Public Relations

Disaster Averted: Six Examples of Top PR Crisis Management

PR pundits and brand watchers love to create “best and worst” lists around marketing and communications developments.  The emphasis usually falls on the “worsts” – like the most badly handled crisis situations, mangled cover-ups, or PR stunts that backfired.

It’s easy to criticize, but what about giving credit for crises averted or PR battles won?  That list is shorter and perhaps a bit less obvious, but here are my nominations.

Taco Bell.  A year ago, the fast-food chain was the target of a customer lawsuit that served up a potential PR disaster for its brand.  A California woman smacked Taco Bell with deceptive marketing claims, saying its tacos have far less beef than advertised.  Taco Bell wasted no time in firing back.  The chain went on the offense, big time.  It filed a countersuit, posted a video statement from the CEO, and dished out a saucy media campaign featuring the headline “Thank You for Suing Us!”  The customer’s beef, and her lawsuit, were quietly dropped, ensuring Taco Bell a place in the annals of crisis management. Well done.

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The Red Cross. It was only a rogue tweet, so the risk faced by the Red Cross last year may not rise to the level of reputation crisis.  But its handling of a staffer’s Twitter post about at a beer party was a nice example of a measured response.  After realizing the employee confused a personal account with a corporate one and shared plans for “gettingslizzerd” on @RedCross, the tweet was quickly deleted.  Yet, importantly, it wasn’t ignored.  The Red Cross used a light touch, noting, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”  Best of all, @DogfishBeer joined the fun by encouraging donations, and appropriate replenishment.

Justin Bieber.  Oh, baby, what a mess this could have been.  When the teen pop star was hit with a paternity suit from a fan who claimed Justin fathered her child, he recognized the risk to his squeaky-clean brand image.  Guided by PR rep Matthew Hiltzik, Bieber delivered an unequivocal denial (see TMZ clip) on The Today Show.  Team Bieber then went one better by filing a countersuit and taking a paternity test to prove he was no baby daddy.  His comment?  “I know that I’m going to be a target, but I’m never going to be a victim,” hit the right notes.  Case closed.

o.b.  Talk about facing the music.  The J & J tampon brand was threatened with a “girlcott” by angry users after it discontinued it popular Ultra item.  The customer backlash threatened to take over its reputation, unitl o.b. defused the situation with a unique response.  Its apology PR campaign included a hilarious video that used personalization technology to woo back customers.  “Triple Sorry” was a sublime send-up of an uber-schmaltzy music video, complete with rainbows and rose petals and a vow to bring back the product.  It was a perfect pitch response to a potential crisis with double credit to Canada for a downloadable product coupon.

Newt Gingrich.  He’s known for flying by the seat of his pants, but the Speaker showed real PR savvy when he needed it most, just before the high-stakes South Carolina primary.  His ex-wife’s ABC interview where she claimed he asked her for an “open marriage” could have dealt his campaign a death blow. But when CNN’s John King raised it at the start of the live debate, Gingrich was ready.  He denied the story but not before exploding in indignation and casting the media as the true guilty party. It was an ideal strategy that enabled Gingrich to rally his base against a common enemy.

Planned Parenthood (PP).  No matter how you feel about the Susan G. Komen / Planned Parenthood debacle, it’s clear that Planned Parenthood mounted a first class response to being dropped by SGK’s grants program.  After offering an exclusive interview to the AP, it let loose a barrage of news releases and launched a social media campaign to mobilize fans.  Its core strategy was simple; as spokesperson Tait Sye explained, “we gave people things to do.”  PP circulated online petitions, shared tweets, posted comments, and launched a no-holds-barred media tour by telegenic CEO Cecile Richards.  The public pressure forced SGK to backpedal within the week.

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