Imagine the following scenario: Blue Skies Airlines launches a “whisper campaign” against its main rival, Happy Airways. Every time BSA talks to a potential customer, it says: “For goodness sake, don’t fly Happy Airways. They’re about to go out of business. You’ll be stuck with a worthless ticket.” Naturally, Happy Airways retaliates by spreading (equally baseless) rumors against BSA: “Don’t you know 5% of all their planes crash? Do you really want to take a 1-in-20 chance of going down?”
Now imagine that all the carriers in the airline industry make a standard, daily practice of this type of ugly backstabbing…year in and year out. What would be the result of such a defamatory free-for-all? Would the company that spreads the dirtiest rumors against its competitors, wind up “winning” all the commercial flyer business?
Of course not. The result would be that travelers would decide none of the airlines was trustworthy, that all of them were financially shaky, guilty of sloppy maintenance, and that all commercial planes were deathtraps. People would simply stop flying. Or at best, they would fly only when they were absolutely forced to do so…when they positively had no choice.
Sound familiar? Far too many manufacturers in the music and games industry have indulged in the same shortsighted, industry-killing tactics over the past several years. Too many manufacturing executives and sales reps vainly imagine that they can steer operators away from buying brand X and corral most sales for themselves. Then they wonder why operators are “sales-resistant.” Well, there are many reasons for operator sales resistance, some legitimate and some not. But manufacturer rumor-mongering and backstabbing should not be overlooked as a prime contributor to this problem.
Vicious rumors plague both the videogame and jukebox sectors. As for the mechanics, it’s actually rare when Brand X calls up a trade journalist and floats a nasty rumor about Brand Y. But now and then, the press does get that call, which starts: “Don’t say you heard this from me, but…” More often, however, the trade press gets wind of negative rumors from operators or distributors.
Having heard such rumors, we are duty-bound to contact the manufacturer in question and say: “I’m sure you’ve heard those tiresome rumors that your company has experienced such-and-such a problem. Do you want to issue a statement and shut down the rumor mill?” Occasionally, the targeted manufacturer resents this question. However, most are sophisticated enough to appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.
Even the most enlightened executives, however, often jump to incorrect conclusions about the source of the rumor: “I’ll bet Brand Z told you to ask me that!” This guess is almost always wrong, even if Brand Z does have a track record of defaming its rivals. And by the way – what’s really ironic is when the rumor-peddler (a) has accurate information; and (b) ends up working for the targeted company three months later. Meanwhile, the targeted company is still fuming at the presumed perpetrator, who remains innocent. This has occurred with some of the industry’s largest, most famous companies.
For several years now the American Amusement Machine Association has sought to find an approach to public relations that would help boost positive awareness of the industry among the general population. That’s a worthy goal, but perhaps we should tackle a more modest objective first. Let’s stop fouling our own nest. The guiding principle for communications within the industry, let alone to the general public, should be, “First, do no harm.”
The political press used to invite Ronald Reagan to criticize rival candidates for a nomination in his own party. Reagan always responded by citing the so-called 11th Commandment (which he conveniently made up): “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Music and games manufacturers would do well to adopt a variation on this rule for themselves: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow manufacturer.”