Kelly Johnston has been VP of Government Affairs for the Campbell Soup Company since 2002, but the former secretary of the Senate got himself in trouble recently for spreading a widely-discredited conspiracy story about a recent mass migrant caravan.
Speaking out on Twitter, Johnston condemned the caravan as having been “planned and executed” by Open Society, a charity group funded by billionaire political activist George Soros.
According to media reports, here’s what the tweet said said: “See those vans on the right? What you don’t see are the troop carriers and the rail cars taking them north. OpenSociety planned and is executing this, including where they defecate. And they have an army of American immigration lawyers waiting at the border…”
As it turns out, those rumors were “baseless” according to the media and other officials, a fact that has embarrassed Johnston and, by extension, Campbell Soup. The company immediately went on the offense to distance itself from Johnston and any potential PR fallout. In a statement, Campbell said: “the opinions Mr. Johnston expresses on Twitter are his individual views and do not represent the position of Campbell Soup Company…”
Despite this distancing language, guilt by association is not easily avoided. While it isn’t known what was said behind closed doors, it is clear Johnston took measures to try to put this behind him. Both the tweet and his Twitter account are gone, deleted from the social media platform. That was, of course, after a reporter captured the comments and shared them on his own social media account.
Worse, the issue has an unmistakable political connection. Soros is a well-known liberal activist and donor, as well as a frequent target of right-wing disparagement. By casting unfounded aspersions with political intent, the executive drew his company into an unwanted political PR situation.
In a further attempt to stave off this kind of connection to his brand, which does not wish to alienate any consumers, Campbell interim president and CEO, Keith McLoughlin, said, “Johnston’s comments are inconsistent with how Campbell approaches public debate.” He added that Johnston would be leaving the company soon, and stressed that this decision has been made prior to the tweet.
Once again, we have an imminent negative PR scenario that could have been avoided entirely if the person had been more judicious in their use of social media. While, in most cases, even spirited debate on social media isn’t taboo, openly spreading false and/or specific kinds of opinions can, and often do, come back around on people. It’s better to remember that, while Twitter and other social media platforms feel private, they are megaphones to a very large public audience, whether that’s intended or not.