07/27/15

Summer of Scandals – Lessons Learned from the Biggest PR Disasters

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Summer brings excitement about vacation, relaxation (yes, even for adults – hello, summer Fridays!), and warm days. But for some unlucky people (and companies), this summer has brought major crises that require serious help from the PR department. From Ariana’s Grande’s doughnut-loving, America-hating incident to the sudden NYSE outage, these events remind us of the importance of a solid crisis plan, and having an effective team in place to put out the fire.

Jared Fogle

The Damage: On July 7 at 10:20 a.m., news broke that the FBI had raided Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle’s home as part of a child pornography investigation, which was said to likely be connected to the arrest of Russell Taylor, former head of Jared’s charity, for production and possession of child porn. By 5:15 the same day, Subway announced that the company had suspended their longstanding relationship with Fogle due to the ongoing investigation. Media quickly jumped on the story, and allegations were spreading like wildfire – including a journalist who claimed Fogle once remarked that, “middle school girls are hot.” Although Fogle has not been charged with any crime at this point, his reputation has taken a serious hit, and it seems unlikely that Subway will resume its partnership with the well-known spokesperson once the investigation is closed.

Lesson Learned: Act quickly. Long periods of silence will only allow media and critics to throw more fuel on the fire. Subway reacted soon after the news broke, quickly informing the public that they were aware of the situation and that the company was “very concerned and will be monitoring the situation closely.” Companies who find themselves in a similar situation with a scandal regarding a key executive or spokesperson should immediately make it clear that they are taking any allegations seriously, and be prepared to cut ties in short order to mitigate damage by association.

Ariana Grande

The Damage: July 7 was not a great day in the PR world. The same day that the Jared Fogle scandal was unfolding, TMZ released security camera footage from Wolfee Donuts in California that showed pop star Ariana Grande licking doughnuts from the display tray and leaving them to be eaten by unassuming patrons. To make matters worse, the footage also captured her saying that she hates America. Despite her insistence that the remarks were taken out of context and were a reaction to the way Americans eat without regard to health consequences, the damage was already done. She was shamed for her anti-American comments, and for her disregard to public health standards. The doughnut shop’s health rating was downgraded, and the owner even threatened to press charges against Grande. Her first apology was taken to be an excuse for her behavior, and the singer was pressured into making a second, more sincere, apology.

Lesson Learned: There’s always someone watching. Yes, Grande thought she was having a private conversation with her boyfriend as they reportedly dared each other to lick the doughnuts on the counter. However, as any public figure should know, you are never truly alone in our world filled with cell phones and surveillance cameras. Celebrities and other people that frequent the spotlight should assume that, outside of the privacy of their own homes, their actions are being recorded at any moment, and should therefore remain on their best behavior. Even the best PR team can’t erase scandalous videos once they make it to the Internet.

New York Stock Exchange 

The Damage: On July 8, technical problems at the New York Stock Exchange (which were later linked to a new software update) caused communication problems between the NYSE and traders, leading to a halt in trading for nearly four hours. While the outage had limited impact on the actual trading of stocks, which continued on other exchanges, it did cause widespread panic and even rumors of a possible cyberattack, thanks to similar outages at United Airlines and Wall Street Journal the same day. Many critics expressed concern that the NYSE wasn’t prepared for such an event, and did a poor job communicating the shutdown with investors.

Lesson Learned: Have a solid backup plan. Companies with systems in place that millions of people depend on must have a thorough, easy-to-implement crisis plan for emergencies. Businesses should prepare extensive plan b processes that include everything from effective communication with stakeholders to a backup system that can be used if the main system fails. All key executives should be briefed on these plans and be aware of their role in its execution.

Any PR professional worth their salt knows the importance of having a crisis plan in place. There are so many factors to consider when something goes awry – communication to users and the public; reactive, real-time decisions that need to be made; and determining which spokespeople are prepped and ready to go. It’s essential for plans to be developed (and regularly reviewed and updated) before an incident happens in order to save crucial time and reputations in a time of crisis.