Responding to Netflix PR stunts 101: Don't get into a fight you can't win

Daniel Frankel, FierceCableLike watching an enraged Sonny Corleone rush headlong into an ambush, I thought about emailing Verizon's corporate communications staff earlier this month and telling them, "Don't do it. It's a trap!"

I had just seen the tweet sent out by the blogger who virally shared the buffering screen of his Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) account, advising him that his streaming performance was suffering because "the Verizon Network is too crowded."

Like, I suspect, a number of others, I wasn't at all surprised by what happened next: Verizon responded aggressively on its corporate blog, a back-and-forth ensued in digital media, and we then talked about net neutrality--and Verizon's role in it--for the next several news cycles.

If Verizon (NYSE: VZ) regulatory affairs executive and part-time corporate blogger, David Young, played the role of Sonny in the digital news-driven drama, Netflix's corporate communications staff, under the direction of former Wall Street Journal editor and Disney PR man Jonathan Friedland, played the behind-the-scenes part of the puppeteer referred to by the "Godfather" himself, Don Corleone--the mythical figure that had everyone dancing on a string. 

This is not to say Young didn't have a point to make--Netflix can't prove, publicly anyway, that any congestion its subscribers are experiencing stems from congestion on their ISP's network.

But as Young further noted in the same blog post, there were other people--actual full-time bloggers, such as Streaming Media's Dan Rayburn--who seem to be willing to make Verizon's points on their own.

Young was right--it was a Netflix "PR stunt." But by responding so directly via corporate blog, and having most of us pick up that follow-up story, he made that stunt really work. By the time Verizon issued its cease-and-desist letter later that same Wednesday, demanding that Netflix stop its messaging campaign, many entertainment news sites and tech blogs had written their third post on the kerfuffle.

Bonus points to Netflix for artfully disassembling the tent and moving on, calling the whole menagerie a "test" that would not end immediately as Verizon demanded, but soon enough so there was no need for the legal action to escalate.

So what are ISPs like Verizon, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and AT&T (NYSE: T) supposed to do, when Netflix uses all the advanced tricks in the digital communications spectrum to message the public at such a pivotal policy-making time? Just sit there and take it?

Well, no, that's not a good idea. For the sake of their individual brands, I'm just suggesting a little more cleverness, artfulness and sophistication in PR strategy.

For its part, Netflix seems to understand how it publicly comes off when it directly engages the seemingly monolithic pay TV and telecommunications giants that run the Internet.

Tellingly, a research company, Peerless Insights, recently asked 1,231 consumers who they favored in the Supreme Court fight between Aereo and the major broadcast networks, and Aereo won public opinion decisively.

In the vote between the upstart digital company and the big corporate monoliths, the little disrupter wins every time. Netflix certainly understands this, as it looks for ways to turn public opinion about the rather nuanced, and highly complicated, net neutrality debate in its favor.

As FierceCable reported earlier this week, the MVPDs have also tried a more subtle approach--Astroturfing the net neutrality debate with fake grassroots opposition. But being exposed as having hired a big D.C. lobbying firm steeped in this kind of corporate subterfuge only makes the debate clearer for the public. And not in a good way, if you're Comcast or Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), which backed this faux campaign.

Of course, Netflix is now a big, publicly traded company, too, hoping to establish policies that help it to further augment its sizeable market cap by freely using billions of dollars worth of broadband infrastructure.

If I'm the shareholder of a big ISP, that's the message I want to see more of in the press--strategically delivered in a clean, proactive way, that doesn't involve dirty corporate tricks.

Next time, I think Verizon should think like Michael instead of Sonny. --Daniel