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How OfficeMax Failed on the PR Front...Twice

OfficeMax's insensitive letter to 'Daughter Killed in Car Crash' is being blamed on Big Data. But all the blame rests with the company.
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In the OfficeMax public-relations fiasco, don't blame Big Data. Blame small thinking.

OfficeMax is getting much-deserved criticism after Mike Seay, a suburban Chicago resident, received a solicitation letter from the company, addressed to him and to "Daughter Killed in Car Crash." Indeed, Seay lost his daughter in a car accident about a year ago. The letter, Seay told NBC 5 Chicago, opened old wounds since he thinks of his daughter "10,000 times a day."

OfficeMax bungled the response in two key ways. First, it mishandled customer service, which is the front line of public relations. When Seay contacted customer service, he was met not with an apology, let alone sympathy, but rather with incredulity. He was literally told the letter he was holding in his hand was "impossible." It was not until the company was contacted by the media that it said it was "deeply sorry" and would reach out to Seay directly to express its "sincerest apologies."

Second, OfficeMax botched the response by immediately blaming a third-party vendor. It's not that the vendor didn't make the mistake. In fact, it probably did. But the letter bore OfficeMax's brand, so the public does not care who erred. It can only be OfficeMax's responsibility. By failing to manage and assure quality in this relationship with its third-party vendor, it fumbled its brand protection. Blaming the vendor does nothing to absolve OfficeMax of that responsibility.

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Where the blame doesn't rest is with so-called Big Data. There are some suggestions that the OfficeMax situation is just the latest sign of problems with the collection of personal data, conflating this incident with the unwarranted surveillance of American citizens by the government and the massive data breach of information from Target. There is also some concern that OfficeMax's letter might be used as a weapon for privacy advocates who want to rein in data collection.

But OfficeMax's error was more mundane. Consumer information is collected more organically because of the overt decisions buyers make every minute of every day. One needn't engage in warrantless wiretapping to find out someone owns a dog, shops only on Sundays and doesn't like bell peppers on her fajitas. That information is available, and helpful, not only to the marketer, but also to the consumer, since it can lead to targeted discounts and more personalized service.

Indeed, even the information that Seay's daughter had died in a car accident can be relevant and valuable from a marketer's perspective. Attorneys, for one, would pay well for such knowledge.

But it was not the existence of this data that was a problem, but rather its use. There is no way the death of Seay's daughter can be relevant to a company that makes its scratch selling toner cartridges and dry-erase boards. Clearly, either OfficeMax pulled from an inappropriate data set to compile its mailing list, or its vendor pulled from the wrong list. 

Regardless, the issue was not that data was available, but rather that it was misused. That is an important distinction, a fact that both OfficeMax and its critics needs to get straight as the debate continues.

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