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Even the good ones are not immune to criticism. The accusing finger of judgment is raised even against the unsuspected, the top of the class, the spotless ones whom no one would ever dream of accusing. And yet, it happened.

And with whom? You might wonder. With Telefono Azzurro!
The ones who help children? Yes.
But those of the 196 96? Yes, exactly them.
The ones from the commercial with the boy from “Io speriamo che me la cavo”? Indeed, yes.

But what could they have done so wrong?

Let’s take a step back.

The COVID-19 disease mainly affects the elderly and individuals with concurrent pathologies. No one is 100% safe, but it seems that children’s immune systems react sooner and better, making them appear less vulnerable. However, the safety measures adopted for virus containment have penalized children the most: the lockdown suddenly severed all their social relationships, keeping them indoors for two months, away from friends (all the more important as they grow older), loved ones, and their daily routine (all the more crucial as they are younger). Those with a garden were fortunate; otherwise, it was just four walls at home. Those old enough to have a social media account stayed in touch with others at least that way. For the little ones, only the company of parents remained, caught up in the day with remote work or worries about sudden economic instability. At most, they amused themselves tinkering in the kitchen with Mom or Dad, but soon even the yeast was gone, becoming unavailable, so they stopped having fun getting their hands dirty with sugar, eggs, and flour… Classmates and teachers became many squares on a PC screen, some in pajamas, others in black squares recognizable only by the name written above. School yes, school no, remote learning. By the time they understood what was happening, the gigabytes were already used up due to continuous connections.

In short, an epochal chaos for these kids… There’s no doubt about it.

Yes, but then what does the health emergency have to do with children?

Telefono Azzurro wanted to highlight how, in all this turmoil, the needs of children and adolescents had been somewhat set aside to address other priorities. To do this, they conceived an advertising campaign with the subject #PrimaIBambini (#ChildrenFirst), created with the agency Havas. The commercial, aired for the International Day for Children and Adolescents Rights 2020, was meant to be impactful: in a burning building, a hero challenges the flames and reaches a room besieged by flames where he finds two children and a dog, and he leads the dog away. “Seems impossible? Yet, it’s happening today.” A lapidary phrase concludes.

A reputational crisis

The avalanche of negative comments immediately triggered on social media, unleashing what is termed as “flame,” bombarded the organization with insults, catapulting it into the midst of a reputational crisis, where the precious intangible asset constituted by others’ opinions, which, according to recent surveys, can account for about 63% of a company’s value, is faltering. The same reputation that, if good, prompts donations, instills trust and credit toward the association, and if lost, could close the hearts of the most generous and, therefore, the taps of generosity.

Disaster or just a slip on a banana peel?

Not all crises, however, are lethal, and some, even if loud, are just slips on a banana peel. Whether Telefono Azzurro stumbled into the first or second case, only time will tell. In the initial phase of the flame, negative comments emerge, while endorsers and all those who could speak in defense remain silent or are silenced by the much noisier mass of opponents. The market will react taking its time; this also applies to non-profit organizations, in the form of donations, bequests, 5 per mille, and so forth.

What was missing?

However, precisely because it is impossible at the beginning to evaluate how one will recover from that fall, it is vital to react as promptly and effectively as possible. Acting quickly is the first thing to do, then, in order, to understand what is happening and decide whether to keep the line, and therefore explain, even if many will continue to disagree, or apologize because one realizes the mistake.

Telefono Azzurro hesitated: they withdrew the commercial and attempted an apology through a Facebook post. Somebody argued that the patch was worse than the hole, and then total surrender ensued. In such cases, a strong action is needed. If the offense is brazen, one cannot react timidly.

What can be done?

A classic: if you suffer from commercials react with commercials.

When communication is omnichannel, it reaches many targets and has a broad reach. A limited response on social media will have a lower reach and a restricted number of targets, so it will not be mathematically effective. A too-small blanket. One smart idea could have been to create a sequel to the ad to make things up and recover from the previous one.

The real problem

There are no limits to imagination when it comes to apologizing, and apologies are often well-received. However, the real problem, in the exclusive opinion of the writer, is that Telefono Azzurro showed not to have clear ideas. If the commercial was part of a reasoned strategy, shared even with several company layers, it should have been carried forward. If the stated intent was to tell the missed opportunity by our society to defend children with provocative tones, then it should have continued on this line.

We want American marketing and European manners

Professionals, communicators, marketers, and social media managers, enthusiastically look at the aggressive, competitive, shrewd strategies of American brands. But when we try to imitate them, perhaps a bit clumsily, not being familiar with the “American way”, the probability of immediately seeing arrows flying from all sides is high.

The ad from Telefono Azzurro offended the sensibilities of many, primarily animal rights activists, but also those who saw the saved dog as a metaphor for the lowering of sick people and the hero as a parody of the many healthcare workers who expose themselves to the concrete risk of contagion every day to save other lives.

In short, indeed, more than a fire, the ad leaked from all sides, but it suddenly aroused attention to this fragile category, really a bit neglected lately, as if the only need of the kids was rolling desks, without considering the enormous damages in terms of education, missed opportunities in building their critical consciousness, and psychological damages of various kinds that arose from this sudden change.

On the day that remembers them, it was right to shake things up.
Perhaps next time with more tact.