Modern Marketing Brand Strategy

P&O Ferries’ brand health sinks: ‘Is there any professional PR involved?’

By Jennifer Faull | Deputy Editor

March 21, 2022 | 5 min read

P&O Ferries’ brand perception is in major decline after it made 800 staff redundant over Zoom.

According to data from YouGov, the company’s brand health – a metric calculated from the general public’s views on ’impression’, ’value’, ’quality’, ’reputation’, ’satisfaction’ and ’recommend’ – took an 18-point dive between March 14 and 20, from +13.9 down to -4.1.

Its ’buzz’ score, which measures whether consumers have heard anything positive or negative about a brand in the past two weeks, also plunged over the same period, down by 24 points from +0.5 to -24.5.

P&O Ferries

P&O Ferries

P&O Ferries

The decline came immediately after it hit headlines for the dismissal of 800 staff, without warning or prior consultation, in the face of losses totaling £100m a year.

In the lead up to that point, it recalled all ships to port without explanation. Amid the confusion, its social media teams seemingly downplayed the seriousness and simply repeated the same message that services were unable to run for “the next few days”.

Hours later, as speculation mounted, it confirmed the mass redundancies. A video was quickly shared of an unnamed P&O Ferries representative informing staff via Zoom.

The company has since been criticized for rehiring hundreds of agency workers on cheaper rates, leading MPs to call for an investigation into the process and the rights of workers.

Andy Barr, owner of 10 Yetis, a PR firm specializing in brand reputation and crisis comms, said the handling of the situation “failed on every level”.

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“It has royally ballsed it up,” he said. “It didn’t lead from the front. The CEO should have been briefed on every potential question and been across the media to front the negative stories, assessing everything on a 12-hour period. But I don’t think there was any PR thinking. I can’t see how any PR professional was involved.”

He speculated that with a news agenda dominated by the war in Ukraine, P&O Ferries might have hoped its actions wouldn’t command headlines – and certainly not a government investigation.

“There was a series of leaks to the press and I’d like to think that was a PR in the team trying to get people to sit up and take notice of this really bad thing that was about to happen,” he added.

The future of the P&O Ferry brand remains unclear. It’s now so toxic that it will likely be folded into another within the stable of owner DP World-group, a Dubai-based logistics giant. As for the business impact, it will “recover customer-wise because it has a monopoly on routes,” said Barr.

However, P&O Cruises – an unrelated company – is suffering just as badly. Despite efforts to clarify that it has no links to P&O Ferries, YouGov said the brand saw a near 10 percentage point drop (-9.8) in its overall brand health, which fell from +9.7 to -0.1 between March 14 and 20.

P&O Ferries

“It has really damaged two brands,” said Barr. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if it [P&O Cruises] ends up taking legal action as a result.” It’s also likely the brand will have pulled all advertising and marketing spend.

P&O Ferries currently works with Publicis.Poke on creative and Starcom for media. The Drum contacted both agencies for comment on their relationships with the brand, but they declined to comment and directed us to the client. P&O Ferries did not return The Drum’s request for comment.

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