Timeline of a crisis

Companies and advocacy groups have a somewhat peculiar relationship. At times combative and at times collaborative, special interests, corporate policies, and stakeholders' expectations all intermingle in the wake of a controversy. The sometimes-dueling s

Companies and advocacy groups have a somewhat peculiar relationship. At times combative and at times collaborative, special interests, corporate policies, and stakeholders' expectations all intermingle in the wake of a controversy. The sometimes-dueling s

Such a situation occurred when the Vermont Teddy Bear Company (VTBC) unveiled its "Crazy For You" bear at the beginning of January, complete with a straightjacket and commitment papers. The company has repeatedly said that its intention was a light-hearted attempt for men to express the way their significant other made them feel.

The planning of holiday-themed bears usually occurs six months in advance and ideas are culled from a brainstorming session that involves employees from all departments in the company. This time, the company came up with about a dozen bears that it tested by sending out pictures and captions to 10,000 customers. A large number of customers liked the bear and said they would consider purchasing it. Only a "very small percentage" raised any concern to the bear, according to Nicole L'Huillier, PR manager at VTBC.

The public controversy began when state representative Anne Donahue (R-VT), and Jerry Goessel, executive director of The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Vermont, discussed their displeasure over the bear at an informal breakfast with Vermont Governor Jim Douglas on January 12. The governor's office contacted L'Huillier to alert her to the brewing controversy. The governor eventually weighed in, criticizing the company for an "insensitive" product.

Soon after that call, L'Huillier fielded a call from a reporter from reporter Darren Allen from the Rutland Herald and Times-Argus, asking for comment on a letter he had just received by fax from NAMI. The organization had also faxed the letter to VTBC, but as it was sent to a different department, she had not had a chance to view it. As a former journalist, L'Huillier says she knew the story would be published with or without comments from the company.

"I wanted to respond honestly and quickly that we were taking it seriously," L'Huillier says. "We said that we didn't know everything [yet] and that this wasn't on our radar screen." VTBC CEO Elisabeth Robert was in a meeting, but L'Huillier said she promised she would look into it immediately.

Now, L'Huillier says she wished NAMI had contacted her company before sending the letter to the media. "By them sending it to the media without sending it to us [first], we didn't have the opportunity to begin a dialogue with the group where we could say, 'we didn't realize this was an issue. How did we miss this? Help us,'" L'Huillier says.

Goessel did not respond to requests for interview for this story, but Bob Carolla, communications director for the NAMI national, told PRWeek, "At one level, there could have been some dialogue before it had a high media profile," though added that he thought that VTBC might not have reacted as quickly if it hadn't appeared in the media first.

Nonetheless, on that same day, January 12, the company decided to stop making additional "Crazy For You" bears and pull any promotion of it from ad spots and from its homepage, though it was still available to buy from the site while stocks lasted. (The company normally custom-dresses bears as they're ordered, but pre-boxes certain ones, like the "Crazy For You" bear, in the anticipation of an ordering rush.)

Allen's Rutland Herald story was the first to run on that morning of the 12 on its website, and the Associated Press' first story ran that evening, which was picked up by many other Vermont papers who ran it on their websites immediately afterwards.

Both sides were quoted in the AP story, with Goessel calling the bear "A tasteless use of marketing that stigmatizes persons with mental illness," and the company releasing a statement, which read in part, "We recognize that this is a sensitive, human issue and sincerely apologize if we have offended anyone... This bear was developed just for Valentine's Day and is not a permanent addition to our product line."

Carolla is critical of VTBC's initial reaction. "I don't think they took the time to sort out what was going on and didn't try to figure out what stigma meant," Carolla says. "[CEO Robert] has since told me they were unfamiliar with the concepts and 'stigma' struck her as a Washington, DC-type word." He said the company did not assess what the straightjacketed bear meant from a public health perspective.

In the past, the company has received protests for its gangster and gay pride bears, but Carolla says this situation was different because it stigmatized a public health issue that was high in the public conscious. He continues that he doesn't think that the company reached an appreciation of just how this was not merely a special interest group, but a public health issue, and that he felt the organization was using a "crisis-management recipe."

For Carolla's part, he first became aware of the situation on January 12 when a colleague sent him an e-mail with a link to VTBC's website. He then got Robert's number from Middlebury College, where he had been in Robert's graduating class, and left a message on her cell phone. He then called L'Huillier to convey that this was indeed a serious matter and offer himself as a sounding board.

While he was having that conversation with L'Huillier, he learned, via another e-mail, that the Vermont office of NAMI had already gotten involved.

On January 13, a consortium led by NAMI Vermont sent VTBC a request for a meeting. L'Huillier said the company responded on January 14, agreeing to meet at a later date. They eventually scheduled it for February 1.

On January 14, the NAMI national office sent out its StigmaBusters newsletter, which said, "The company issued an apology recognizing the 'serious nature of mental illness' and stating it did not intend to diminish or offend. Developed only for Valentine's Day, the bear will not become part of its permanent product line. The company has agreed to meet with NAMI Vermont, and further, positive dialogue is expected."

L'Huillier consulted with a freelance PR professional when it was apparent the controversy wasn't going away, and solicited bids from Fleishman-Hillard, Weber Shandwick, and Sloane & Co. While the company did not go with an external agency, L'Huillier cited Fleishman's counsel as extremely helpful.

"There was no reason for us to sit back and appear that we were hiding something," L'Huillier says. "We were very willing to say, 'Oh my goodness, we didn't expect this.' "

L'Huillier soon set up an e-mail address and phone number for people to call, which she checked several times a day, and found a split between positive and negative comments. Editorials began to emerge both in support and criticism of the company. L'Huillier says that each time a story came out, more comments streamed in. After monitoring additional online commentary, editorials, and listening to customers and employees, the company decided to stick with its decision not to pull the bear.

The feedback was so mixed that Robert had a tough decision regarding what to do with this, L'Huillier says. "[In the end], she felt strongly that special interest groups should not dictate what we can and cannot sell."

During this time, both L'Huillier and Carolla say they were on the phone with each other virtually every day. But while the lines of communication were definitely open, VTBC continued to stand firm on certain positions.

On January 22, The New York Times ran an article in which VTBC said it had sold over 2,000 bears during the week and asserted that the bear could not be pulled due to many unnamed business reasons besides profit.

Carolla says he suggested the company make an announcement in coordination with the mental health groups that objected to the bear before the February 1 meeting, saying that VTBC would remove it from the website entirely and only honor orders already in progress.

However, the company declined. Robert felt strongly that the company was sticking to its position that it would keep selling the bear until its stock was depleted, that it shouldn't make any more announcements.

The situation escalated on January 28 when the Vermont Human Rights Coalition sent a letter, signed by executive director Robert Appel, to the press and to VTBC criticizing its actions.

"Perhaps most disturbing to me is the apparent lack of understanding by your company of the real hurt and emotional turmoil your continued marketing of this stereotypical and stigmatizing product causes for those who have suffered from psychiatric conditions, along with their loved ones," it read.

The Burlington Free Press called Robert for comment, and she said, in part, "I listened to customers, from a lot of feedback from our employees. These people are Vermonters who really don't like to be told what to do."

The February 1st meeting went well, by VTBC's account. On its website, Robert wrote, "From the respectful, human discourse, I learned a lot about the significance of stigma in the mental health community and the plight of real people who suffer from mental illness... We sincerely hope that the dialog [sic] with the mental health advocates can progress so that we can all continue to learn."

After the meeting, the company announced on February 3 that it had ran out of "Crazy For You" bears, but L'Huillier declined to disclose how many bears were finally sold.

But the company wasn't off the hook. In NAMI's most recent StigmaBusters newsletter, published February 17, it wrote, "Ask [VTBC] to make good on [its] promise to work for public education against stigma and discrimination, locally and nationwide."

As for the bear, while VTBC sold out, some enterprising owners are getting bids on eBay of more than five-times the $69.99 they paid for it. Unfortunately for the company, one of its customers was the national NAMI office, which is using it as a figurehead of its campaign against the company. Carolla says that it has already been used in a teleconference sponsored by the federal government with an audience of high school and middle school administrators, nurses, and teachers.

"[VTBC is] now a case study of one of the worst cases of a lack of corporate responsibility," Carolla says. "We ordered one of the bears and we're going to use it as a prop when we talk about stigma. It's held up as the symbol of everything that is wrong in marketing and advertising within the commercial sphere. It's unfortunate, so much as it is at odds with what [VTBC is] supposed to stand for."

In response, L'Huillier says, "We are continuing to be socially responsible as a corporation and are going to learn from this." She adds the event is also a case study for the company, and it will be more proactive surveying outside of the customer base when developing new bears.

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