Why Transferwise’s PR stunt misses the point

“Let’s see…we’ve just received $58m in investment…what shall we spend it on?” 

“I know…bubbles and rubber ducks?!?!”

I know I shouldn’t get wound up by these things, but this Transferwise PR stunt has got my goat.  Yet another tech start-up fails to pay attention to the small print, i.e. when you become successful everyone will start to examine your claims in more detail. It does not mean that commentators and the general public are cynics, it’s just that your status means you have greater influence and impact on society. Understandably you should expect increased scrutiny.

I’ve talked about this before and this week’s “ducks and bubbles” campaign by Transferwise just underlines the nuances of moving from “rebel status” to being a force that can effect change. 

Fundamentally it’s easy to be a “rebel without a pause” but practically (in the real world) we know that life isn’t that simple. Yes, dramatic changes can happen through consistent and high profile publicity, but they need to engage a wide audience and they need to be believable. At the time, “Yes we can” and the vast social media campaign that supported Obama felt like a momentous wave moving across America with a huge following focused on one aim. But that is a rare thing.

So then I see this from Transferwisebath4banks.com. I agree pretty much everyone in the UK is fed up with the banking system, whether it is bonuses, state bail-outs or protecting high net-worth individuals from the tax man. But to suggest that a money transfer company will “clean up the banks” is a claim too far – indeed I’d say it’s slightly Uber-esq and reminiscent of the dot com excesses (fun though they were)! I get the sentiment and I applaud the timing – but one PR stunt will not solve an extremely complex problem, and a tech company strays onto dangerous ground when it suggests it is coming to the rescue with such a grand gesture.

As Transferwise is a money transfer company and therefore not - as far as I can see – able to impact issues such as off-shoring wealth, I question its ability to deliver on its desired aim to “clean up the banks.” Given it has just received $58m in investment – valuing the company at $1bn – this week’s news agenda would have been an opportunity to start to build a robust, thoughtful and long-term communications strategy. If it is serious about cleaning up the banks then shouldn’t its corporate values and behaviours reflect that commitment? If it is dedicated to the cause then where is its community engagement? At the moment the Transferwise team has not given us the visibility of its approach to these matters. Naturally this takes time, but surely money could have been better spent than on something worthy of Nigel Farage?

To repeat: my biggest frustration is not the timing of the stunt (that is good), it is seeing yet another tech start-up get carried away. Namely that its disruptive powers stretch far beyond simply a cheaper way to send money around the world…which is quite useful, don’t get me wrong. 

Like Uber before it, this stunt hints at over-estimation of the social value that a technology company can offer. I do believe IT can disrupt, can bring massive and important social change, but every technological change has implications. If you are going to make significant claims about the contribution of your widget, software, device or service, then demonstrate that you are not just blinkered by the passion and belief for your ‘new, new thing.’  Appreciate its consequences and side-affects. Uber’s CEO learnt this the hard way and had to shell out for expensive advice to change course.

Transferwise appears destined to become a global success story (and good on it). However, if it becomes a multi-billion dollar company, will its CFO seek the refuge of tax havens to protect its profits? If the founders are bought out for vast sums of money will they seek a second home in the Alps to “manage” their financial contributions to the Inland Revenue? If high net worth individuals use Transferwise to send money to their tax havens what will the company’s policy be?

These are all questions that lie in wait for any tech start-up that believes it is going to change the world. And by the way we are not all standing on the side-lines with arms folded waiting to say, “I told you so!” On the contrary. We are all willing someone to represent us in a different way, because it’s clear we don’t trust any of the usual suspects. But, if you want us to trust you to be different, then be prepared to back up your claims with clear actions and commitments. And that doesn’t include spanking a large amount of your investors’ cash on a stunt. If you can prove it has driven vast numbers to sign up for the service, fantastic, but this feels more like a PR award entry than part of strategic programme.

And there are much tougher questions to come, so stay on your toes, we may fire them at you at any time!

Cairbre Sugrue, Founder & Principal, Sugrue Communications

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