What the White House rickroll (kind of) means

The book Cluetrain Manifesto is often regarded as an early vision (from 1999) of informal and authentic communication between human beings online. It contrasts that with the often insincere brochure-speak beloved of corporations and institutions.

Now, I’m sure this will be misinterpreted by humourless columnists and equally derided on forums for even being a bit passé. But I like it: on Tuesday the person given legitimate control of the White House Twitter account rickrolled somebody. That is, he did a little prank which you can read about in the news item. It’s a little glimpse of humanity at work.

Is it a sign that the Cluetrain lessons and practices have truly reached trusted staff, at least over in the USA?

I can’t imagine any public organisation or council doing something like this in Wales just yet, where often there are attempts by management to block social media platforms like Twitter.

It’s not that I”m asking for a big rickrolling craze to start in the public sector. That would be boring. And I’m not asking for a bunch of press coverage around some ‘cheeky’ branding campaign that’s been constructed in detail. This is for everyone, not just about whoever’s responsible for PR, publicity, branding and marketing, although it’s relevant for them.

The point I’m trying to make is: are people in your organisation allowed to use whatever tools they want or need to use, to enjoy their work and to communicate with people outside the building without having to adopt a false, guarded corporate tone? In other words can they converse online they way they’re inclined to talk anyway, like human beings? If they’re not, what is stopping them?

Ryanair’s Cheap Shot – I’m Not Taking The Bait…

There’s lots of blog bustle about this Ryanair story. (In summary, a blogger wrote about a minor glitch he’d experienced in Ryanair’s online ticket booking system. Ryanair employees responded in his blog comments calling him an “idiot and a liar” and berating his choice of the WordPress blogging platform. Ryanair compound the fury by releasing an official statement saying “It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy in corresponding with idiot bloggers…”).

Customer service now happens on a stage… Customers are networked. I’ve visited these themes before, with Chrysler and Ford. Read the seminal and prophetic book Cluetrain Manifesto for more of this wonderful stuff.

But rather than take the bait, I think this is completely in keeping with Ryanair’s PR policy and possibly everything they’ve done before this point.

This may well fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Undoubtedly, it’s a cheap shot response – in keeping with the airline’s established reputation for cheapness.

(As a staunch advocate of WordPress, I’m sure they can only be kidding…)

After the blog post, Travolution covered this and later Guardian, Telegraph, The Times and other news outlets. What’s the value of all that exposure – in exchange for some blog comments and a quick statement?

While I’m on it, did you know Ryanair don’t hire outside agencies for their advertising?

The Times had a feature about Ryanair’s advertising in December 2004, containing this gem from Paul Fitzsimmons, their then head of communications:

“We have a Wal-Mart approach to business: stack ’em high and sell in bulk,” said Fitzsimmons. “We are driven by price and we don’t need a bunch of ponytails in some ad agency to tell us how to build our brand.”

Then later:

Fitzsimmons admits the Ryanair ads are designed to spark controversy on the basis that “any negative perception of an ad is a publicity opportunity”.

So why should their online PR be any different? Talk about an integrated communications policy! It’s risky, for sure. For fans of the Cluetrain Manifesto, it certainly corresponds to the “authentic human voice”. But I can imagine it backfiring if their amiable tomfoolery does not translate across countries. For instance, now that CNN have covered it, will USA and other international readers appreciate the jokes?