When a fleet of 100 electric scooters, called Bird, arrived in Cleveland, urbanites saw an opportunity to add expediency and fun to their commutes, city adventures and errands. But city officials were quick to request their removal and subject them to impoundment the very next day. To the disappointment of many Clevelanders, Bird is now weathering a communication crisis that makes its future in the Land uncertain.
We can’t help but think that the uproar over Bird arriving in Cleveland could have been prevented utilizing these three PR tactics:
1. Relationship development
Bird has notoriously dropped its scooters into cities without much warning, leaving city officials all over the country dumbfounded, and often inclined to ban them as a knee-jerk reaction. Although Bird’s website states, “We work closely with cities to help make transportation better & more environmentally friendly,” the lack of communication speaks to the contrary. So not only has the company failed to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the community it’s doing business in, but it’s also sending mixed messages about the brand.
One awesome aspect of Bird’s business plan and PR strategy is the Save Our Sidewalks Pledge. Bird has pledged to remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments so they can use the money to build more bike lanes, promote safe riding and maintain shared infrastructure. The generous pledge would’ve been useful leverage for establishing a positive relationship with the City of Cleveland, but because the company didn’t initiate proper two-way communication, both parties will now miss out on the benefits of a working together.
2. Safety education campaign
When launching a new product, the last thing a company wants is people to question its safety. But because of previous accidents reported on Birds, the City of Cleveland cites safety as the main concern with letting the shared scooters fly free. Cleveland law director Barbara Langhenry wrote in her letter to Bird, “We believe that you would agree that the placement of unattended, commercial, electric scooters on City sidewalks raises important safety issues that need to be fully explored and properly addressed with the City.”
Safety rules for riding a Bird can be found on the website and the app’s user agreement. But like any tedious list of terms and conditions, it’s tempting for users to agree to the rules without actually understanding them. Launching a campaign to educate the public on how to safely ride a Bird could reduce the risk of accidents caused by misusing the scooters and assuage the City’s fear of liability. An effective campaign may have included:
- Traffic signs reminding riders of the rules of the road
- Live demonstrations in public spaces on how to ride safely
- Text reminders for users to order their free Bird helmet
Fear is a common reaction to new technology, so a little bit of education can go a long way in putting people at ease and helping them understand the risks, rewards and rules of use.
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3. Key messaging
Developing key messages surrounding a controversial product is essential for gaining public buy-in. When the City responded negatively to Bird’s spontaneous appearance, the company failed to take control of the narrative. By staying silent following the ban, Bird lost the opportunity to send key messages that could have preserved its presence in Cleveland and boosted its reputation at large. Instead, the media, fans and critics alike are shaping the narrative themselves, and therefore constructing their own version of Bird’s brand image. Although the scooters are still floating around Cleveland and Bird has since put out a statement, timing is everything. A delay in responding to a crisis can make or break an organization.
Considering the company has experienced similar resistance to its product’s presence in other cities, Bird should have been prepared to address the backlash head-on with a media spokesperson, digital newsroom and social media statements. This way, they could have ensured continuity of their own narrative and drove key messages about what makes their product worthwhile amid the chaos of being told to remove the scooters from Cleveland.
Of course, the tech startup may very well have purposely avoided using these three PR tactics. Perhaps they believe entering a new market overnight can create more of a buzz than a calculated strategy. Maybe they don’t care about controlling their own brand image because they’ll have demand for their products regardless. Or, they figured it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, because by the time it takes to regulate the scooters, the tech world will already be on to the next transportation innovation.
But at the end of the day, Bird failed to launch in Cleveland. With a strategic communications and crisis management strategy in place, it could have soared.