Five Lessons from the Bud Spencer Tunnel Case

In the end, the tunnel in Schwäbisch-Gmünd won’t be named for the alter ego of movie star Carlo Pedersoli, even though tens of thousands of voters called for it on Facebook. A pity, but unsurprising. Who expects city councils to have a sense of humor and a feel for marketing? It is much more interesting to see what companies and organizations can learn from the case. A chronicle of the events and five conclusions.

These are the ingredients of silly season stories and communication crises: a tunnel costing millions of Euros, an ageing Italian movie star, eager students and an outmatched city administration.

All the time, the authorities in Schwäbisch-Gmünd had nothing but the best intentions. On the city’s website, they asked their citizens to help them name the new tunnel on the B29 road. After all, they had learned from the Stuttgart 21 railway debacle. And they actually received many suggestions. The city eliminated the most bizarre suggestions, and placed the remaining names on its own website for a vote – including sonorous names like “Salvator Tunnel”, politically tricky names like “Erwin Rommel Tunnel” and: “Bud Spencer Tunnel“.

The latter was like two-handed slap in the face. When the vote started, a student created a “Vote for Bud Spencer Tunnel!” group on Facebook – and it spread like wildfire. Tens of thousands did just that, they joined the group and voted online for their childhood hero.

Carolo Pedersoli, fotografiert von Michél Buchmann

Carolo Pedersoli, fotographed by  Michél Buchmann

Of course, the city wasn’t expecting that, which is why the city’s PR officer immediately did an about turn. They said the vote was only intended to provide an impression of the public opinion, and therefore non-binding, of course. This led to a flood of protesting e-mails, hefty criticism and discussions online. The well-meaning campaign became an instrument of sham democracy in the view of the Facebook campaigners. That gave the vote on naming a mundane tunnel an entirely new dimension – and the public interest placed enormous pressure on the city administration as a result. Traditional media in over 40 countries reported on the case. Even the potential namesake responded, saying that he “felt honored and would of course come to the tunnel inauguration.”

A few days and one Pro-Bud Spencer Tunnel Protest later, the city council rejected the proposal in a public meeting. Instead, they planned to name an open-air swimming pool “Bad Spencer”.

This story did not make the Schwäbisch-Gmünd city authorities look good, but they did succeed in segueing astonishingly quickly from confrontation to dialog, and, in the end, got to grips with the crisis. On the city’s website, its Facebook page in the campaign groups, communication was open and direct, and the final decision in the city council was broadcast live online. The end result was a somewhat silly compromise, but at least it didn’t trigger another “shitstorm”. Needless to say that Schwäbisch-Gmünd passed up a historic opportunity to market itself with this decision.

By the way, Bud Spencer’s German publishers did great work. They joined the Facebook groups early and played a leading role in the discussions – right up to developing the proposed compromise.

What conclusions can marketing and PR managers take from the Schwäbisch-Gmünd case?

1. Anyone who asks the public to get involved online in any way must communicate the rules from the outset, and stick to them. Retrospective changes lead straight to a communication crisis. That should be clear – but obviously isn’t, as German washing-up liquid brand Pril’s recent disaster proved.

Tip: Be prepared to accept the outcome of votes and interactive campaigns from the outset. Don’t change the rules!

2. At the moment, public involvement is impossible without Facebook – even if the campaign wasn’t started there. Somebody will always look for supporters for their cause on the network with the greatest reach.

Tip: Ideally, you should run and moderate surveys on your own Facebook page.

3. The fact that the process of naming a tunnel in Schwäbisch-Gmünd was originally a local matter was only relevant in the beginning.

Tip: Find a powerful, clearly defined subject that inspires interaction for Facebook campaigns – don’t create pseudo-interactivity for its own sake.

4. The more relevant the topic, the faster the group will reach a critical mass. That makes it relevant for traditional media.

Tip: Monitor groups continuously. You can use them to find stories for your own PR work and identify risks to your reputation.

5. The online community plays with its expectations of brands, municipal administrations and companies. Humor is the key – whether ironic or dark.

Tip: Brands and companies need thick skins in the social web. Those that react to humorous attacks with a quick wit and a sense of humor instead of taking offence and acting repressively can earn brownie points – just like in real life.

For more on the topic, click here and here.

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