Scare tactics - Rentokil PR people justify profit by any means

19 March 2010

If you've missed out on the ongoing PR pickle Rentokil is snarled up in, close the curtains, make a sandwich and settle down - here it is in a nutshell:

Rentokil circulated statements to journalists (based on their own research) that claimed the average train carriage was infected with 1,000 cockroaches, up to 200 bedbugs and up to 200 fleas, and that there were similarly significant pest problems on public buses. Rentokil's technical director, Savvas Othon stated:

“People eat on the move, and there is a lot of food left on seats. Pests are thriving.

Although we looked at a train not running in London, we believe that London trains, both underground and overground, will have a similar number of infestations. The bus we studied was within the M25, and we are already in talks with bus and Tube operators about a new cleaning system we've developed, which heats the vehicles to kill the insects, and their eggs.”

Several newspapers, armed with these facts, figures and quotes from directors, published the story, including the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph:

Bitterwallet - Telegraph covers Rentokil story

Ben Goldacre found the figures a little too hysterical and asked Rentokil to publish the original press release sent to journalists, which they did. Except it's not the same press release - it doesn't mention any figures concerning infestations and was published two days after the press published the story. This press release is all about their new product for treating pests, and carries no mention of public transport. Calls for Rentokil to publish the figures they sent to the media were ignored.

Rentokil eventually issued an apology over a week later, explaining the figures were "a worst case scenario" based on "a hypothetical situation". How hypothetical, exactly? They assumed:

  • A bus, or anything else, being left by itself in an isolated place
  • With no external factors to affect the mortality rate (so the population would be left unchecked)
  • Then we assumed that there is a perfect male to female ratio that allows optimal breeding numbers
  • That the environment would be controlled to a constant temperature, with no extremes
  • Finally, there would be a plentiful food supply to support the numbers of insects

Rentokil admitted they didn't study any trains or buses as part of their research (despite the claims of the director), nor did they consider the real life scenario - that public transport is in constant use and regularly treated for pest control, perfect male-to-female ratios are unlikely, nowhere outdoors in the UK is has a "controlled, constant temperature" and most public transport is cleaned on a daily basis.

Rentokil seemingly failed to mention any of this critical information in their dialogue with journalists.

There are two issues here; one is a running theme the avid readers of Bitterwallet will be well aware of; newspapers are becoming increasingly consistent in cutting and pasting press releases and passing them off as journalism. Online publishing and rolling news channels mean the media is more content hungry than ever; combined with significant job losses as media groups try to adapt, more content is being shovelled out using far less resource, so there's less in-depth journalism that would call bullshit on PR such as this.

The second issue is that PR agencies are aware of the first issue, and plenty are willing to exploit the situation. Proof of this isn't far away; specifically in the comments of Rentokil's blog. Here's a comment credited to Ruth Shearn, boss of Manchester PR company RMS:

"The initial ’scare’ press release – brilliant. Did exactly what it was intended to – got published everywhere, got people talking and raised Rentokil’s profile while conveying the message of what it does – KILL BUGS.

"Consumers – yes, those people Rentokil is seeking to attract – will now be aware of the name and what it does. They will not be indulging themselves in theoretical/philosophical talk about the actual figures – they will be scared witless about bugs and moved to pick up the phone to Rentokil..."

A client of RMS - Ling's Cars - also chipped in with a comment immediately preceding it:

"...all Rentokil has done is publish a harmless (almost funnily outrageous) story about buses and trains being potentially infested with thousands of cockroaches and bed bugs, and make some bullish replies, and follow a few thousand people on Twitter – to create a PR news storm. Getting your company name in so many reports and Tweets is GOOD. Nothing but good. The “crime” is trivial.

Brilliant laugh, no harm done, massive profile created. Excellent!"

Yes, no harm done! Excellent! Except for the fact that Rentokil had to publish a public apology to TfL for libelling them:

The [Evening Standard] article, which was based on information provided by our PR team, suggested that there is a pest problem on London transport. There is no evidence behind this.

The figures quoted on numbers of pests on buses and commuter trains are inaccurate and should never have been issued. We understand that TfL's trains are cleaned every day, deep cleaned fortnightly and buses are cleaned every day and deep cleaned monthly.

Rentokil apologises for any damage this article may have done to Transport for London's reputation.

So apart from that, no harm done.

Except that the information led to a member of the London Assembly being misled concerning the subject.

Except the reputation of every train and bus company in the country has also been tarnished. And since when did "scare tactics" become acceptable behaviour? If a rival car company chose to circulate a story that Ling's Cars offered discounts to sex offenders and pedophiles, it'd certainly create profile for the company and no doubt anger and scare the public, but Ling's Cars would hardly applaud the extra publicity. Or maybe they would.

The "nobody died" defence offered by morally bankrupt PR people and their clients is jaw-slackening. Profit by any means, or - or to put it another way - fuck the public, seems to be the only rule for dickish businesses and PR agencies operating without a shred of ethics.

30 comments

  • Rob
    Rentokil would do better to exterminate the PR people - a far bigger pest !
  • Warwick H.
    Add M.Ps, the House of Lords and the judiciary while your on, Oh and that twat Bruce Forsyth and what about Price and Max Clifford and beardy Branson?. I'm on a roll now.
  • rob
    do we even have cockroaches in the uk.cant say ive ever seen one and ive been in some dives
  • Nobby
    Rentokil offices could contain up to 1000 cockroaches. And that's just their staff.
  • Chris
    Rob: Seriously? it's not like they're exotic creatures or anything, of course we have cockroaches.
  • Olly
    "Except that the information led to MPs being misled concerning the subject." Presumably you mean a member of the London Assembly?
  • Paul S.
    Yes - corrected. Thanks Olly.
  • andyofyarm
    As a PR officer may say can I this opportunity to defend my profession with the following statement. "you can go fuck yourselves"
  • shinkyshonky
    What a fuck-up...lets run with the lings cars offer 20% discounts to paedophiles ....give her some shit publicity...
  • Ling V.
    Oh, my God. Who are these s-t-u-p-i-d gullible people in the London Assembly and elsewhere who believe a silly but clever press release by Rentokil? Do they really think there are 1,000 cockroaches on every train carriage or in every bus? I hope they wear earplugs and blindfolds on April 1st or the London Assembly may go into meltdown as several alien invasions may be aired in the press. The ridiculous indignation and "offence" taken by people over this daft cockroach story is incredible. I think the anti-PR Nazis are a very small minority. Good luck to any company who can get this stuff published. All it really shows is the state of "journalism" as press releases are churned into *NEWS*. Half the stuff in newspapers is this guff. And now by you lot (you lot = Ben Goldacre, Paul Smith etc and all the righteous Tweet policemen who constantly re-tweet the indignant outrage, and then get upset about it), you will simply not let the story die. You resurrect it at every opportunity, bringing it back to life - then you complain about it even more. What a joke! It is like a Charlie Brooker Newswipe sketch. Rentokil got massive name exposure for free. Any semi-intelligent person recognises the cockroach story is to be filed with the London bus on the moon expose (wonder if TFL got an apology about THAT from the Daily Sport) - ie: in the loony bin. What is the big deal about cockroaches in railway carriages and buses? Of course they aren't there. People would see them. Even if they were there, so what? Cockroach racing is a great spectator sport! What a load of miserable moaners exist in the blogosphere. No one has died, no one has come to any harm, it has all been great fun watching intelligent people make fools of them selves. The story itself is nothing, but cleverly crafted, swallowed whole by the press and sent nuclear by Ben Goldacre, then kept in orbit by Paul Smith et al. Rentokil had to apologise, great, that just kept the story rolling! And you anti-PR Nazis still don't have the original press release "the smoking gun", hahaha! You have to speculate about what Rentokil actually said. The art of PR is not to "do good", it is to get your client's name in the headlines without jeopardy. This has been a massive success for Rentokil, they must be laughing at every complaint about their continued exposure. If only my cars contained 1,000 cockroaches, I would be on a winner. Off to the pet shop, now for some giant hissing ones. Ling
  • Paul S.
    To summarise, then: scare tactics are fine, Rentokil are whiter than white, it's all the newspapers fault, PR agencies can do no wrong and anybody who disagrees with Ling's point of view is worthy of comparison to a Nazi. Glad we cleared that up.
  • Ling V.
    Paul - correct. It is just a silly, entertaining story that people who like to make a fuss about nothing have turned into a moral crusade of righteous indignation. That's just daft. Saying there may be some cockroaches in a train or bus is hardly a "scare". Like you, I wonder what the original PR thing actually said - this may be the nitwit journalists ramping it up, it may not, but whatever, it hardly registers on the "scare" scale - does it? WoooOOOoooOOOooo - people have nightmares about being trapped in a cockroach-infested train? What they gonna do? Get eaten alive? If the original PR is so bad, how come Ben Godacre has not managed to liberate a copy from the papers - after all, he writes for the Guardian doesn't he? Won't they show him a copy? Won't the journalists of the Mail or the Telegraph show him a copy? I wonder why not? The Nazi reference is as a Twitter-Nazi, as you get references to anti-smoking-Nazis or Health and Safety Nazis or parking-attendant Nazis. Of course that does not make you a deathcamp/1930/40 German Nazi. Again, you are going way OTT and making a fuss about nothing. You need a mirror and see who is bigging up this Rentokil story, Paul. ... you, and your pals and peer-group. It was a fantastic bit of slightly sensationalist PR that did its job - it got printed and publicised like mad. That's the point of PR. No one ever thinks PR is the God-like truth, do they? Ling
  • Fanta
    Marketeers: while living in a fantasy world where they have voodoo powers to influence everyone's thoughts, they become a gang of defensive astroturfers every time they are exposed as simple liars. It is worth noting that in the rentokil apology penned by Phil Wood, they regret damage to TfL's reputation - so plainly, they consider harm has been done by their dimwitted marketeers. No one has to die to make the act of pushing lies into news media an unethical thing to do.
  • Paul S.
    I don't think anybody turned it into a crusade, Ling - just because people dare to challenge PR agencies and businesses that are happy to deceive and bullshit the public? You are, however, correct in assuming those individuals probably have morals. To answer your question about why Ben Goldacre hasn't seen the original PR, you'd have to ask Ben. It doesn't really matter - in their public apology to TfL, Rentokil confirm it was their press office that provided the figures, that the figures were inaccurate and should never have been issued. That the figures were uniformly reported in the same timeframe could only mean one source rather than hyperbole, so suggesting that the misguided crusaders invented its existence is pretty weak stuff. I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying there'll be people who read the story and will now think twice about stepping foot on a tube or a bus (good news for car hire people!). There's already a long-standing perception that public transport is filthy and unhygienic, and that PR reinforces that stereotype. Repetition builds reputation, and all that. Nobody dies, but it still causes damage. In terms of bigging up the story - this is a consumer blog, Ling. We comment on consumer issues and do so in the consumer's interest. And it's reasonably important that consumers are made aware that PR agencies and businesses will abandon all morals in order to make money. Fairly straight forward, that. Chastising anybody who has a point of view different to you, claiming they're OTT... and then calling them a Nazi - nothing strike you as contradictory or slightly dickish about that? And by dickish, I mean you're an idiot - I don't think you physically resemble a penis. And no, nobody does think PR is the God-like truth - I've seen enough of it to know it's all written in the best interests of the client. I don't have an issue with PR in that respect, but I do with companies willing to lie, deceive and cheat their way to a sale, by bypassing regulation and manipulating editorial. What I don't get, Ling, is that you're a savvy operator and you've pulled off some great stunts for your business; your own site claims to treat customers like adults, yet you support PR tactics that assume consumers are mentally impaired.
  • Ling V.
    Sheesh. No, no you are wrong. I assume people are generally INTELLIGENT and ADULTS able to make up their own minds > so they will all read this story and chuckle, as I did. Anyone who actually thinks there are 1,000 cockroaches on each train carriage is in ga ga land. Point being that in your link (in the blog above) to the Evening Standard ( http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23811475-cockroaches-and-bedbugs-found-on-trains-and-buses.do ), none other than Mark Prigg, their "Science and Technology Editor " publishes seemingly verbatim PR stuff, obviously unchecked and silly PR, as a story under his by-line (as if he has investigated it). You would have thought he would at least have read it and thought "silly story". But no, the press are fools and idiots and are also cheap - they rely on this daft PR to sell newspapers. So they publish any shite that is sent to them, it seems. The press are the ones at fault, just about ALL the "reputable" papers printed it, unchecked, as the TRUTH. What fools. And then (according to you) loads of people believed it (fools again). Can't anyone engage brain and *think*? Having said that, I think very few people really believed it. It's just that it took a "bad science expert" to spot it and question it. Gosh, that's a good use of a University education. But, Ben Godacre should have laughed, not got indignant. That is where I really think the thing was misplayed. And everyone here should be laughing too. So should TFL, it was so left-field. It simply hardly matters at all to most people. (I will say, that TFL thought an apology necessary is bad news. That presumes that people believed the story and reacted. And why would TFL think that? Because they are sensitive about how dirty their trains and buses are, because the public perception is they ARE dirty). I just don't get the indignant horror about the story. The horror should be about what verbatim guff the papers will print in the guise of "news". The story is nothing, was obviously a prankish exaggeration to launch RENTOKIL's new heat product. And in that respect as I keep saying, it has been a massive success - raising the profile of the company exponentially. Most people will care not one jot about your "upset". They will simply have been exposed to the name "RENTOKIL", hence - successful PR. The original article got big column inches, the "apology" will have got very little, if nothing. Find me a link to a good "RENTOKIL apology" story. What are the papers gonna say? "We were duped"? I don't think so. Hence, cold light of day - PR success. Only a few people here, are "bothered" by it. Can't you see, it's all a nonsense story? Ling
  • Paul S.
    Not sure you've actually bothered reading the feature above, since this is the second time I'll correct you. Nobody is denying churnalism is a problem. I don't - I point it out at length in the article above and do so on a regular basis on this blog. That doesn't absolve companies companies or PR people of dickish behaviour. You keep banging on and are happy to pick fault with everyone but the PR people. There's no horror, particularly - but why should everyone be laughing? Is everyone meant to accept such dickish behavior from a business? I can certainly think of a far better PR stunt for that story that would have generated equal column inches without bare-faced bullshitting. As for a section editor being duped, two things on that - he'll probably never publish another story about the client again, and more importantly the story wasn't presented as "obviously unchecked and silly PR" - you appear to be wearing hindsight-tinted glasses. It was presented as fact, backed up by scientific research. It doesn't matter that papers will print anything, and of course they won't give an apology in proportion to the mistake (if they did, far more people would believe Rentokil were in the wrong, which of course the PR folk are banking on). That's not the issue - this wasn't an investigative exercise by Rentokil in exposing newspaper stupidity, so let's not pretend it was. The point is that if you were to operate your business in this manner, people might be happy declare you morally bankrupt, too.
  • Ling V.
    Psssh, we are never gonna get anywhere. But Rentokil are not "morally bankrupt". That is just another OTT load of rubbish. Ling
  • Paul S.
    Psssh, don't let a few objective facts stand in the way of your subjective opinions. And calling Rentokil morally bankrupt is hardly as OTT as calling somebody a Nazi for having a different point of view to yours. I don't think I'd hire a car from you, Ling. It's not like car salespeople have the best of reputations anyway, but here you are publicly defending the act of misleading and deceiving consumers as an acceptable way to run a business.
  • Numpty
    Go Paul Go Paul Go Paul..............(ad infinitum) I was on a Great Western train last week and its was ageing with a filthy carpet. I would assume cockroaches would have more sense than live there.
  • On C.
    [...] from radio, Bitterwallet reports on some piss-poor PR release being reprinted verbatim by people who should know better. [...]
  • Adults B.
    [...] claims to the test to see if there’s any truth in it or whether it’s just another piece of Rentokil-style PR horse shit with a quick poll. You’ve got until noon tomorrow to let your voice be [...]
  • (jah) w.
    What an absolute fuckwit ming over here is. Morally bankrupt is being kind to rentokil, the tossers.
  • Adrian
    OK, here's a consumer saying that I will look for the alternative brand rather than Rentokil in future should I need to. And Ling, I knew nothing about you until reading this, but rest assured I won't ever want anything to do with your cars, either, thanks.
  • who
    I think Ling is being a little naive, or ignorant in assuming that the bulk of the population are capable of reading an article and coming to their own opinion. I think the huge sales of The Sun and News of the World prove that people want to be told what to think, not read a set of facts and make their own minds up.
  • Rob
    Ling is not being naive - quite the opposite in fact - cynical manipulation of the slack-jawed idiots who read the red-tops and watch primetime reality tv is the (rather long) name of this particular game ... gormless churnalists being merely a tool of the trade ...
  • Anon
    Ling "misrepresents" her company turnover too. The website claims "sales of over £35m of cars (at RRP)". Her company can't have a turnover more than £6.5m because it's listed as a small company at Companies House. I suspect it's a good deal less. What's happening is she's taking the RRP value of the cars leased and saying that's the value to the business, ignoring the fact that the car is leased over a number of years and the fact she doesn't see anywhere close to the total amount anyway. Taking a conservative estimate of £25,000 per car, that's about 1400 cars (35m/25k). At an average of approx. £300/month each that puts her company's leasing total somewhere in the region of £5m. I have no idea what sort of percentage Ling would see of that, but I'd hazard a guess at 10%. In my opinion that "£35m sales" is probably closer to a real figure of £500k. But it depends on your point of view. Clearly Ling sees the bigger number.
  • Sainsbury’s B.
    [...] recently saw how Rentokil’s PR company fabricated scientific evidence to whore their client to the national press.  Here’s another example, this time from [...]
  • Primark B.
    [...] it’s a manipulated, bastardised version of the truth, a deliberately inflamed opinion or whorish PR. But then I’ve heard that reading The Sun can give you pussed-ridden cock splinters, so [...]
  • Christina C.
    Thanks again for the article post.Many thanks again. Really Cool.
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