Scare tactics - Rentokil PR people justify profit by any means
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.”
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.