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Lessons Learned

Inside A PR Disaster

There are two major types of PR disasters, but what it takes to bounce back from them is the same: speed, transparency, and accountability.

Inside A PR Disaster
[Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

One of the world’s largest restaurant chains is weathering a public relations storm. Last week, authorities raided the home of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle in connection with a child pornography investigation. Fogle famously dropped 245 pounds on a diet of Subway sandwiches and made more than 50 commercials for the company over 15 years. Since news of the raid broke, Subway has been doing damage control. "They went out pretty quickly with a statement saying they were suspending relationships with him, which is the right thing to do," says Arwa Mahdawi, chief strategy and innovations officer at cummins&partners. "They’re erasing his presence from their website. This is kind of all standard protocol."

Behind many large brands is a robust public relations team ready to swoop in and restore a company’s reputation in the wake of a damning news story. "Every brand needs to have a crisis plan in place," Mahdawi says. "I’m pretty sure Subway never thought this was going to happen. You have to plan for the worst."

When drama unfolds, it’s easy to freeze up. Who makes the decisions? Who puts out a statement? What media outlets do you respond or reach out to? To answer these questions without a flurry of panicked emails, companies should have a crisis manual with step-by-step instructions on what to do next. "In the crisis manual you pick out the key decision makers and people who really can pull the trigger on making a decision," says Jessica Parker, director of marketing at The Benjamin Hotel & Fifty NYC at Denihan Hospitality Group. "You pull them all into a room and figure out who is their second in command. Ultimately you need them all to sign off and put their heads together and deal with all the facts from each department and make an informed decision."

There are two kinds of PR disasters, Mahdawi says:

1. A brand is guilty by association. A spokesperson or ambassador does something bad and it rubs off on the brand’s image. Fogle and Subway fall into this category.
2. A brand is culpable directly. As in the case of the 2010 BP oil spill, for example.

The latter of the two situations requires a bit more cleanup, but the rules are the same for both: come clean, apologize, and make amends. Oh, and at least try to sound sincere if you’re hoping to regain the public’s confidence. "Ultimately your brand is about people’s trust," Mahdawi says. "If you don’t have their trust in you, you don’t have anything."

Jennifer Risi, head of media relations for Ogilvy Public Relations in North America, says being proactive is key. "A lot of people are sometimes too slow to act," she says, "or they could think they're making too much of this too soon. But it's better to be safe than sorry, better to be proactive and really get ahead of what’s going on, as opposed to letting the issue drive the news."

Come Clean ASAP

When a crisis is unfolding, the brand must get ahead of the news, or at least catch up to it. Silence breeds speculation. "I think the most important thing is speed of response," Mahdawi says. "Journalists are obviously looking for a story, and there will be speculation. You just have to go out as soon as possible to feed that appetite for news and end any speculation."

Subway handled this pretty well, quickly tweeting that it knew and was "shocked about" the news. But in the wake of the 2010 oil spill, BP did the opposite, instead pointing fingers in blame. The CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, even went on the Today show and said, "It wasn’t our accident," which only added fuel to the fire.

Be As Transparent As Possible

Once the news is out there and the brand has taken ownership, openness must follow. Companies should be available to answer reporters’ questions as honestly as possible. Mahdawi says staying silent is a bad idea. "I think one of the worst things you can do is not make yourself available to journalists and then have them write a story where at the end it says that you were unavailable for comment or refused to comment. That makes you looks uncooperative and like you have something to hide."

But "don't speculate," Larry Smith of the Institute for Crisis Management told Slate. "If you know, say so. If you don't know, say you don't know." After the BP oil spill, the company was criticized for understating the extent of the spill, making it seem like it had tried to cover up the damage.

Make Amends

Actions speak louder than words in both personal relationships and public relations. Whether it’s setting up a charity fund, reimbursing victims, or cutting ties with an offensive employee, something must be done to demonstrate a brand is willing to make good on the mistake. Subway immediately announced it had suspended its relationship with Fogle as the investigation unfolds. All mention of his name was removed from Subway’s website and social media accounts.

Stay On Top Of It

At the time of the BP oil spill, Mahdawi was a digital strategist at Ogilvy, which was brought in to oversee the company’s social media strategy following the explosion. She says Ogilvy assigned a team to communicate with the public, and scour the Internet 24/7 and put out small fires before they could get bigger. "It’s really about listening and responding, and companies invest a lot of money in huge teams that do that nonstop," she says.

Using monitoring tools, a team can watch for words and phrases that might indicate trouble is brewing. "American Airlines has an army over there, and like a war room with TV screens and 18 people easily on a team with monitoring systems to help," Parker says.

Risi also says Ogilvy will set up a "newsroom" full of people monitoring all kinds of media, not just social. "It's about responding in real time, and not forgetting any channel on which you need to manage the message," she says. "You cannot focus on any one channel."

There’s no guarantee a brand will bounce back entirely, even if it does everything by the books. But for Subway, there may be bigger problems looming. Its U.S. sales dropped 3% last year, according to Bloomberg, and the company is losing ground to competitors marketing healthier food. Its CEO’s ailing health has sparked rumors that the company may soon go up for sale. Subway needs something fresh to turn its brand around, and Fogle probably was getting a bit stale after 15 years on the job. "The thing is, Subway should have dropped Jared long ago," Mahdawi says. "Subway is doing very, very badly—the brand is irrelevant now. Jared is a very old marketing strategy, so at least this has forced them to get rid of a pretty terrible strategy direction."

The investigation into Fogle is still ongoing, but whatever the findings, it’s likely his days as a brand spokesperson are over. "Some people can bounce back," Mahdawi says. Tiger Woods, for example, successfully maintained his relationships with Nike after admitting to cheating on his wife. "There are levels of what the public is going to follow, and with infidelity, people seem to forgive and forget. But being associated with pedophilia, you’re pretty much dead to brands."

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