Posts Taged crisis-communications

The Difficult Relationship Between Brands & YouTube Creators

youtube advertising

Every day, YouTube users watch nearly 5 billion videos. Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has become a culture-shaping video mecca that has created a new category of “celebrity.” Brands have jumped into the YouTube pool with both feet, taking advantage of those 5 billion daily views with ad buys on the videos of popular YouTube Creators and branded content of their own. From gaming “Let’s Plays” to beauty tutorials to snarky commentary on politics to the latest viral meme, influencers are creating content that brands want to be a part of. And YouTube creators have made lucrative careers from the brands’ ad dollars: in 2016, the highest earning personality was PewDiePie, who brought in $15 million last year.

But in 2017, all has not been well in the YouTube land. Due to several controversies (including one surrounding the aforementioned PewDiePie), the relationship between advertisers and creators (and the relationship between both of those parties and YouTube itself) has become strained. The issues could have far-reaching implications for net neutrality, influencer marketing, and the future of video on social media. Both creators and brands need each other to win the YouTube game, but struggle to define who is truly in charge.

StockSnap_1J6AHTQEPH

The “Adpocalypse:” Creators need brands

In March of this year, YouTube and parent company Google had a full blown crisis on their hands: major brands were pulling their advertising due to Google’s inability to ensure that their ads didn’t end up playing in front of racist and offensive content. However, the issue wasn’t as cut -and-dry as advertisers wanted it to be; part of the issue is how Google can define and label offensive content.

Some videos are obviously offensive – those that contain extreme violence, gore, harassment, and blatant racist content are videos that advertisers (and probably the general public) don’t want to see monetized. However, in YouTube’s efforts to soothe brands’ fears, some of their most popular creators suddenly found their ad revenue tanking. Creators complained that the new “hate speech” algorithm was blocking their content unfairly, and taking video titles and content out of context. Several also pointed out that while their videos were being demonetized for things like violent content in a video game or “jokes” they said were taken out of context, the YouTube channels of news outlets that often show violent imagery and music videos with overtly sexual content still had ads attached.

YouTube creators are most successful when they create and share content with authenticity and connection to their audience. Sometimes, this includes content that isn’t “PG-13,” and brands may not want their logo and name associated with it. Staying true to their audience can come at a cost for creators, especially those who rely on YouTube for their livelihood.

youtube

Cutting the cable cord: Brand need creators

According to a survey in 2016, younger generations watch 2.5 time more internet video than cable TV. In fact, YouTube is the most viewed platform among this demographic – also beating out Netflix, Facebook, and Hulu. Millennials and Generation Z are spending their time with their favorite influencers on YouTube, who are more likely to personally connect with them on social media than an A-list celebrity in the newest show on AMC. They trust these YouTube creators because they can connect with them on a personal level.

As Generation Z comes of age and begins wielding more purchasing power, brands are realizing they need to reach these consumers where they live. Consumers aren’t seeking out brands anymore, and they don’t like traditional advertising. Longer ads on YouTube often come with the option to skip them, but most users will still see a few seconds of an ad before skipping it to get to their video. A well-made ad can still make an impact in those few seconds, and potentially be seen by millions of users when played in front of videos by YouTube’s most popular personalities.

For brands looking to build an even stronger connection, product placements are alive and well on YouTube. Influencer partnerships can take time to build, and creators are often picky about the brands they work with – the products need to be authentic to their persona on YouTube. Not every popular YouTuber is a fit for this type of promotion, either. Those who don’t focus lifestyle content may not have audiences that expect or even accept product promotion.

Companies who pull regular advertising due to concerns about the content on YouTube can run into a new challenge as well if they want to work with these influencers directly. Creators affected by a lack of ad revenue due to brands pulling their campaigns might not be inclined to partner with brands in other capacities – why would they support the brands that don’t support the platform their career is based on? If ad revenues continue to dip or stay stagnant, many popular creators will be seeking greener pastures, and diversifying their careers. There may not be creators for brands to partner with at all in the future.

The balance

Google and YouTube have the difficult task of balancing the authenticity and creativity that made YouTube so popular with the need to assure brands that their reputation isn’t at risk by purchasing ad space. The second half of 2017 will likely define YouTube’s future, as well as the future of influencer relations in marketing. The current situation is sticky – all three parties (creators, brands, and YouTube) need each other, but also need to put their own interests first. Internet video is still a bit Wild West – and YouTube will have to find a way to balance the creators’ desire to keep it that way and brands’ desire to reign it in.

 

The CEO’s role in a brand crisis

brand crisis ceo

In the middle of a crisis for your brand, who do you want facing the public and weathering the storm? The instinctual answer might be your CEO. However, even in the midst of an exceptionally terrible time for your brand, someone other than your CEO could be a better option to help communicate with the public. There are a variety of factors to consider, and the planning for these scenarios should happen long before a crisis occurs.

The debate

As the head of your company, the CEO probably already has a public presence. Whether or not they’re always the best spokesperson for your company, however, is up for debate.

Public perception of business executive duties and roles is one of the strongest arguments for having your CEO step up to the plate in a crisis. As the highest-ranking executive, consumers expect them to know what’s going on, care about finding a solution, and figure out how to implement this quickly. Especially with corporations, where CEOs are often well-paid, consumers assume CEOs are adept at managing their businesses and place a high priority on customer experience. In a brand crisis, having the person highest on the executive chain publicly address it can go a long way in quelling public upset. A CEO who appears absent (or worse, isn’t good with the media) can prolong the crisis.

On the other hand, however, certain crisis situations can benefit from having the CEO be present, but not serving as the “mouth-piece.” Interacting professionally with the media and public isn’t a skill that comes naturally, and a CEO not prepared to defend their brand while keeping public perception in mind can create a long-term brand reputation issue. Additionally, a CEO doing rounds of media interviews may appear to be doing nothing more than talking; if they’re always on TV, are they jumping in and doing any of the hard work to solve the problem? In some cases, it makes more sense to have the CEO on the ground, visibly working to solve the issue, and leave the speaking to a lower ranking executive or official spokesperson.

Preparing for a crisis with your CEO

Whether or not they’ll be the spokesperson, a CEO needs know the crisis communications plan inside and out well before an issue arises. Plans to address a crisis and the role top executives will play should be developed to address a wide variety of potential problems, and should be revisited and updated often. Key things to keep in mind:

  • Transparency and authenticity above all else. “No comment” is not an option. Brands and their spokesperson need to be ready to be transparent about how the problem happened and what they’re doing to solve it. The response needs to show concern for the customers affected, authentically – don’t have a Tony Hayward And if your CEO does slip and make a statement like Hayward’s “I want my life back,” make sure they’re not photographed on their yacht a few days later.

 

tony hayward BP

Tony Hayward, former BP CEO

  • Media training. Even if they won’t be doing the press rounds and will be focusing on being hands on, media will likely still approach and cover the CEO’s activities during the crisis. CEOs should be fully media trained, with refresher courses frequently. Beyond speaking to journalists in person, this should include how to present themselves in public in case of any photos, and how to handle their personal social media channels.
  • Understand the level of response required. Not all crises are 5-alarm fires. Adidas’ recent flub with their Boston Marathon congratulatory email was bad, but the majority of the public understood the intern. It didn’t require a groveling press tour from the CEO, and their response was quick, open, and authentic. United Airline’s recent troubles, however are definitely a serious crisis that requires the visibility of the CEO.

 

In times of crisis, the CEO certainly has a role – it just might not be that of spokesperson. As United Airlines’ Oscar Munoz has shown recently, this can backfire – and Munoz and the airline are both paying for it. Whether or not the situation calls for the CEO to be the spokesperson, the key thing to remember is that planning for a crisis can often avert one before it starts, and save your brand a lot of trouble.

How Can PR Combat Fake News?

HOW CAN PR COMBAT FAKE NEWS?

On Sunday, December 4, a man carrying an assault rifle walked into a family-friendly pizza shop in Washington D.C. and fired. He was there to “self-investigate” a disgraceful conspiracy theory that accused Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta, of running a child sex slave operation out of the pizzeria. Instigated by a false news article, the story had spread via social media several weeks before. The restaurant’s owner, its employees, and even their children had already been subjected to death threats and online harassment in recent weeks.

A media and culture crisis

This terrifying incident is only the latest crisis fueled by fake news sites and online rumor mills. The untrue, vile abuse story and the social media users who perpetuated it are a tiny piece of a much larger problem plaguing our media and our culture. With the proliferation of fake news sites during the 2016 presidential election, politicians and pundits are despairing at the possibility of a “post-factual world,” – and wondering what role legitimate media outlets can play in combating it.

HOW CAN PR COMBAT FAKE NEWS?

How PR can combat fake news?

The implications for PR are vast. In addition to the stupefied media, this issue has created a whole new kind of brand disaster – one beyond the experience of even seasoned crisis managers. How can we protect a neighborhood pizza shop whose online reviews include such slander as “They rape children” and “Shady cover up going on here. INVESTIGATE. INVESTIGATE. INVESTIGATE. shut em down ppl!”?

So how can PR combat fake news? Here are a few takeaways that businesses and their PR teams should keep in mind.

  1. Trust in the media is at a record low, and it is getting lower. Ensure that you and your clients are represented honestly and transparently in traditional outlets. Be prepared to argue your case in other ways, like social media and community advocates.
  2. Be vigilant in monitoring your social media and online presence. When a false story is written, time is of the essence. Contact legitimate media outlets, and ensure that customers know that the story is false. In addition, alert news aggregators and curators like Google and Facebook, who are under increasing pressure to stop false news.
  3. Take extra care to work only with legitimate news sources. Efforts to benefit from false news sites will certainly come around to bite you in the rear end.
  4. Avoid picking fights with trolls and online commenters.
  5. Don’t participate in the sharing or spreading of false news, in business or your personal life. It reflects poorly on you and your brand and perpetuates a major social ill.

 

This contagion will continue to assault our culture, our politics, and our public safety. Do your part in stopping the spread of these lies, and take precautionary measures to protect your interests. You never know who will be the next victim.

 

A version of this article was published on Spin Sucks.

How to Weather the Storm: Ryan Lochte-Edition

media storm

Crisis communication is a critical skillset for any PR professional. Having the knowledge to protect and defend an organization or individual who is facing a public-facing challenge can often mean the difference between life or death of a public image. Take the recent scandal between Ryan Lochte vs. the city of Rio at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. As you may remember, Lochte falsified information regarding an altercation between him, his teammates and a gas station security officer. Both sides screamed he said/she said, but in the end, Lochte was the one with egg on his face.

Had it not been for the camera footage revealing Lochte’s antics of busting an advertisement sign, peeing on the side of a building and bickering with a security office, this story could have easily come out different. But thank goodness for modern technology in this third world country. Days following the incident, the truth behind the lies started to come out, and Lochte was up against the wall without the proper PR training.

Ryan Lochte, Rio Games

Photo Courtesy of CNN

Had I been on Lochte’s communication’s team, here’s what I would have recommended to him:

Step 1: Know your talking points.

Once a crisis is recognized (ie, the video unveiling the truth is released), it is critical to develop the streamlined talking points. Who/what/where/when. This helps to keep the message on track and the rumor mill to a minimum. In Lochte’s case, his story wasn’t ironclad (because he was lying), and holes were immediately present. Obviously, it would have been smarter for Ryan to start with the truth, instead of his exaggerated version.

Photo Courtesy of si.com

Photo Courtesy of si.com

Step 2: Ensure your team is properly media trained in crisis communication.

If more than one person is involved in the crisis (which is typically the case), then ensure each person knows the talking points. And make sure they have been briefed before speaking with the media. Nothing is worse than being detained while boarding an airplane, all because your bonehead teammate couldn’t stay on message.

Step 3: Don’t veer off message.

I think this is very closely tied in with Steps 1 and 2. Once the truth behind the Rio incident began to come to light, Lochte’s story began to slowly change. And change again. And then again. With multiple versions of a story floating around, it makes the spokesperson less credible and the hype behind the crisis much larger. When in doubt, just stop talking.

Step 4: In times of crisis, leave the internet hype alone.

As the crisis begins to spiral out of control, the internet hype will typically catch up with it quickly. It can become overwhelming to want to jump in and do damage control by responding to social media comments, correct false rumor claims and release a different message than was previously approved. Keep in mind that this hype will eventually subside, and if you weather this storm with class, you will be able to keep your dignity on the other side.

Step 5: Keep your friends close, but the media closer.

Do you know what Ryan’s smartest move was? Scheduling a sit down with the television station that had spent the previous 72 hours throwing him under the bus. What do you do if an influencer publishes an unflattering story of you? You may be debating if you should you engage with them. Well, it may be a good idea – just as long as it’s done professionally and respectfully. And remember, “no comment” is still a story.

But what do you do when all else fails? Just like a bad breakup – continue to look forward, change your hairstyle, and join the next season of Dancing with the Stars. Crisis averted!

Russia’s Failed PR Campaign

Russia's failed pr

The IAAF’s decision to uphold the ban on Russian track and field athletes competing at the Rio Olympics presents yet another opportunity to examine how athletes, and entire sports and countries, respond to accusations of doping.

Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, initially reacted furiously to the allegations against Russia, describing them as a “political hit job,” but as it became clear that its track and field athletes were in very real danger of being banned from the Olympics, he took another tack.

In May, in a marked departure from his earlier statements, Mutko wrote an op-ed for London’s Sunday Times with the headline: “Russia Is Sorry And Has Cleaned Up Its Act. Please Let Us Compete In Rio.” This sudden shift in messaging coincided with the hiring of PR giant Burson Marsteller by Mutko’s ministry to help with crafting its image in the international press and break with Russia’s failed PR attempts. Burson-Marsteller is a New York-based global public relations firm whose client roster includes some of the most vilified in the country, including the Philip Morris tobacco company.

In this instance, Russia’s failed PR offensive over the doping ban was clear, asserts The Guardian: “As the reality of being barred from the Olympics hit home, defiance gave way to pleading for clean athletes not to suffer but the change has not worked.”

Russia’s sports ministry is hardly the first institution to be rocked by a doping scandal. Here’s a look at some of the more recent ones.

What Russia Could Have Learned From Maria Sharapova: Admit Wrongdoing, Before You’re Forced to Do So

russia's failed PRAccepting responsibility for wrongdoing quickly in a crisis situation is paramount. Take, for example, the case of Maria Sharapova, who hit the news in March with a doping crisis. Rather than waiting for the media to reach out to her, she broke the news herself in a press conference. Experts cite some pluses in her response, including that she displayed remorse in what appeared to be an unscripted performance, providing full details of her failed drug test (quashing media speculation) and proactively taking control of the situation.

Sharapova also reached out directly to some of her biggest fans – the 19 million followers on Facebook and LinkedIn. She used Facebook to lay out some of the facts of the case and used Twitter to thank her fan base, which had responded to the crisis almost immediately with hashtags showing their support:

“…In this moment, I am so proud to call you my fans. Within hours of my announcement, you showed me support and loyalty, which I could only expect to hear when someone would be at the top of their profession.”

What Russia Could Have Learned from Paula Radcliffe: Set the Agenda on Your Terms

Taking control of the conversation is another key strategy. When a UK House of Commons committee on culture, media and sport mentioned that a winner of the London marathon was potentially under suspicion of doping, Paula Radcliife went on the offensive, even though she hadn’t been called out by name. Radcliffe responded with a 1,700-word rebuttal, and the subsequent media coverage focused on her statements, not those of her accusers. Among the headlines were: “I’m no drugs cheat” (Daily Mail), “B​y linking me to allegations damage done to my name can never be fully repaired” (The Guardian) and “Paula Radcliffe ‘categorically’ denies cheating” (BBC online).

For more detail on the key components of crisis communication, read our earlier blog: A Breakdown of Crisis Communications.

Image courtesy of stock images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t do this: the worst brand blunders of 2015

‘Tis the season for recaps of the year’s best and worst!

In recent year’s past, it has been easy to blame brand blunders on social media. Fast twitch communications developed by junior-level social media staff will always be a recipe for disaster. But the worst of 2015 features a diverse blend of goof-ups, many of which are clearly part of a high-level strategic direction that could benefit from some fine-tuning.

The theme of 2015’s biggest blunders seem to be inappropriately sexual. An odd choice, to say the least, but Budweiser, Bloomingdales, ESPN and even IHOP all got on board with the theme du jour. We hope for their sake that 2016 brings greater awareness — and an improved quality control mechanism — in how their humor could be construred as downright offensive.

I for one am all about pushing the envelope, and in an incredibly saturated media landscape its a great strategy for standing out. Just be sure the envelope is being pushed in the right strategic direction, one that maps to your vision and mission, not the humor standards of a bunch of first-year frat boys.

For the sake of learning from others so we don’t fall into the same trap, here are 2015’s biggest brand mistakes, as compiled by the New York Daily News:

Bud Light doesn’t know that no means no

The nation’s most popular beer became the “date rape beer” in April when it seemingly encouraged rape with a bottle label.

“The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary from the night #upforwhatever,” the label read.

Bud Light eventually apologized for the gaffe.

“It’s clear the message missed the mark and we regret it,” Bud Light Vice President Alexander Lambrecht said in a statement. “We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

bud

Starbucks’ Race Together unites critics

At least we’re united in mockery.

Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign — an attempt to turn stores into impromptu forums for racial dialogues and ultimately bring people together — became an Internet joke shortly after its March rollout.

The coffee giant asked its baristas to write “Race Together” on cups to spur spontaneous discussions with customers about race. But the concept drew so much ridicule online, Starbucks pulled the plan days later.

Heinz’s kinky ketchup

That’s not a URL for condiments.

The QR code on the back of the Heinz bottle took ketchup lovers to its promotional website — until it expired and redirected condiment consumers to a porn site.

A German customer discovered the mix-up after he scanned his bottle and discovered a barrage of nude women instead of recipes and coupons.

“Your ketchup is probably not for minors,” Daniel Korrel wrote on Heinz’s Facebook page, alerting the company to the erotic mistake.

IHOP mocks flat-chested women with flapjacks

Well, this joke fell flat.

IHOP tried to promote its pancakes with a crude punchline about breasts.

“Flat but has a GREAT personality,” the diner chain tweeted alongside a photo of a short stack.

The tasteless message started a firestorm of Twitter backlash, and the pancake chain eventually apologized for the juvenile humor: “Earlier today we tweeted something dumb and immature that does not reflect what IHOP stands for. We’re sorry.”

ihop

Urban Outfitters forgets history

Urban Outfitters drew ire over a Holocaust-esque tapestry.

Historians and activists slammed the trendy clothing giant after it began selling a gray and white stripped fabric speckled with pink triangles — a pattern that looked eerily similar to the prison garb gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps.

 The company never officially pulled the controversial cloak, but its photo was taken off the company website after the backlash. Instead a “Triangle-Stripe Curtain,” with no picture provided, was listed as “sold out.”

SeaWorld’s transparency campaign backfires

After years of backlash over the way it treats its animals, SeaWorld began “Ask SeaWorld,” a campaign that encourages the public to ask questions about the park in a bid to bust myths spread by critics.

But the park’s opponents seized the chance to blast their foe yet again.

Animal rights activists bombarded SeaWorld’s social media accounts with damning questions, such as “Why are your parking lots bigger than your Orca tanks?”

Amazon’s Prime Day is anything but

To celebrate its 20th birthday, Amazon promised a sale day “better than Black Friday.”

The promise held true — so long as you were in the market for beard-growing cream, Adam Sandler movies, shoe horns and floppy disks.

The much-hyped Prime Day did include big discounts on electronics and high-end fashion goods, but customers mocked the bizarre assortment of “garage sale goods” also on sale.

The Seahawks compare MLK’s legacy to football

The Seattle NFL team celebrated its conference victory by tweeting a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote — on MLK Day.

“We shall overcome. #MLKDay,” the Seahawks tweeted a day after the title game, which landed the team in its second straight Super Bowl.

The message included a picture of quarterback Russell Wilson crying, next to a quote from the legendary civil rights leader: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

mlk

Target makes mental illness fashionable

OCD is a serious mental disorder — or a jolly passion for Christmas, apparently.

Target fell into hot water in November when it started selling a red-and-green sweater declaring “OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder.” Critics argued the garb made light of the real OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Target acknowledged the criticism, but never pulled controversial garment.

“We never want to disappoint our guests and we apologize for any discomfort. We currently do not have plans to remove this sweater,” a spokesperson said.

Bloomingdale’s sells sex — and date rape

The department store’s holiday catalog featured fashion, gifts and an offensive joke about raping your BFF.

A spread in the book showed a blonde woman tossing her head back and laughing as a stoic man stared at her from the other side of the page.

“Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking,” the ad read.

The shocking campaign spurred outage, sparked a conversation about rape culture and prompted Bloomingdale’s to issue an apology.

ESPN guru mixes up sports and porn

You’ve got be careful with copy and paste.

ESPN college football recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton tweeted about a high school star’s college visit schedule in January. But the included URL sent followers to PornHub, not more information on recruitment.

The sports journalist quickly deleted the graphic tweet, but never acknowledged the flub.

Under Armor recreates military history with basketball players

Under Armor waved the white flag this year and pulled a T-shirt critics dubbed offensive to the military.

The “Band of Ballers” shirt showed four basketball players raising a hoop — mimicking the iconic photo of soldiers planting the American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.

The athletic company removed the shirt in May quickly after the backlash and offered a three-tweet apology to the military, its veterans and its supporters.

“Under Armour has the utmost respect and admiration for active duty service men and women and veterans who have served our country,” the company wrote. “We deeply regret and apologize the release of a shirt that is not reflective of our commitment to support & honor our country’s heroes.”

5 Reasons PR Pros Can Be Thankful For Social Media

As public relations professionals better understand social media metrics and analytics, we get better at proving these platforms’ worth to clients. Everyone knows social media is an integral part of a communications campaign now; even though the platforms shift and change, the need to have our clients on them remains. But necessity doesn’t mean social media is always easy to deal with. A brand crisis is born on Facebook weekly, internet trolls test our

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations

patience, and doing social media well requires a decent time investment.

However, PR pros still have plenty to be thankful for in the social realm. As we head into Thanksgiving, here’s a reminder of why social is good, and what blessings we can count.

1. More Opportunities for Organic Media Coverage

Broadcast outlets now routinely include a live Twitter feed onscreen, and often parse social media for up-to-the-minute stories and trends. If we are carefully monitoring hashtags and participating in conversations appropriately, the brands we represent have the opportunity to garner organic coverage in the media – no pitching required. The key is to participate in discussions where the brand logically fits and can add value. We can’t just add a rainbow flag to the profile picture and call it a day, either; the brand must be able to further the discussion already happening. No client has a place in every popular hashtag.

2. A Chance to Fix a Crisis Before It Starts

Though social media outlets have proven to be a dangerous mine field for clients’ image, the platforms can also be a place to monitor negative attitudes and attempt to correct the course before a full-blown crisis happens. Many brands use Twitter as a quick response customer service tool. Businesses can also directly connect with upset consumers before they take to Yelp, Trip Advisor, and the 5 o’clock news with their complaints if the company monitors social media comments and responds immediately.

3. The Ability to Really Explore Consumer Engagement

“Engagement” is difficult to quantify on social. Is it likes, comments, and shares? Or is it tied to conversion rate? However a business defines engagement, PR pros have the chance to really dive into connecting with their audience. PR is a field centered around relationships, and social media has redefined how these are built and nurtured. The PR industry has entered a new era with social media, and has access to tools that Edward Bernays only dreamed of.

4. New Avenues for Pitching

Social media has changed the face of pitching. While some journalists still prefer to be pitched via email, many are open to a direct message on Twitter. Most Twitter users have the app on their phone and get notifications of direct messages instantly. It’s also a quick way to show that you’ve researched them beyond their email address and found their Twitter handle. Even if you’re not ready to pitch an idea right away, you can connect with journalists by retweeting them and tweeting comments about their recent pieces.

5. “Soft-Sell” Posts

cute dog

An example of “soft-selling” – cute!

Social users aren’t very receptive to hard-selling on Facebook and Twitter. Sales posts and links do have their place, but brands’ followers are looking for posts that add more value to them. As a PR pro, this type of content can be a break from press releases, pitching, and campaign writing. One of the A.wordsmith clients I do social media work for is a pet supply store. I get to spend a little bit of time each week looking for adorable animal videos and news to share on their pages. It’s a fun way to start Monday, and one I’m definitely thankful for.

Halloween, offensive costumes, and bad publicity

For most retailers, the four-month long “holiday season” is rife with opportunity for public relations outreach. There’s plenty of news stories to latch on to, seasonal product launches, and holiday editions of magazines eager to feature businesses and their stories. However, the first holiday in the lineup, Halloween, seems to churn out a disproportionate amount of mistakes and negative publicity for businesses.

Each year, a number of retailers come under fire for offering tacky, tasteless, and downright offensive costumes in their Halloween product line. Seemingly ignorant to the multitude of examples from years past, businesses put costumes front and center that are obviously a bad decision in terms of brand reputation. 2015 was no different, and some major players had enormous slip-ups in October.

party city police officer

Photo via Party City on Twitter

Party City, a major event supplies retailer, took the bad-taste cake this year with not one, but two separate instances of public outcry over their costumes. In September, one mother penned an open letter on Party City’s Facebook page expressing her disappointment with their selection of sexualized girls’ costumes, mentioning a police officer costume in particular.  Many national news outlets picked up the story, and a debate ensued about what constitutes an appropriate costume for little girls. This week, Party City was again the focus of internet outrage after another woman took to social media to complain about the store’s inclusion of stereotypical Native American costumes.

The event supplies store wasn’t alone in their choice to include costumes that can be seen as racially-insensitive or degrading to certain cultures. Walmart recently pulled two costumes, an “Arab Sheikh” outfit that included a hook nose, and a children’s Israeli Solider getup. The big box store has also frequently pulled costumes in years past, including one meant to depict a mental hospital patient, and some locations decided against selling “Caitlyn Jenner” costumes earlier this fall. Amazon, however, went full-steam ahead on offering a “lady boy drag” outfit in its UK stores, before quickly removing it after complaints.

walmart halloween costume

Photo credit: Walmart

It is true that many of these mistakes happen because large corporations don’t allow for higher-ups to approve every product, especially when they allow outside retailers, like Amazon. Public relations teams are meant to help clean up after messes like these. Unfortunately, none of the above retailers offered a good example of what this type of crisis communication should look like. Walmart and Amazon both went with a canned “not our fault, the product has been removed” statement, neither of which truly apologized to consumers. Party City took an even worse track. The store first deleted the mother’s post and then blocked her from their page, and followed suit with those who posted in support of her. The woman repeatedly tried to contact Party City directly and was ignored. Only after the story gained media attention did the store issue a statement, which offered to speak to her directly. However, the apology was marred by the store’s instance that the costume was one of their “most popular.”

So what should a retailer do when called out for an offensive Halloween costume? There’re three fairly simple steps:

  • Remove the outfit from sale immediately.
  • Issue an apology that admits the outfit was a mistake, and that the store understands why.
  • Go through the rest of the store’s inventory to ensure there are not any other costumes just waiting to induce outrage.

 

Of course, not all internet outrage deserves a response, but the above examples show stores clearly on the wrong side of the argument. Halloween also can be a chance to stretch some boundaries that businesses can’t during other times of the year, but it should be calculated and thought through. The holiday can be an opportunity for some unique publicity, but businesses have to make sure it’s of the fun variety, not the scary.

Oops! You Posted That?

social media mistake

Most everyone in this day and age is linked to some social media platform, whether it be for personal or business use, we can all admit belonging to one or another. Because social media has grown to be so powerful for individuals and for brands it is important to understand that a single social media mistake could easily make or break your reputation.

Often posts don’t work out as  planned and can be seen as offensive or insensitive once followers provide feedback. Brands are constantly trying to gain positive attention via social media and often overlook small mistakes. Here are the dos and don’ts on how to bounce back from a social media “oopsie.”

Do…

  1. Own it. Be professional by taking ownership of the post and admitting to the mistake. An example of this is when the DiGiorno brand started a trending topic on twitter with the hashtag #WhyIStayed. They failed to do their research prior to this upon the realization that this hashtag was being used in reference to women who stayed in abusive relationships. DiGiorno deleted the post and admitted their fault, personally responding with an apology to every angry tweet.
  2. Turn it around. Although the saying stands true, what’s done is done, you can still make a mistake work by using it as an opportunity to
    improve. When the American Red Cross accidentally tweeted, “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd” the brand immediately apologized and made light of the mistake. The tweet turned into an opportunity for Red Cross when Dogfish Head fans jumped on the hashtag and asked fans to donate to the Red Cross.

dogfishbeer social media oopsie1dogfishbeer social media oopsie2

Don’t…

  1. Pretend it never happened. Acknowledging the situation puts rumors to rest and makes people stick around longer to see what happens next. If the post has to be deleted, do so, but the audience should always have an explanation. Removing negative comments and users only make people come back for more and with a vengeance, like Smucker’s when they deleted negative Facebook comments about genetically modified organisms.
  2. React hastily. Even though you should be quick to respond to posts, make sure they are sincere and take accountability for the action. If you’re replying in haste of correcting the mistake you may make things worse with another inappropriate statement, like Belvedere Vodka after issuing a half-hearted apology for an ad that makes light of rape.

Belvedere-Vodka-rape-ad

The takeaway from this is to think before you post in order to avoid sticky situations that may cause backlash on behalf of your business or brand. When a social media mistake does happen though don’t wait too long to address the issue and always take time to craft a thoughtful response. A social media mistake is not the end of the world, but how you deal with it can make or break your reputation in the long run.

Starbucks tries to make good on “Pumpkin” Spice Latte

Pumpkin

With the record high summer temps in Portland this summer, I am more than ready for the cool weather of fall. Along with cozy sweaters and falling leaves, another fall staple is the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte.

However, last year, popular “Food Babe” blogger Vani Hari revealed that the fall favorite drink not only did not actually contain any real pumpkin in its ingredients, and it contained class IV caramel color, which she said is made with ammonia and considered a carcinogen, as well as high sugar content and several other unhealthy looking ingredients. Her post went viral and created an embarrassing PR conundrum for the major coffee retailer.

Pumpkin Spice Latte

FoodBabe.com

 

But in a positive PR move, Starbucks  posted on its blog earlier this week that it has listened to its customers concerns and the latte would now contain real pumpkin puree and no longer include caramel coloring:

After hearing from customers and partners about ingredients, we took another look at this beverage and why we created it so many years ago. It was simple – espresso, perfectly steamed milk, warm fall spices with delicious flavor of pumpkin pie that reminds you of the cool, crisp days of autumn. So, with that great taste you know and love, the PSL returns this fall, and this time it will be made with real pumpkin and without caramel coloring.

But for now, enjoy the rest of summer and when PSL is back in stores, I look forward to celebrating the season with all of you.

Warm Regards,
Peter Dukes

Of course, you can’t make everyone happy and there are those customers complaining that they liked the Pumpkin Spice Latte just the way it was, or that the lattes still aren’t vegan, or that they are still far from healthy, but I am happy to see Starbucks respond in a positive manner in the wake of other big name food brands, such as Kraft Mac & Cheese and General Mills cereals, changing the ingredients in their food to remove artificial flavors and colors.

It seems like many Starbucks customers are satisfied now too, and their biggest question is now, “When will it be available?”