Public Relations can be a particular tricky beast to get right. Samsung are learning that it isn't just the art of persuading the public to adopt a particular perspective, but also involves some careful damage control. Get it right and your brand is gold plated, one small misstep however and things can get very messy, very quickly.
Things however appear to have gone completely off the rails when it comes to Canadian YouTube user Ghostlyrich who was the proud owner of a Galaxy S4.
When his phone burst into flames as he was charging it he approached Samsung seeking a replacement. Samsung understandably demanded proof.
Things started getting tricky when Ghostlyrich posted the proof on YouTube. Samsung responded with a written settlement, demanding he take the video down, and agree to some pretty onerous settlement terms if he wanted to receive a "similar model" replacement handset.
What Samsung didn't count on was Ghostlyrich disclosing the settlement in a second YouTube video that has since had more then 500,000 views.
The situation is at best muddled. Samsung have responded with the official statement being that "Samsung takes the safety and security of our customers very seriously. Our Samsung Canada team is in touch with the customer and is investigating the issue."
From Samsung's viewpoint, igniting phone batteries would have to be right up there as one of their worst nightmares so checking to see if the fire was due to an isolated manufacturing fault (such as the smoking iPhone on an Australian domestic flight caused by a faulty phone repair), the use of an unsupported 3rd party charger (which reportedly resulted in a death by electrocution in China) or any other factors is a must do even if purely from a public safety perspective to ensure that other similar fires don't create havoc with their brand.
It is also hard to blame the electronics giant for demanding proof as they must also receive their fair share of otherwise dodgy claims such as the recent claim from a Hong Kong doctor that his S4 caught fire and burnt down his entire house and damaged his car (there is no official word from Hong Kong authorities yet of anything untowards such as accelerants or insurance claims and other suspicious activities), but Hong Kong police are investigating.
This said, Samsung's marketing teams must have had kittens seeing Ghostlyrich's first clip on YouTube. In the clip you can see the handset with a charred Micro USB charging port, but what would have been most worrying of all for Samsung is the commentary Ghostlyrich provides, talking about how the battery could have exploded, creating a huge fire in the process.
While it is hard to fault Samsung's initial approach, they appear to have overreacted and gone thermonuclear after the first YouTube clip, issuing Ghostlyrich with a written settlement contract that stated he could get a replacement handset if he complied with several conditions.
First he'd have to delete his YouTube video and agree not to create any similar clips, then he'd also have to release the company from any legal liabilities, also waiving his right to participate in any future lawsuits against Samsung. Last but by no means least; he'd also have to agree to never make the terms of the settlement public. If he agreed to all these terms he'd get a "similar" replacement model.
Samsung's lawyers must've been patting themselves on the back - after all the settlement agreement was watertight and of course this person would want a similar model as a replacement right? Wrong.
What Samsung appear to have failed to grasp was the fact that any customer, including Ghostlyrich might see the settlement as being somewhat onerous if not bordering on offensive. Ghostlyrich was obviously of the latter view and released a second YouTube clip disclosing the terms of the settlement and some fairly ripe language as he talked about the situation.
The second clip has since spread like wildfire with more than 500,000 people having viewed it so far.
There are always two sides to any story, and although little is known about the motives and background of Ghostlyrich, Samsung appear to have shot themselves in the foot by not subjecting him to some pretty unpleasant legalese and trying to silence him when it appears that he'd done nothing wrong aside from having a handset catch fire. It's still early days and Samsung are still investigating. Watch this space.