Anti-biotic free chicken? Panera pays a price with EZ Chicken campaign

It’s too late to find the EZChicken twitter posts put out by Panera bread. They’ve been replaced with sincere apologies for offending people. The blog diarycarrie documents some of the cute but offensive posts that were the EZ Chicken campaign.

“Anti-biotic free” chicken sounds like just one of a gazillion marketing appeals made by food providers these days. A sure winner. And who couldn’t love a “lazy” chicken, one that hangs around in pajamas and wonders if dreaming of running counts as a workout.

But the message of the campaign was clear: using anti-biotics while raising chickens is a form of cheating, a work saving work around to the harder option of raising anti-biotic free chicken. Problem is, it was pure nonsense. Crafted by clever creative people who clearly never bothered to do any research on anti-biotic use in raising chickens–nor did they think through how farmers might respond to being called lazy.

The response was quite overwhelming, and forced Panera to do a pretty fast turnaround. EZ Chicken is no more, and while they are not exactly backing down, according to Dairycarrie are certainly doing what they can to unruffle some feathers.

Food production and marketing is one of the most interesting areas of crisis communication these days. We are in the midst of a very serious change, a mind-set change, a worldview change, a sea-change, a paradigm shift as all the cliches would have it. The younger generation in particular (my very bright adult children are poster children for this) is highly distrustful of factory farming, they hate the likes of Monsanto, don’t trust government regulators to protect us and are eager to buy (at practically any cost it seems) that which is fresher, closer to the farm and that promises to use less bad stuff like fertilizer, anythingcides, and antibiotics.

There’s a lot good to be said about this. A have a brother who is doing very well in promoting his farm raised beef, chickens, eggs, pork online with the very appropriate tagline: know where your food comes from.

Therefore its natural for just about any company selling food, Panera for example, to jump on the “healthier” bandwagon and promote something that sounds like it is going to be much better for you. But Panera provides a compelling lesson for marketing folks who are thinking of getting on this bandwagon. Turns out its a farm wagon, not a bandwagon. And there are a lot of farmers out there, plus other people who can sniff the difference between wholesome marketing and something that comes from the back end of bull.

EZ Chicken is lounging quietly on his hammock out of public sight. But food marketers should put a poster of EZ Chicken in their foosball rooms as a reminder of the perils of unwarranted and thoughtless claims.



Crisis strategy–how to avoid fanning the flames

By far the majority of reputation crises I’ve been involved in have a very, very important question at the core: how do we avoid fanning the flames? There is a very real danger in communicating about an event of actually doing harm rather than improving the situation. The greatest danger, of course, is bringing a bad story to the attention of others who otherwise would not even be aware of it.

The understandable fear of this I believe is the main cause for the other problem which is “too little, too late.” When actions taken, or messages communicated about a big problem, are seen as coming slowly only as a result of outrage or pressure, then reputation damage can be severe.

This is a dilemma, a clear example of being between a rock and a hard place. And almost everyone wants to know how to make a sure-fire strategy decision that doesn’t cause harm in either direction.

A couple of recent reputation crises I’ve been involved in have brought this issue again to my attention. I find myself repeating advice to clients in very similar ways and wanted to share my thoughts about dealing with this dilemma.

The most important thing is to listen. (Amazing how often listening is the solution to communication problems!)

For example, suppose you have a senior executive whose ex-wife is accusing him of domestic violence. You knew the split was ugly and you really have no idea if there is any truth to the accusations. The executive is crucial to the company’s operations and has a high profile so news stories and social media chatter could be very harmful. So far it has been quiet, no media coverage, just behind the scenes legal activity and investigations.

What do you do? This is a classic “smoldering” crisis. There’s smoke but no fire yet. Hopefully it will all go quietly away, but there is a reasonable chance that it could suddenly flare into flames that would threaten the organization.

Here’s what I would tell you if you were the CEO:

1) Prepare–don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t wait to be caught by the interviews and social media wildfire then have a deer in headlights look. Get ready. Take whatever internal actions that those who value you expect of you. Perhaps it is to put the executive on paid leave pending an internal investigation. Be proactive keeping in mind what is fair and right and how others will evaluate your character through your actions.

2) Prepare holding statements. Think through how this could play out–from minor public play to major coverage and new, devastating revelations about your key executive. Think how it could get worse and what you would need to do and say.

3) Identify who to talk to. The most important people in any crisis are those whose opinion about your organization will determine your future. Major customers, investors, donors, business contacts, employees and families, and so on. Know who they are and determine in advance both what you will say and your methods of communicating with them.

4) Rumor management. You know there are a number of people who know about what is going on and who are talking about it. Just because they are not privy to the facts does not keep them from commenting, even on social media which has the potential to reach the media and spread virally. So monitor, monitor, monitor. Not just monitor social media, but establish “listening posts.” These are people you trust who are connected into the networks that really matter–employee networks, customer networks, industry networks, etc. Tell them to call you immediately if they hear anything–good, bad or indifferent. You want to know what the chatter is, who is saying what, and most of all, if a rumor getting legs.

5) Establish communication triggers. Decide in advance at what point you will launch a more proactive communication strategy. Perhaps it would be personal calls to the most important stakeholders. Perhaps an email to your identified top 200. Perhaps it is a low-key post on your website. But, for a worst case wildfire, you have to be ready on a 24/7 basis to push the red button and start communicating with anyone and everyone who may care.

Judgment is clearly called for here. In this kind of situation an experienced, wise and skillful crisis communication expert is probably worth whatever exorbitant fees they may charge because much is at stake. But, the key is quite simple and it goes back to “The Art of War.” Intelligence, knowing the situation, is everything. In this case, knowing what those most important to your future are hearing, thinking and responding is the most important intelligence you can have in making the right call. And it really is easier than you might think.

WWMT investigative reporters in Michigan expose legal system corruption

Salmon fishing in Alaska is not exactly a likely place to contemplate what happens to our society when a basic institution like our legal system becomes corrupt. If citizens cannot count on fair and equal treatment when going to court, we will soon tire of this thing called civilization. It’s like going to a ballgame knowing the scoreboard will favor one side.

But I spent quite a bit of time contemplating that because of what I found out was going on in Western Michigan–Van Buren County to be exact. Frequent readers will know that I often complain quite bitterly about the melodramatic reporting typical of local TV investigative reports. But the “I-Team” of Kalamazoo’s WWMT came across a story about possible corruption in Van Buren County’s legal system that has certainly earned them my appreciation and I hope earns them a Pulitzer.

Below are the links to the first three investigative reports. As I write this, I am waiting eagerly to view the fourth which could be the incredible climax to this amazing story.

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 1

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 2

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 3

Here’s the gist of the story.

A business man in Grand Rapids loaned the owner of a storage container business $700,000. After three years of trying to collect on the loan, working with his brother-in-law (Bob Baker) he went to court. Judge Hamre in Van Buren County awarded them the right to repossess 600 steel containers and sell them to recover their money. The defendant then hired some high-powered Van Buren attorneys, and the judge promptly rescinded his order and lowered it by nearly half.

Baker and his attorneys protested. They are in a neighboring county and held a conference call with the judge who had the two defendant attorney’s in his office, while Baker and attorneys were in the other county on the phone. The phone call from their standpoint was not-productive. But, instead of hanging up, they left the conference phone on, and much to their amazement, realized the other side–the judge and two attorneys–had left their conference phone on as well.

The judge and two attorneys in his office began talking about Baker and the attorneys in vulgar language (“f— d-heads” if you want to know). The judge told the attorneys he was not going to give them what they wanted. And they continued on holding this very clear “ex partee” communication–strictly illegal and highly unethical.

Baker and team promptly asked the judge to recuse himself, citing verbatim the discussion they overheard. The judge refused and the three in one way or another denied that the conversation occurred. Amazingly, they got the County Prosecutor involved who issued criminal arrest warrants on trespassing and assault charges against Baker and his attorney Don Visser presumably for their actions during the repossession attempt. Baker had videotaped the repossession and if anything it showed the other party’s aggression. Baker’s charges were dropped but Visser’s still stand as of this writing.

All of this has been carefully reported by the I-Team. Now, you might reasonably wonder why the I-Team was so confident in confronting the 17 year veteran of the bench and two attorneys with considerable influence in this area. After all, what would keep Baker and team from making up the whole conference call conversation? One thing: Baker had a tape recording of the call. And the judge and attorneys didn’t know it.

The tape has been turned over to the judicial review authorities and the bar. It was also turned over to the I-Team which explains their aggressive and confident reporting. But they have not, to date, revealed to the judge, the two attorneys, nor the prosecuting attorney the existence of the tape. While the judge recused himself on bogus reasons, he just announced that he is retiring from the bench almost immediately. The two attorneys have completely denied the allegations and instead have come out swinging against Baker and Visser. Their denial is filed with the court and, if my understanding of law is correct, may very well face perjury charges–let alone what the bar association may say or do. As for the Prosecuting Attorney, when he willy nilly files criminal charges at the behest of a couple of attorneys, well, there’s something fishy here as well.

Now that this has come out publicly, Baker says he has heard from many in the legal community who have said that something is rotten in Van Buren county.

You may wonder why I have so much interest in this story. First, assuming this all plays out as it looks, the I-Team has done a great service. While I am often very critical of the “black hat white hat” reporting, I am also grateful for this kind of investigative reporting which can if properly used speak truth to power. They clearly understand what is at stake here which is why they have already done four investigative segments on this story.

And the other reason? Personal connection. Bob Baker is my cousin, someone I used to babysit when he was a rambunctious kid, and my fishing buddy in Alaska. Good luck to you Bob and team. Thanks for having the courage to help keep our system clean.



What, someone in PR sticking up for BP?

In a sort of man bites dog turnaround, a highly respected PR consultant asks an intriguing and important question: How good does a good company have to be. Here is Jim Lukaszewski (luke-a-shev-ski)’s post about what BP has done and what continues to be demanded of them.

I won’t say anymore, because crisisblogger readers know my feelings about BP and the commentary about their “reputation problems.” And also, full disclosure once more, I have consulted with BP in the past and at least continue to be acquainted with some of the very fine people who work there.


Does it matter that Asiana’s PR sucks?

Wall Street Journal ran a blog yesterday talking about how bad Asiana’s PR is in the wake of the pilot-induced crash in San Francisco. They made the point that the CEO rebuffed communication experts in the US who wanted to help if the crash aftermath and stuck with its South Korean team. An Asiana representative said, “It’s not the proper time to manage the company’s image.”

That’s quite a remarkable statement.  If the hours, minutes, days and weeks following a horrible crash, caused by an inexperienced pilot, is not the proper time to manage a company’s image, when is? The old adage about a crisis representing both risk and opportunity is very true, I believe. Trust can be built despite horrible circumstances, so it does matter greatly.

Which doesn’t mean that Asiana is in trouble because they won’t use a US PR firm or consultant. The company’s CEO, Yoon Young-doo, is in San Francisco now. That in itself demonstrates far better than words the way in which the company is dealing with this.

It raises the question for me–what constitutes a crisis these days? I sense that it is changing, and that is a very significant question for one of the greatest issues in crisis planning and preparation is the issue of triggers. How do you evaluate an event and its severity so that the communication response is appropriate. Since speed is so essential, the assessment has to happen fast as well. Do and say too little, and reputation can take a big hit. After all, the most common post-crisis analysis consists of “too little, too late.” However, do too much and you create or exacerbate a crisis unnecessarily. Communication advisors or staffers who in retrospect throw fuel on a fire may very well find themselves being baggage handlers instead of executive handlers.

Let me give you an example of the changing nature of crises and therefore crisis response. About 2-3 years ago, Dominos Pizza was in major crisis mode after a foolish employee did disgusting things to pizza and posted the video of it on YouTube. Now, it seems there is a video of the young and stupid fast food employees doing something disgusting on YouTube almost every day. When crises become every day occurrences they no longer count as crises. While companies still need to respond to such activity, the response needs to be measured, and measured by the degree of virality and public reaction.

There were a number of people on social media following the accident who said they’d never fly again. Understandable reaction, to some degree, particularly when the horrible image of the plane’s tail hitting the seawall was captured on video and played ten thousand times on cable. But, does this mean it is a crisis for the airline industry? And what about Asiana? Will their business decline significantly as a result of this crash? Even more to the point, will it decline because their PR isn’t meeting our high standards of sympathetic crisis response?

I doubt it. People know in their brains, if not their guts, that flying is safe, in fact the safest mode of transport there is. If they want or need to fly, they will. Whether they choose Asiana or United depends mostly on the route, timing and price. True enough, I will avoid Allegiant Airlines at practically all costs because of my very negative experience with them.  But, except for those 300 or so people on board, most have not had a negative experience with Asiana, nor are they hearing a ton of stories about what a horrible, unsafe airline it is.

So, was the Asiana executive right in saying now is not the proper time to manage a company’s image? No, but the fault is in their faulty understanding of how a reporter and us PR types would react to that statement. If they mean, as I suspect they do, now is the time to focus on the passengers and families of those who survived the crash and those who did not, get about the business of understanding what happened, do what is necessary and prudent to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and communicate openly about all of this, they are not wrong at all.