Friday, 11 September 2015


When I first arrived in Prague in 1990, the soon to be great Czech Airlines had trouble persuading the many foreigners that were piling into the country to fly with them.  The Brits, in particular, really only trusted British Airways and the idea of flying on what they then regarded as a ‘third world airline’ was beyond imagination. However, the slightly wild bunch of expats like myself, who could barely afford to fly at all, didn’t care who we flew on as long as the ticket was cheap, and every Friday evening what we called the ‘travelling pub’ took off for London with a group of us sitting in the back. 

With the curtains drawn (yes, curtains), most of us smoking as we rattled down the runway and then drinking everything in sight until we landed in the UK, no-one gave a thought to safety and security, and, actually, we didn’t need to, as the Czech pilots were former military, who, one felt, would think nothing of throwing in a couple of loop-the-loops along the way to make the flight more interesting.

Czech Airlines at that time, though, had some very good people working for them (those were the days!) and they soon realized that to start competing with the western airlines, they needed to get marketing. In addition to buying a fleet of new Boeings (some of which I had the huge pleasure of organizing their first landing for), they also brought in a loyalty programme that was second to none.  Air miles for every trip, irrespective of the cost, different levels of frequent flying cards that were very easy to gain and offered all sorts of benefits, and nearly guaranteed upgrades to business class if one had a gold card (and, sometimes, silver too if you knew the right people – which we did then). My partner, a handsome chap, was even offered free upgrades every time he flew by one of the ground staff if he would take her out occasionally (not sure that ‘taking her out’ was quite what was on offer, but you can guess what I mean. And no, he didn’t take her up on it!). 

Two years on from the flying pub days, the same group of degenerates could soon be found sitting up in business class on the way to London, Paris, New York, wherever, and that is where most of us built up our contact base; we even used to discuss the idea of flying in and out of the UK some days, purely to hand out business cards!

Such was our loyalty to Czech Airlines at that time, that wherever we were travelling we would go out of our way to fly with them, even if it wasn’t the easiest or cheapest way to go (for example, we often flew to Malaga in Spain via Madrid, in order to go on CSA , rather than taking a direct, low cost flight!).

Just a few years ago and several changes of personnel later (and the economic crisis to boot), Czech Airlines sadly announced that they were stopping all flights to New York.  And then to Paris.  And then to London, stating that these were not popular enough, nor economically viable.  Not only that, but all air miles accrued on their frequent flier programmes needed to be exchanged for flights by a certain date, otherwise they would disappear (flights that we usually found were impossible to get), and all benefits such as upgrades and so-on were ceasing. We couldn’t believe our ears.

We wrote letters to the management, pleaded with them not to do it, and refused to consider the possibility of flying with anyone else, until the day came that the last ever Czech Airlines flight landed in London. And that day was, for many of us, the last day that we ever, ever, ever flew with Czech Airlines – now we go out of our way to avoid them, even if that now means a more problematic route!  It was also, probably, the day that Czech Airlines started its gradual sink into bankruptcy.

Of course we realized that the frequent flier card and the air-mile awards were overly generous, but we loved Czech Airlines then and we felt let down (not to mention that we really didn’t believe that routes to London, Paris and New York weren’t popular or profitable enough… clearly something more sinister was afoot). 

So what is the morale of the story from a marketing point of view? Better not to offer something at all than to give something great and then take it away. Customers can be very fickle and once they get used to a certain level of fee, service, product, they don’t like seeing it change.

Life has now moved on. We are now proud (and vaguely embarrassed) holders of Easyjet Plus cards, and we still fly up the front and do a bit of business. But we miss those days enough to occasionally fork out for business class tickets (on non-Czech Airlines fights!) and they still prove to be interesting, in a number of different ways.   See Musing on Flying Part 2.

Monday, 3 August 2015


A few months ago I wrote about the plane crash in the Alps and discussed whether, and for how long, the negative publicity that the airline would receive from such a disaster would affect their business. I said then, and I still believe, that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and even when something as catastrophic as a plane crash happens, handled well the company will eventually recover from it and may even find that, over time, its publicity will increase and improve.

I am pondering the same situation now, as I watch a company that we worked for a year or so ago, handling what, they say, is a major crisis for them. But is it…? This company, whose name I cannot mention, has built its entire brand on PR – it spends (relatively) little on advertising and other activities, but it keeps the PR agencies that work for it worldwide very busy by feeding them with stories that are so powerful that they often hit the headlines in whichever respective country is handling that particular story.

In the Czech Republic, during our time working for them, we were told to investigate the sponsorship of a major sports club – something that we had been told the company was keen to do somewhere in the world, but had not yet managed. There was a lot of money at stake and the club, of course, opened its arms to us, put on a great show, took photos of everyone together discussing the sponsorship, and generally led us all to believe that this was a deal that was sure to happen. We duly notified the media and rubbed our hands together at the fantastic coverage that the press release received. And then nothing. The sponsorship was never discussed again, the people involved were understandably upset and we were left looking very silly.

After that, our relationship with the company went downhill, ending up with us having a big fight to get paid and being sworn to secrecy about all of their business antics. However, we have continued to be interested in watching how they manage their activities, and despite the fact that we are still feeling a little bit upset with them, we can’t help but marvel at the stories that they come up with and the subsequent global coverage that they are receiving. From employees suing them, to floating on stock exchanges, to hackers stealing information, whatever happens (or appears to happen) the company continues to grow and the media continue to slap them on the front pages (or in this latest case, peak time TV!) with yet more news that people can’t help but want to read or hear about.

When I first learned about this latest story, my initial reaction was that it was potentially so damaging that it must have been true. But then I watched the coverage and the stories that were coming out, and it was clear that, whilst some customers might have been nervous when the story first broke, the long-term (well, only one month!) affect is already becoming positive; now the coverage is more about the company and the things that it does than its latest problems… and one can’t help but think that the people in head office are laughing all the way to the bank.

With many of our clients, their concern about what might come out when they first start to use PR as a marketing tool, often inhibits them from doing or saying too much – the result of which is a very ‘toned down’ story may not get very much coverage. As much as we can, therefore, we try to tell the client to be brave since, generally, the only people that will read the story word for word is them – most others will just remember that they have read something about them in such and such a paper and will be filled with admiration.

Using big stories in your PR activities, such as I have described above, can be hugely effective if the people handling the PR, and, thereby, the people that are being fed the stories, believe that they are rue. If you have a really big story, then get it out there with all the bells ringing – be brave; even if you get some negative coverage, (and there is always a risk) in the long term the increase in the awareness of your brand will far outweigh anything that is less positive. But if the story isn’t true and you convince your PR people to run it by persuading them that it is true, then your biggest worry has to be how you feel about deceiving the people involved rather than how much business you get out of the subsequent PR.

In the end, as I have said and believe, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. The only way to deal with companies such as the one described, therefore, is for all of us PR agencies to refuse to work for them, and for all those media out there to refuse to write and talk about them! That would probably be the next big headline!

Monday, 1 June 2015


I have written before about the effectiveness of basic promotional activities carried out as part of a marketing campaign. Simple gimmicks such as ‘2 for the price of 1’, ‘quote this code to collect your prize’, offering people a ‘free trial’ etc, etc, etc can all work really well, both from a cost-effective point of view and as a way to monitor whether your marketing is working.

BUT, they can also backfire horribly! Here are a few recent examples!

Today we visited a very well-known British store where we often shop for groceries.  As we went to check out, my partner noticed a pile of leaflets on the counter by the till which said, in Czech, that if a customer handed one of these leaflets to the cashier over the weekend of the 30th, and had spent more than Kc 400, they would receive Kc 100 deduction from their bill. There was nothing in the store to advertise the leaflets and no mention of them by the cashier when we went to check-out. My partner (who is Czech, but we were speaking English) picked up one of the leaflets and said ‘can I give you this and get a discount?’ to which she shrugged, said OK, rung up the leaflet and duly deducted the Kc 100 (and probably put it back on the counter in front of her once we left!’).

We could only assume that (a) the leaflets were supposed to have been given to shoppers the previous weekend, with a view to encouraging them to come back again today or tomorrow, (b) someone had forgotten to put them out the previous weekend and thought that they had better use them quickly in order to show that they had done their job (since the deduction had to be rung up) and (c) that no-one would explain the value of the leaflet to anyone that didn’t speak Czech as, of course, they could probably afford to do without the Kc 100 off (cynical?  Me?).

Clearly some marketing person at a high level had thought that these leaflets would be a nice way of driving customers back to the store and getting them to spend more than they might usually, and had then spent money themselves designing and printing the leaflets, distributing them to the stores and then hoping to see an increase in figures.  The result, though, since clearly the leaflets were used on the weekend after they were supposed to be, was just a few shoppers getting a Kc 100 reduction on a bill that they were already prepared to pay the full amount for and, one would assume, most of the leaflets being chucked in the bin.

The moral of the story – if you are going to do some sort of leaflet promotion, then ensure with your own eyes that leaflets are being given out on the right date and in the right spirit.  You can also help to ensure this by publicizing the fact that the leaflets exist in advance of people receiving them so that the recipients are looking out for them and the people giving them know that! By the way, I am sure I am not the only person that has seen promotional people dumping leaflets on the floor of buildings, in rubbish bins, etc… if you are going to use such people, then you need to police what they are doing or you might just as well chuck your money in the rubbish bin instead.

Another recent experience: I was offered a free trial at a service company that was offering something that I had been considering using for a while.  I duly made my appointment and toddled along to be greeted by one of the rudest receptionists that I have had the pleasure of meeting. First she told me that I didn’t have an appointment, and then, when I assured her that I did, she asked me how I planned to pay for the upcoming experience.  I said I wasn’t going to be paying as I was here for a free consultation, which she insisted wasn’t possible, and so it continued.  Short of asking her security people to remove me forcibly from the building, she couldn’t have been ruder. Luckily I am an old hand here and when I got to see the main person the visit was a success.  But had I not been, the result of this ‘free trial promotion’ would have been that I would never, ever, have darkened this company’s doorsteps again (and, as an aside, they would probably have been one of those companies that sometime in the future would tell me or someone similar that ‘marketing doesn’t work’!!).

The moral of the story: if you are going to offer a free consultation or promotion, make sure that every member of your team knows what is going on!

Lastly, my own rather frustrating marketing experience. We have an apartment in Spain that we have started to advertise on one of the holiday rental sites. Of course, there are millions of similar apartments on the site, and in order to get high up the viewing order we are dependent on good reviews.  So every time someone books and stays through the website, we ask them if they would write a review for us as we believe that the apartment is fantastic. A recent group – four 80 year-old Americans, paying their first visit to Spain, who emailed me questions on a daily basis for weeks before their visit - had a bit of a bad time. Not because of the apartment but because flying all that way, driving in Europe, etc, etc, etc, all proved a bit too much for them. Believing that our own service had been really good (we even laid out a bottle of champagne for them on arrival) I duly asked them for a review.  And what a stinker they wrote. 

The moral of the story – if you are going to ask for a review, testimonial or reference that is going to be seen in public, make sure that you know without any possible doubt that it is going to be good! I probably should have known better…

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


As anyone that reads this knows, I am a big fan of watching what other companies do in their marketing efforts and if something works, then I am the first one to copy it (albeit sometimes loosely disguised).  For sure we have all seen one marketing trick that the very biggest brands use on a regular basis, and that is to give something away in order to persuade their customers to buy it again, maybe more than once.  For anyone that doesn’t have a very big marketing budget (if any) this is always a fairly successful and low cost promotion and I often suggest something like it to our clients.   Imagine how excited I was, therefore, when I was offered something myself as part of someone else’s marketing strategy!  

When I first arrived in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) one of the things that bothered all of us expats the most was getting sick.  How would we find a doctor (or, even worse, a dentist!) that spoke English and how would we know if they were any good?  And what if we had to go into hospital?!  I, like many others, paid a huge amount each month to a private health plan that ensured that if I even broke a toenail I would be flown straight back to the UK for emergency treatment as, at least in those days, that was felt to be a much better option than ‘going local’! 

Over the years, of course, things have changed considerably, and sadly I have now had enough experience of Czech doctors and hospitals to allow me to stop the private health care and feel relatively relaxed about the idea of seeing a Czech doctor – all of my experiences have been pretty good, and I absolutely love my dentist!

Amongst those changes are the various private hospitals and clinics that have sprung up, and one of those (I think the first) was the Canadian Medical Centre.  For a while, many years ago, I went there to visit my sports doctor, but then he moved and I followed, and I have since forgotten about it.   What a lovely surprise, therefore, when out of the blue just a couple of weeks ago I was offered a free visit to a choice of practitioner. 

Those on offer were a physio, a dentist or a nutritionist.  Having my own regular physio and the above-mentioned dentist, the nutritionist was always going to be my choice, and besides which, I have been considering seeing a nutritionist for a while, so it was a bit of a spooky offer to have one handed to me on a plate, so to speak.

I duly toddled along last week and pulled up outside the CMC’s home, which really is a lovely building and which has undergone a lot of changes since I last visited.  You go in through a very nice entrance, and up the stairs to a really glam reception where, in case you are wondering (and I remember that I used to!) there were a number of different nationalities waiting, not just Canadians!   I am afraid that the receptionist (which I will gloss over) did not quite meet the same standard, but once I was ushered in to see the nutritionist (Keely Fraser) I was ready to overlook the blip earlier on, and got right into the whole experience.

Despite being relatively at home with local doctors and so on, I do have to say that it makes a huge difference to be able to talk to someone in English – OK, we should all speak great Czech, blah, blah, blah, but when it comes to health things it really is a lot easier if we don’t have to think carefully about what we are saying or, even worse, speak through a translator.  Plus, of course, you get a better sense of whether they really know their stuff or not if you are able to speak directly and easily.   And she clearly did.  Within a few minutes I was telling her all sorts of things that I would usually find difficult (language/translation/shyness) and at the end of the hour she more or less had to kick me out…. And yes, I said, I would be back!

My next appointment (paid for) will be in two weeks’ time.   So for a bit of effort by the marketing team, and one free consultation, they have me hooked.    Who says giving something away for free doesn’t work!

In short, whilst I probably wouldn’t go there for every little thing anymore (but maybe if I had only been here a short while I would) there is no doubt that if you have a health issue, whatever it might be, being able to speak in your own language (and yes, there are Czech doctors there too), being in a very comfortable environment, and knowing that the doctor/person you are being treated by has met some pretty high standards is really worth paying for.  I am a fan.

You can find more about the Canadian Medical Centre on:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


I am not always proud to be British; certainly there are times when we are in Spain that I speak more Czech than I ever do here in the CR, for fear of being thought to be from the same place as some of the boys and girls that make their way down to the sun each summer.   But after a weekend in front of the TV watching two of my favourite sports, I have the same proud feelings as I had during the London Olympics – the Brits are really good at these huge occasions!

Saturday saw the retirement of the greatest jockey of all time, A.P. McCoy.   I know that not everyone is as horse-racing mad as I am so they may not have taken much notice of this, and certainly outside of the UK it probably didn’t make many of the newspapers, but had AP (as he is known) been involved in one of the more popular sports (football, tennis, golf) news of his retirement would have made it to the front page of newspapers all over the world, since he is truly a legend.  

In the UK, where he is as famous as Roger, Tiger or Lionel, AP’s final day before hanging up his boots was marked with a festival of racing, with many of the best horses in the country taking part (not that they would have known the relevance) and all the biggest names in the sport turning out to say goodbye, alongside nearly 20,000 spectators.  And not a dry eye in the house (at the racecourse or ours!).   Since most jockeys have retirement forced on them – injuries, loss of nerve, inability to starve themselves any more – I do wonder, though, whether AP, who is still fighting fit, will find retirement a bit too dull and we will suddenly hear about him coming out to ride in one or other big race next year.  We shall see.    

Having only just recovered from the emotion of all that, we were back in front of the TV on Sunday morning to watch the London Marathon. Having run in eight half marathons myself, and been the Prague International Marathon’s PR agency for four years until 2012 (and with a partner that runs the marathon every year), watching marathons on television is probably a bit more interesting to us than it is to most people – let’s face it, watching a group of people running along a road for 2 hours and more is not so exciting – but the London Marathon is something else.     

Sunday was particularly special, as not only did it show off the city in all of its splendor, but it also saw another great British sports person hanging up their shoes – this time Paula Radcliffe, the marathon world record holder, who, whilst no longer running professionally, decided to have her last run in London in amongst the other 30,000 plus runners (but still finishing in a near to professional time)!  Again, most of the hundreds of thousands of spectators were cheering her on, and again most of the people involved were in floods of tears at the end.  

What does all of this have to do with marketing and management?   Well, not so much.  But what these wonderful events prove is that it is not enough just to put on a show – you need the people and the emotion to make them into something really special.   Which, in our world, is probably the case with most of what we do.