Sometimes public relations is about more than a good appearance on the news or a nice headline. When you’re in the middle of a crisis, the best in the business know how to help you stay cool, on message and looking right as you navigate the trouble.
These days the pace of the news cycle presents a challenge, and that challenge is magnified by the unpredictable and constant pressure of social media. In order to be ready to respond, you have to react before you lose control of the message. Some companies do this well. Others miss the mark. Here are two examples of companies in a mess that got it right and one that got it mostly right.
The PepsiCo Syringe
Back in 1993, PepsiCo was faced with a headline no beverage company wants to see: someone reported finding a syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi. That single report led to more than 50 more alleged cases of “tampered with” Pepsi brand drinks. Sure, things moved slower in those days, but by the time everyone knew it was a hoax, PepsiCo had been through the ringer.
From the very beginning, both Pepsi and the FDA were fairly certain the reports were hogwash. Pepsi chose to take the hardline, saying it clearly and precisely: this is not true because we’re better than that.
Pepsi didn’t offer any milquetoast non-committal doublespeak. They made videos detailing their precautions, explaining how the syringes could never have made it into the cans. The public was given a visual course on the canning process, so they could see for themselves why the story was ridiculous. Meanwhile, Pepsi’s CEO Craig Weatherup was on several different news programs, sometimes alongside the FDA Commissioner David Kessler, explaining why what was reported had to be a hoax.
The basic message was simple and consistent: This is a crock. Here’s why. And that turned out to be a huge win for the company.
Here’s one that wasn’t a hoax. Way back in 1982, several people died after consuming Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. No one ever found the killer. But Tylenol’s parent company Johnson & Johnson was able to come out of the nightmare on sound footing thanks to a strong PR campaign.
Step one for J&J was to get the product off the shelves. At a huge cost, Tylenol – about 31 million bottles – was pulled off the shelves. The recall represented about $100 million worth of product. Then J&J fully and publicly cooperated with the police at the local and federal level in order to try to get to the bottom of the problem.
Subsequent to the ordeal, J&J introduced some of the first “tamper proof” packaging on supermarket pharmacy shelves. The extra level of protection quickly brought consumer confidence back, and, today, Tylenol remains a very popular analgesic brand.
JetBlue breaks down
Most people will remember when, back in 2007, JetBlue just couldn’t get off the tarmac. An ice storm hit, causing the airline to cancel about 1,000 flights in less than a week. Now, if CEO David Neeleman had come out and blamed the weather, many would not have blamed him. Sure, some other airlines were flying, but caution is sometimes the best choice.
Admirably, Neeleman never said weather was the issue. Instead, he wrote a public apology and created a JetBlue Customers Bill of Rights. This announcement offered compensation and promises to help stranded passengers.
The one knock on Neeleman’s effort was the time it took to make it happen. The company waited nearly a week to act. That’s better than coming out too soon and offering nothing, but a bit sooner would have been better.
ESPN Can’t Catch a Break
ESPN moves announcer, prompting universal ridicule This may be a story that could only happen in 2017. It certainly would not have gotten as much attention as it has in any other social context. Here’s the basic tale:
When local ESPN producers realized they had a guy named Robert Lee calling the University of Virginia’s first home game, they decided to think this one over. Or, in the opinion of some, they decided to overthink this one.
In ESPN’s thinking, it would not matter that Robert Lee is, in fact, no relation to Robert E. Lee, nor that he is, actually, Asian. He would become the target of ridicule and, perhaps, even a nasty social media campaign. He could even become a meme. So, they talked it over and decided to ask Lee if he would be good with calling another game. Lee said, “sure.”
There were a few extenuating circumstances that would come out later. Lee had recently been promoted, and there were rumors that his “agreement” may not have been a mutual as ESPN later said it had been. In the end, though, that didn’t really matter, because ESPN actually created a much bigger PR debacle than they wanted to avoid.
ESPN has been a target of far-right pundits for some time, and many of those pundits’ fans have been on high-alert, thanks to all the politicking going on in the NFL. That was the setting into which the sports blog Outkick the Coverage broke the story… using the headline: “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.”
Not exactly subtle. The other sites that picked up the story were, in many cases, less so. These websites started publishing headlines implying that Lee had been forced off the game, and that exaggeration quickly became “forced out” … which turned into “fired.” It took less than a day.
Suddenly, there was a raging storm of football fans, who say they are sick to death of politics invading the game they love, filling social media with angry rants and, of course, memes. For literally trying not to be a meme, Mr. Lee became a meme for exactly the kind of political arguing ESPN was trying to avoid. Here’s a guy who just wants to follow his passion as a broadcaster, and he’s stuck in the middle of a PR storm he would just rather avoid.
ESPN seems to have realized its miscue, offering this statement: “It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue… In that moment, it felt right to all parties…”
Now? Well, that’s still being decided in cyberspace.
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.