The Right Way For Brands To Respond To PR Disasters They Didn't Cause

We're not talking BP oil spills here. These are messes brought on by rogue employees or the failings of partner companies. But just because you didn't make the mess doesn't mean you can't clean it up.

I come to praise Apple, not to bury it.

Apple has always (except for the brief period when Steve Jobs was banished to the wilderness) been the apple of every branding expert’s eye. Volumes have been written about the technology titan’s unique and incredibly successful branding over the years. Since Jobs passed away, however, Apple has suddenly been seen to be vulnerable. Its stock performance has been erratic and its tradition of innovation seems to be on the wane.

While I’m not shy to call out a company when it commits branding blunders, this time around, I want to praise rather than point fingers. That’s because Apple responded so swiftly and proactively to a recent tragedy that wasn’t even of its own making that it deserves some applause.

The tragedy? A 23 year-old Chinese woman was electrocuted by her iPhone 5. Naturally, Apple wanted to find out just what had gone wrong ASAP – and they did. It was determined that the culprit wasn’t the phone itself – but a generic third party iPhone charger.

Again, Apple was off the hook. But, to its credit, the company didn’t just want to prove its innocence – it wanted to prevent more unnecessary deaths from occurring, especially since another Chinese woman was put into a coma due to similar circumstances and a similar faulty third party product.

That’s why Apple announced a special "USB Power Adapter Takeback Program." No, it’s not the catchiest name in the world, but definitely a potential lifesaver, as the company is now selling its name-brand chargers for only $10 to everyone who brings in a third-party charger. From a branding perspective, this is the smartest move Apple could have made. Not only does it (hopefully) eliminate any more headlines about iPhones causing lethal electrocutions, but, as this article points out, it will most likely drive a lot more traffic into Apple stores, which could cause a spike in revenue.

Unfortunately, no brand is safe from bearing the brunt of unpleasant incidents they didn’t directly cause – because bad news travels faster than ever, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the like. In recent months, the U.S. restaurant chain Golden Corral had to deal with video of employees storing meat outside by a dumpster, not to mention a Taco Bell employee tweeting a picture of himself urinating on nachos.

Both of these relatively-obscure disgusting events were caused by rogue employees who were, rightfully, fired for violating company policies – but, thanks to social media, the disgusting acts went viral and couldn’t help but tarnish the brands to some extent.

What can a brand do when its image is tarnished by others? Using Apple’s laudable actions as an outstanding example, here are what I believe to be the five most important Response Rules for brands to follow when handling a PR disaster not of their making:

Response Rule #1: Tailor your reaction to the incident.

Yes, companies love their policies and procedures – but every PR disaster is its own unique animal. There’s no one correct approach to addressing one, so be open to any and all solutions. Unfortunately, many companies now have robotic systems in place to handle any and all social media comments – which leads to unfortunate situations like Bank of America thanking a protestor for his help or Dominos treating a compliment like a complaint!

Response Rule #2: Fast is better than slow – and dumb is unsafe at any speed.

Because social media is such an explosive media, there must be a system in place to determine a response quickly – and overseen by a human with a brain to make sure that response is a smart one. Too often, a company will jump the gun and make a generic statement they end up regretting (such as Chipotle did in this instance). Make sure you know what’s involved before you jump into the fray.

Response Rule #3: Sometimes you should just keep your mouth shut.

The Food Network’s superstar chef Paula Deen has had a rough year, due to ongoing allegations of racism – and the channel felt obliged to take her off the air. Deen’s many supporters, however, blanketed not only The Food Network’s Facebook page with tons of inflammatory comments, but also the pages of Deen’s many sponsors who had dropped her from their rosters. Anyone familiar with the violent rhetoric of Internet commentators understands why The Food Network responded to these posts...with no comment at all. It would have been a lose-lose proposition to do so – and smarter to wait until the controversy blew over.

Response Rule #4: Go beyond what’s necessary when necessary.

Apple creating their Takeback program was clearly many steps past what they needed to do – but it also clearly demonstrated their genuine concern to safeguard their customers against faulty third-party devices. When you go beyond the call of duty to rectify a situation, you show you actually care about those who buy from you.

The pain reliever Tylenol wrote the book on this Response Rule back in 1982, when several of their pills were tampered with on supermarket shelves in Chicago – and ended up killing seven people. Johnson & Johnson, the Tylenol manufacturer, ended up recalling ALL Tylenol products from across the nation at a cost of over $100 million. In the process, they saved a threatened brand and earned plaudits for their extensive action. As The Washington Post put it at the time, "Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster."

Response Rule #5: Remember that someone else will soon take your place in the doghouse.

Earlier in this post, I recounted how a couple of eatery chains got caught off-guard by employees doing disgusting things to their food. Well, the same thing happened with Domino’s Pizza back in 2009 – and, as a matter of fact, here’s a montage of other recent fast food misdeeds that’s definitely not for the weak of stomach.

The point is whatever has just happened to your brand as a result of someone else’s bad behavior is going to quickly pass – so do what you need to do and move on with your business. If you are truly innocent of misdeeds, the moment will quickly pass – and your success will continue.

[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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