ANALYSIS: Crisis Communications - Metabolife vs 20/20: did guerrilla PR win? Crisis guru Michael Sitrick made headlines with an aggressive pre-emptive strike against ABC’s 20/20 on behalf of diet-pill maker Metabolife. The buzz has faded, but the

Metabolife International recently faced a potential PR disaster: the on-air grilling of CEO Michael Ellis by ABC’s 20/20 and an investigative report questioning the safety of the company’s fast-selling herbal weight loss supplement.

Metabolife International recently faced a potential PR disaster: the on-air grilling of CEO Michael Ellis by ABC’s 20/20 and an investigative report questioning the safety of the company’s fast-selling herbal weight loss supplement.

Metabolife International recently faced a potential PR disaster:

the on-air grilling of CEO Michael Ellis by ABC’s 20/20 and an

investigative report questioning the safety of the company’s

fast-selling herbal weight loss supplement.

In response, Metabolife’s PR maestro Michael Sitrick headed ABC off at

the pass with the posting - and publicizing in The Wall Street Journal -

of the 70-minute, unedited Ellis interview on the Web several days prior

to the broadcast. Today, with the 20/20 report in the can (it aired

October 15) and traffic to the web site down to a trickle, the

reverberations of this fairly revolutionary action still have the

industry buzzing.

For one thing, the very idea of making a preemptive strike on ABC -

which Sitrick qualifies as ’an act of last resort’ - flies in the face

of conventional crisis communications wisdom. ’One of the classic axioms

is, ’The less said, the better,’’ says Bob Irvine, head of the Institute

for Crisis Management, who disagrees most with the timing of

Metabolife’s action. ’Companies have done their own taping and sent

their own footage out to key audiences in the past, but at the same time

or after the broadcast, not before it. Why would you want to expose this

controversy to millions of people who never would have known about it


But timing wasn’t the only problem, according to Irvine. ’It’s important

to remember that people come away from things like this with an overall

impression good or bad, not the specific facts. Plus, anyone who ever

wants to attack (Metabolife) in the future, whether it’s a lawsuit or

another news story, now has the ammunition to do so.’

Common sense rules?

Certainly, common sense dictates that highlighting possible problems to

people who may not have been aware of any controversy in the first place

may not be the best strategy. ’It’s like that episode of The Simpsons,

when they are visiting the Duff Beer plant and the guy says, ’You have

heard there’s strychnine in our beer. You didn’t know that? It was on

CNN. Well, it’s not true,’’ says Joel Drucker, a Bay Area-based media

trainer and freelance journalist.

On the other hand, common sense may no longer apply in today’s media

climate. Unlike the days when CBS’ 60 Minutes was the sole crusader in

the TV newsmagazine category, today similar shows crowd the airwaves

every day of the week, and the competition for increasingly

sensationalistic, consumer-oriented coverage has skyrocketed.

But while shows like Dateline and 20/20 are under the gun to unveil hot

topics, traditional media is losing some of its gatekeeper status.

With the advent of the Internet, companies don’t have to play slave to

networks or newspapers to reach mass audiences. Perhaps now it’s not

about keeping potentially damaging charges under wraps, but staging a

debate in the court of public opinion via the web.

’What Sitrick and Metabolife did was absolutely brilliant, taking the

offensive and gaining control of the situation right from the


Not once did they let the story get away from them,’ says University of

Minnesota journalism professor Sherrie Mazingo, who spent 15 years at

the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of


As noted crisis expert John Scanlon explains, the early warning web site

tactic likely deflated ABC’s credibility in the eyes of at least a few

viewers. ’The story had already become a controversial piece by the time

it came out, which enabled viewers to dismiss it from the start,’ he


’It’s a big gamble, but you have to take big gambles sometimes when

20/20 is about to come crashing down on your client,’ agrees San

Francisco-based crisis expert Larry Kamer of GCI Kamer-Singer. ’Does it

call more attention to the story? Maybe. But what difference does it

make if it’s incremental to 20/20’s already massive audience? It may

have been enough to get people to think Metabolife was unfairly


As a matter of fact, Metabolife’s own numbers came close to those of

ABC. According to the company, the interview site

( received more than one million hits on the day

following the broadcast alone.

When all is said and done, however, what really counts is whether or not

Sitrick’s Web tactic achieved its objectives, and that’s largely still

up for debate. If the goal was to sway 20/20 producers into balancing

out the final piece (which Sitrick admits was his intention), the jury

is hung. According to Sitrick, the broadcast ’turned out to be, in our

opinion, much more tempered and carefully edited than they had indicated

it would be prior to the interview.’ For example, he says the piece

identified one anti-Metabolife doctor as a trustee of rival Slim-Fast,

something he says producers had refused to do prior to the WSJ


20/20 correspondent Arnold Diaz disputes Sitrick’s assertions, telling

PRWeek that the decision to identify the doctor’s affiliation was made

once ABC learned about it, not due to pressure from the press

surrounding the web site. ’It is not true that we altered the broadcast

in any way in response to the stories that broke about the web site,’ he


’We didn’t know that (the doctor) was affiliated with Slim-Fast, and

when they pointed that out to us, we identified him that way.’

If the goal was to steal ABC’s thunder, then the web site was not a

rousing success, however. ABC’s ratings were up for the Metabolife


’The show did well. It wasn’t a huge spike, but the ratings were a bit

higher than usual,’ says ABC News spokesperson Eileen Murphy.

Sitrick’s home run

To be sure, cutting ABC’s audience doesn’t seem to have been Sitrick’s

goal, given the reported dollars 2 million spent on advertising the web


And the move certainly didn’t hurt the company’s bottom line, where the

real measure of success lies, and where - at least according to Sitrick

- his team hit a home run. Not only did the broadcast fail to dampen

enthusiasm for Metabolife’s supplement, sales of the product actually

doubled in most markets after the show aired.

But doesn’t the use of this ’guerrilla PR’ jeopardize the media’s role

as the fourth estate? Mazingo doesn’t think so. ’I see such strategic

planning and maneuvers as a good thing for investigative journalism

because they can only be more thorough, careful and deliberate in the

gathering and preparation of information,’ she says. ’And any company

that is going to be the subject of a media profile has a right to get

their side of the story out there to let the viewer or reader decide for


So it seems the tactic proved to be a win-win situation for both sides

of the media fence, with Sitrick earning bonus points for a PR gambit

that, no matter how successful, has certainly changed the rules of the


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