Should brands handle a pitchman crisis with just a concise statement?

Two comms pros weigh in on how brands should get in front of a spokesperson-related crisis.

Melissa Arnoff
SVP at Levick
Expert in brand development, brand protection, and marketing communications

When a brand is in crisis because of actions by a celebrity spokesperson, such as the recent case of Subway and its longtime pitchman Jared Fogle, emotions can run high.

 It is understandable that company execs might want to vigorously defend their brand, because the reputation of the organization is very personal. Subway, however, was wise to keep its responses brief.

One of the key rules of crisis comms is "if you’re explaining, you’re losing." It is much better to keep any acknowledgment as brief as possible and then shift the conversation. The more time a company spends talking about the issue or defending its actions, the longer the news cycle will be, which is not good.

This principle was particularly true for Subway because the allegations against Jared were not connected to his role as a spokesperson. The crimes he admitted to were horrible, but were not done as part of his Subway duties or at any of the brand’s events (at least none that have come to light). If he were abusing his role to commit crimes, the company might not have been able to keep its statements as brief.

Another factor is that Jared had been a spokesperson for so long. If his appointment had just been announced in a flashy new campaign, the challenges would have been greater. While he was still prominent on the brand’s website (until the allegations were made against the head of Jared’s foundation in April), Subway had already introduced other spokespeople and recent campaigns focused on price and ingredients, so other messages were in the marketplace besides Jared.

The fact that he was positioned as an "everyman" who told his own story also made him more independent in the eyes of the public. Some may have even felt sympathy for the chain for being duped like the rest of us about Jared’s character.

All of these things allowed Subway to take a step away from the story, which made shorter statements the best PR approach. While companies should always acknowledge a crisis, the sooner they can get back to business without seeming callous, the better.

Teresa Villarreal
VP, Newlink Communications
Head of the agency’s tourism practice and an expert in crisis communication strategies

For a client to effectively navigate a crisis, a statement is just one piece of the puzzle.

Any organization that faces a reputational crisis must consider four factors: participation, transparency, velocity, and social consciousness.

Participation is absolutely necessary, because in today’s hyper-connected world conversations are taking place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The widespread use of social media, for example, can make any brand a target for speculation and ridicule.

A brand dealing with a crisis must be able to communicate with various audiences and stakeholders with the goal of having their voice and perspective heard and be able to break through the clutter.

Furthermore, radio silence is associated with duplicity and is often an implied statement of guilt – which is the last thing a brand would want during a major crisis.

By the same token, transparency can make or break a company in duress. An organization’s history is available everywhere, and to anyone.

During a crisis, when that company is in the spotlight, any potential skeleton in the closet can be exposed and exacerbate an already delicate reputation.

For a business to survive in today’s world, it must always be consistent in what it thinks, says, and does. A rock solid crisis communications plan considers and addresses each of these standalone factors, ensuring an effective strategy to align the brand with a concise goal that will stabilize a situation from further escalating.

In the case of discovering questionable behavior associated with a brand spokesperson, a company must act quickly and effectively. The speed with which an organization responds often mitigates further damage, gets the public to focus on your message, and reduces the amount of speculation on the subject.

Finally, the brand must showcase how it "walks the walk" through socially responsible initiatives that should be significantly highlighted in order to further neutralize the organization’s association with a negative detractor.

PRWeek’s View: Every crisis is different. But for a serious crisis such as Subway’s, the mantra "if you’re explaining, you are losing," is definitely appropriate.

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