Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Groupon’s Dodgy Deal: Can a PR Blitz and Site Overhaul Save the Company From Itself?

When it comes to Groupon, the daily deals digital Mecca, my, my, how the dot com angels have fallen.

Even as a public relations professional who’s seen and navigated her fair share of client missteps, I’m a bit gobsmacked by how a company that less than two years ago snagged the front cover of Forbes magazine with the eye-catching title “Meet The Fastest Growing Company Ever,” has managed to have its PR rug so skillfully pulled out from under them. What’s especially noteworthy is that Groupon’s recent rotten deal has been entirely self-made.

For readers who aren’t up on the latest Groupon happenings, the company has for the past several months, endured a barrage of PR setbacks, helping re-write the company’s until-now spotless public narrative. Here’s the errrr… In 2011 the Chicago-based company was roundly sacked following a Super Bowl XLV (45) ad that appeared to mock the decades’ long Tibet-China conflict. A few months later, and just ahead of Groupon’s November initial public offering (IPO), the company that had since its founding been branded based on its hyperactive growth, had to slice its reported revenue in half due to questionable accounting practices. Tsk tsk tsk.

Even the company’s opening stock price, fittingly perhaps, came in at a bargain $20 compared to an earlier valuation that said the couponing site was worth $30 billion. Re-tweaked fuzzy math brought that value down to $12 billion.

And while the company’s NASDAQ stock as of this writing is hovering near its opening price, only down .2 percent, and they’ve managed to start the new year with no additional public relations faux pas – that is if you exclude their announcement last week of a 2011 fourth quarter loss of $9.8 million – a sense of Wild West mentality combined with deck-of-cards-like fragility (some would say Ponzi scheme) continues to deal the company a PR blow.

To be sure, Andrew Mason, Groupon’s 31-year-old CEO, isn’t going down without a fight. In the effort to build back its image as a leader in the online deal-a-day world where coupons attract customers to once-hidden brick and mortar establishments and where everyone wins, the company announced this week major revisions to its website. Among the changes includes adding “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” capabilities so that Groupon users can help the site be more selective when doling out its latest offerings. And in another striking move, Groupon announced the hiring of public relations veteran Paul Taaffe to better manage the company’s image. His arrival comes after only a two-month stewardship by Brad Williams, formerly of EBay Inc.

Whether or not Taaffe, 50, paired with Mason,31, is the right combination of relative youth and relative years remains to be seen. But the fact that his arrival comes after his predecessor barely had time to break in his desk chair’s seat cushion, more than even erroneous math or disgruntled business owners crying foul over the supposed Groupon “deal,” is the best indication yet, that Groupon might be sick. Very sick.

As PR professionals we are tasked with helping keep our client’s message on track, being consistent and accurate with the media, and when calamity strikes, honest and up front about our mistakes. But that hard work should always be predicated on a company that gets its facts and its story straight –before it goes public. To do anything less is like having one hand tied behind your back during a boxing match. Or if you’re a lawyer, having your client reveal a critical detail that could alter a defense only moments before opening arguments. That type of handicap serves no one.

There’s no denying Groupon’s had a tough year. And while it may be easy to say “what’s 365 days in the course of a life?” Groupon, much like its leader, is still very young, having just celebrated its third birthday. But if you’re three years old and already a third of your life has been troubled with a mixed marketing message, what does that suggest going forward?

Taaffe’s got a rocky road ahead of him, for sure.

Good press or bad press aside, Groupon and its thousands of employees and millions of dedicated users aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But taming the daily deal beast just doesn’t seem like a job anyone should embrace and revamping a website is just not enough. Public Relations leaders can only craft a message so far. Too much spin and a message – and a company – can spin out of control.

Let’s see what happens next.

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