Thursday, September 23, 2010

Netflix blows its big Canadian launch

Well, yesterday was a fun day. If you follow tech news, you probably heard that Netflix had its big Canadian launch yesterday. I covered the news for CBC here and here, but a wacky side-show quickly became the more interesting story.

A section of John Street here in Toronto was closed down for the event, with Netflix erecting a small set and a beverage tent. When I arrived for the press conference, there were a few people milling about checking things out. Inside an adjacent building, CEO Reed Hastings gave his spiel and answered some questions from the press. When he was done, he encouraged reporters to go outside and talk to some of the people hanging around. Some did, while I rushed back to the CBC to write up the story.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the PR people telling me that my interview with Hastings had been moved up, so I hurried back to the scene. While I was waiting on John Street, I overheard an interesting conversation between a journalist and a PR person. The journalist was complaining that he had interviewed some of the "innocent bystanders" on camera, only to learn that they were actors who were paid to be there. The PR person said it was all a misunderstanding, that the actors were actually part of a corporate video that Netflix was shooting.

I chatted with the journalist, who told me all the details. He interviewed a few people who he thought were regular Joes and asked them the usual stuff: had they heard about Netflix, were they planning on subscribing, etc. When their answers were a little too effusive and practiced-sounding, he asked if they were being paid by Netflix. One gent admitted to being an actor who was told by his agent to be there, while another woman said "I don't know how to answer that."

A few other journalists and camera folks were listening in, and we all had a bit of a chuckle.

After my interview, I related what had happened to a colleague back at the office. We weighed the idea of doing a story on it, but I decided it was a little too "inside baseball," so instead I told the tale on Twitter. From there, it snowballed to the point where I was among the top-trending Toronto topics (what an honour!), and even The Globe and Mail chipped in with "10 signs you're interviewing a paid Netflix actor."

The PR folks wasted no time in addressing the situation. I got an email that said: "We were filming a corporate shoot - that's how we were able to close the street down. The actors were there to interact with the service in the house/set as part of the corporate video. They should not have been interviewed."

By this point, others had started to ask questions. The Canadian Press got the dirt and found that actors had indeed been hired and handed scripts that directed them to "play types, for example, mothers, film buffs, tech geeks, couch potatoes etc. Extras are to behave as members of the public, out and about enjoying their day-to-day life, who happen upon a street event for Netflix and stop by to check it out... Extras are to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."

Spokespeople for the company said they were unaware that a script had been handed out, and that "some people got carried away and it's embarrassing to Netflix." Given the urging of reporters to go out and talk to these every day people, though, it sure looks like this was a pretty calculated affair. A poorly calculated affair, but calculated nonetheless.

As an addendum, I talked to a few friends and colleagues in PR and they agreed that combining a press conference with a corporate video shoot would pretty much be a first for the industry, or highly unlikely in other words.

Some journalists I know were really angered by all of this, and I can see where they're coming from. As if we don't have enough to concern ourselves with, we now have to worry about whether the person we talk to on the street is a paid shill. It also makes you wonder just how stupid some companies think journalists are.

I wasn't too non-plussed by the situation, mainly because I've already been jaded beyond any level of cynicism that I'm comfortable admitting to. I eat heaving bowls of bullshit almost daily - it's an unfortunate side effect of covering telecommunications - so this sort of thing doesn't really surprise me. If anything, it's almost the journalist's fault for not being cynical enough. Real people could have been found simply by walking over to the next street, and it's somewhat foolish to trust that which is put in front of you.

Still, that's no excuse. It's exactly this sort of thing that turns honest reporters into crusty old farts who contemplate alternative careers, like helicopter piloting (I'm told I'd have to get laser eye surgery).

The whole thing was a pretty big cluster$^#% for Netflix. The company has enough challenges in operating in Canada, with a pretty limited selection so far and some lean internet download limits (courtesy of the aforementioned telecommunications companies) to work with. Coming into the country on a deceptive note does not a good launch make, which is too bad because a lot of people - myself included - would like to see Netflix succeed and become a good alternative to expensive cable television. Messing with journalists' minds - and trust - was just completely unnecessary.

UPDATE: Netflix's VP of corporate communications Steve Swasey has posted an apology on the Netflix blog, saying that "we blew it." He says the company didn't intend to mislead the media or the public, and that he's sorry if they gave Canadians any reasons to doubt Netflix's authenticity or sincerity.


Marshneill said...

I appreciate his attempt at honesty, but this may be a case of too little, too late. Another issue that comes to mind -- as you addressed in your blog post -- is the pairing of a press conference with a corporate video shoot. As a PR professional, I see these as two drastically different tactics. The first is a conversation, an interaction. The second is a scripted and controlled way to relay a message. I don’t see the logic in combining a video shoot and a launch event, and frankly, neither did they. The guise of a corporate video shoot was a convenient, but rather flimsy, cop out. It’s baffling to me how some companies fear losing control of their message to such an extent that they’re willing to cross ethical lines at a time when transparency is the standard, the cost of entry.
-Marshneill Abraham

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