Dr Pepper isn't dead! The brand's PR manager on how he approached the 'death hoax'

The soft drink's ingredients for a swift response: one part serious for internal comms, another part lighthearted for social media.

The soft-drink brand and its agency partner drew up its social media response in a few hours.
The soft-drink brand and its agency partner drew up its social media response in a few hours.

PLANO, TX: After an Internet hoax claiming Dr Pepper had sold its formula to Coca-Cola and planned to shut down this summer caught fire on social media, the brand quickly developed a two-pronged strategy this week to debunk the myth.

Rumors are nothing new for the 131-year-old soda brand, but they typically die off in an hour. So alarm bells didn’t immediately ring for Brian Bell, Dr Pepper’s brand PR manager.

The matter first came to Bell’s attention over the weekend, when he noticed a few emails from customers trickling in asking if it was true that the beverage was being discontinued. After checking out the origin of the hoax, he initially brushed it off as a nonthreatening rumor that would quickly fade on its own.

The sham announcement included an image of Dr Pepper’s logo with text over it, explaining that the soft drink had been bought by Coca-Cola, which would be discontinuing production of the soft drink imminently.

However, the fake message was off-brand, incorrectly including a period after "Dr," Bell explained.

"I was reading it and thought, ‘No one is going to believe that,’" Bell said. "It was one of those things where it was like, if Dr Pepper is going to officially announce something, I think it would look a little bit better than this."

However, when Bell arrived at the office on Monday, the situation started to snowball. More emails were pouring in from concerned customers, and people were commenting about the situation on Dr Pepper’s Facebook page.

"What helped this thing really catch fire was people stopped sharing the image and just started sharing personal anecdotes, like, ‘Oh, I heard Dr Pepper is being discontinued,’" said Bell. "It took it to this new level."

On Monday morning, Dr Pepper’s comms team immediately began to craft a response with a two-pronged approach to make sure everyone knew the viral message was a lie. The company’s internal and external responses on the matter were published by noon.

Internally, the company decided to take a serious tone about the situation. Bell explained that there was a sense of urgency to get the truth out to Dr Pepper employees not based in the company’s home office who might be hearing about the rumor in the field.

"Our internal message just explained that the rumor that Coke has bought Dr Pepper and that it will halt production is completely false and just another example of the type of misinformation that can spread quickly on the Internet," Bell said. "We didn’t get into the whole, ‘This is blasphemy;’ we just wanted to call out the facts, dispel the rumor, and move on."

Externally, Bell explained that Dr Pepper wanted to poke fun at the brand and the absurdity of the fabrication.

"The rumor wasn’t anything that was super negative; just a hoax," said Bell. "So when you are not dealing with something severe, it’s often best to have a little bit of fun with it."

Dr Pepper reached out to its social digital agency, The Richards Group, for assistance on the matter. The firm turned around a response in less than two hours, which incorporated a GIF and the hashtag #CrushingRumorsLike. The response was shared on Dr Pepper’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Bell said Dr Pepper decided to let the Twitter and Facebook posts speak for themselves, and the comms team did no further external outreach on the matter.

"We knew the shareability of [our social media response]," said Bell. "When creating content, it has to be something that is a snackable size that is short, sweet, and to the point – not something that is overwrought with all these words. Also, people love GIFs."

Within the first 24 hours, Dr Pepper’s response was viewed more than 13,000 times on Facebook, with 600-plus reactions and more than 900 shares.

Mashable and The Huffington Post also covered Dr Pepper’s response.

Bell said the reply appears to already have "squelched" the rumors, noting that he has received no further emails about the death of Dr Pepper.

"The most important thing is to know your brand, its voice, and know what people respond to," said Bell, about lessons gleaned from this incident. "In times like this, don’t deviate too far off your strategy and what you are known for doing. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently or escalated [our response] quicker."

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