leaves lot to be doubted. Moreover, if at all a person took the car for a joyride, will he make an entry in the register? That would be height of honesty, ain’t it? Beyond this, for a company which claims superior technology in the world, handwritten records is so embarrassing. Eeeks! Further loss of brand equity.

The Audi India MD, going by his words that he was in charge, should not have let this happen. In such a war-like situation where integrity is at stake, do not let your soldiers choose any weapon to fire.

The night passed and the time-bomb kept ticking. Next day, there was an explosion. Two tabloids in Mumbai, Mid Day and Mumbai Mirror carried the story. Mid-Day here and Mumbai Mirror Here.

So now how many people saw this and read this? 5 lakh plus? Easily? Add to that 25% of Vishal’s own potential reach. Let’s make it 2 lakh, so 7 lakh people know this. We’ll come back to this soon.

The customer relations manager at the Audi dealer makes a strong statement in the Mid Day article, effectively indicating that what the hero, the bodyguard and the bodyguard’s boss are saying is nothing but gas; in the Indian meaning. She also effectively means that TechnoPurple’s technology is lying and fake. Would this GPS-tracker company take this lying down?

Now while this happened, somebody seized the opportunity to score some brownie points, and it was the competitor.

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Now what worse than this could be for any brand. This is like while the girlfriend and the boyfriend fought or ignored each the, the best friend stole the kiss and soon got married too. Remember, Student of The Year.

Some hours later this happened.

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Are you serious Audi, your people really did this? Isn’t this beyond logic, ya? Have we ever seen a camera being employed inside a car service centre to photograph odometers, as a matter of routine? I have been to openings of car service centres in and around Pune of atleast six car brands, where the MD/CEOs have spoken to the press about what all is done here. Never has anyone said anything about odometer photographs. This feature, if at all its there, is definitely level higher than ‘cool water is made available’, so they should have obviously spoken of this. And again, can this pic prove beyond doubt that this is the heroine? All cars of the same model look the same. That’s what standardisation and economies of scale is meant to achieve, isn’t it?

Sometime later, the hero put out another update. The bodyguard shows his car was standing at the car scrap market, which is even scarier for a car-owner. Now imaginations can run wild.

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Now getting back to my analysis of 7 lakh people having known this. Now for anything  negative or controversial, people eagerly share it with others. Assume those 7 lakh people shared this with 3 people each on an average. So 21 lakh people potentially know this. Let’s count this as 21 lakh thumbs down. Add on the scare that this might have got into the minds of those already customers of Audi. About 12000+ Audis sold in India from Jan 2010- June 2012. Will this also scare customers of sister brands of Audi, that is ŠKODA and Volkswagen. Calculate what is the collective loss of brand equity that this caused to Audi and its group?

Imagine the aspersions it may cast on the auto industry. Won’t car customers think, ‘If this can happen to a luxury car brand, what will be happening to janata brands?’ Remember in Apr 2011, when a roadside panipuri vendor in Thane was caught on film peeing into a vessel. That incident reduced sales of panipuri across the state for many days, even at ISO certified bhelpuri shops.

Back to Audi. Going by the published figures of Rs 5 crore spend (by its parent company) for 22 lakh copies of the talking newspaper in 2010, the company’s reach out cost per reader comes Rs 23. Would this mean that 21 lakh people knowing this story is equivalent to a loss of more than Rs 5 crores? (Including rising costs over 2011 and 2012). And double that amount for communication to first negate that negative feeling and then again to make it positive? So a net loss worth Rs 15 crore in brand equity?

Whatever it is, and however right or wrong my calculation be, the loss is huge. And it still continues as I write this. And this has been and will be etched onto the internet for ever.

Could Audi have avoided this loss and turned this into an opportunity? I feel yes. What would have you done if you were the Audi India MD?

Continuing on ‘if I was the MD’, apart from the steps above, I would have publicly tweeted and also commented on Vishal’s opening broadcast that a senior official is at work and will get to the root of this by end of day today. Meanwhile, a promise from me. It at all, unfortunately, if it is found that the car was indeed taken out, we will take back the car and replace it with a brand new car of the same model. While ensuring this is not repeated again, we will work on establishing further checks and balances at our dealerships later on.

It would have gone without saying to say that ‘we take customer satisfaction seriously’, as MD had tweeted. Net loss/gain had this really happened, including cost of the replaced car, would have been still positive, plus the faith it may have added on. What do you think?

(Disclaimer: I do not mean to hurt anyone’s sentiments nor malign anyone or Audi. This is just an analysis of what was publicly available and what might happen in the future to any company or customer. Eventually, all sorts of people work in a company and anyone can be a cause of such embarrassment. As a responsible journalist, and an aspiring business leader, I thought this incident warranted a discussion, with a particular slant towards what should be ideally done in such cases to safeguard a brands image. If you are Audi and are upset by any words in this post, do let me know, reader satisfaction is my priority and I am personally involved.)