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Teachable moments from 8 public relations snafus

Brands of all sizes make mistakes, and these eight public relations snafus offer several lessons for professionals and business leaders alike.

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teachable moments in public relations

Unforgettable public relations kerfuffles

Big brands that step in it publicly often grab headlines, and while your company may not have the same reaction from the public, there are moments in recent history that we can all learn from. When making a mistake, some companies handle it very well, while others ignore it, hoping it will disappear, but more frequently, public relations flubs are bad from beginning to end.

Let’s take a look at eight public relations snafus and see what we can learn from them, no matter if you are a solopreneur or operating with hundreds of employees.

1. Delta allegedly forces disabled man to crawl on tarmac

A new lawsuit alleges that despite confirming accommodations in advance, a disabled Delta passenger was forced to crawl down the plane’s aisle, down the aircraft’s stairs, and across the tarmac to get his wheelchair, and when it happened yet again on the return trip home, he was simply offered a piece of cardboard to slide on to avoid dirtying his clothes. As if that was the problem. The case has not yet gone to court, so we’ll see how this shakes out, but true or false, Delta has some work to do to repair their reputation.

Lesson to learn: by empowering your employees to have proper decision making power, doing the right thing will outweigh a fear of liability or lawsuit, and could ultimately help you to avoid an embarrassing lawsuit and keep your name out of the negative headlines.

2. Taco Bell employee licks taco shells on camera

This summer, a young Taco Bell worker posted a prank photo of himself licking a stack of taco shells, ultimately resulting in his being fired as the photo went viral and fans expressed outrage and fear that they would be victimized by being served licked taco shells. Taco Bell sent an expected and standard press release about how they handle safety.

Lesson learned: Brands must train all employees what the logo and brand name mean and how using words or images that are trademarked can lead to negative attention to the brand and put the reputation of a company at risk. Kids understand social media, but not the professional reputation management portion of it, so make your trademarks a part of training without threatening – simply help them to understand how taco licking in uniform is bad.

3. Golden Corral responds poorly to misleading viral video

Recently, a Golden Corral employee shot a video of food being “stored” near dumpsters then asked the company for cash to keep the misleading video hidden – they did not, so for people who did not follow the story all the way through, there may now be a belief that the buffet destination could make them sick, although the food was being thrown away, not stored.

Lesson learned: From the time the company was threatened to the time the video went viral, they had ample opportunity to respond, yet their website and social networks didn’t mention the situation, which is where people now flock to discover how a company has responded. When something bad happens at your company, especially when you’ve done nothing wrong, stay on offense and speak on your own web properties about what happened, otherwise only one side of the story is told and you look like you’re sitting on your hands.

4. West Fertilizer Plant’s public response failed

When a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing 15 people, news crews flew in from around the world to tell the gruesome story, eventually becoming politicized (should regulations increase or not?). The West Fertilizer Plant did little to respond to the public, only issuing a press release through a third party, falling short of what they could have done without exposing themselves to liabilities.

Lesson learned: Although federal, state, and local governments are well prepared for disasters, the private sector is not, as proven by the response by the West Fertilizer Plant owners. While your company may not be in the position that it could actually blow up, all offices are vulnerable to violence and chemicals, so using FEMA’s readiness website, any company can at least have a basic plan in place. Additionally, when fatalities are involved, being as humane as possible is the name of the game.

5. Paterno family proves how not to manage a crisis

This spring, Joe Paterno’s family went on a media blitz which they clearly managed themselves as they attempted to defend their loved one in the public eye, making strange accusations and absurd claims.

Lesson learned: there are times when you should just be quiet. If separating yourself from the emotion of the situation, launching a public blitz is a bad idea. Sometimes going public and being aggressive in your defense can fuel your adversaries, so if it is emotional, really weigh what you have to gain by coming out swinging.

6. Maker’s Mark reverses decision to dilute

Earlier this year, Maker’s Mark announced that they would be diluting their formula, but when fans protested, they reversed their decision, treating it like a crisis rather than a mistake, and all with little explanation. At a mixer last month, we overheard someone stating at a bar, “you know they dilute that stuff, right?” even though it was unfair and inaccurate.

Lesson learned: when announcing you’ll be offering less to your loyal customers, be prepared to respond and if you reverse your decision, be even more prepared to launch endless campaigns to dispel any myths about your brand. It’s hard to announce anything that could disappoint fans, but doing so can be graceful so long as consumers are well informed.

7. ExxonMobil proves how to fail during a crisis

We know, we know, everyone likes to tell you to fail often and/or fail faster, but sometimes a failure is just a failure, as is the case in a spring surprise for Mayflower, AR residents who woke up to crude oil flooding their neighborhood after a pipeline burst. ExxonMobil and the government jumped into action, but their response to journalists fell short. One Exxon official stated, “If you have been harmed by this spill then we’re going to look at how to make that right.” Is that enough to help assuage the situation for devastated homeowners?

Lesson learned: When your company is so guilty that it hurts, your positioning better reflect the nature of the situation. “We’re sorry, guys, okay bye” doesn’t compare to a heartfelt response that is jam packed with details – how something happened, what you are doing to make things right, what the future holds, and how people can directly contact you for deeper details. Your crisis may not be as devastating as an oil spill on land, but it could still impact and upset your customers.

8. Airbnb responds with grace and elegance

A few years back, Airbnb grabbed headlines as one user’s home was destroyed by a renter – the renter stole her credit cards and passport, “pillaging” her home. The user then alleged that Airbnb attempted to keep her quiet, meanwhile another user came out to tell a similar story of destroyed property, stolen identities, stolen goods and meth pipes left behind. Airbnb scrambled and responded with a detailed, wonderful apology taking fault and adopting their “commitment to trust and safety” program which offers a $50,000 to cover Airbnb users from loss or damage from theft or vandalism by another Airbnb guest, and doubled the customer support team, opened a 24 hour customer hotline, a review team for any reports, added verified profiles, and made the CEO’s email public, and verified profiles.

Lesson learned: many times gurus advise to just say you’re sorry and move on, but we all know that is shorting the consumer. Learning from your mistakes, owning them, and then actually making changes to your company is the greatest public relations move any brand can make.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

Public Relations

If a terrorist group adopts your brand’s name, what do you do?

(Public Relations) Isis mobile payments are having quite a time of their name as a terrorist group adopts the same name for their brand. Let’s discuss the conundrum.

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Reputation management and your brand

Is your company having a reputation management problem; a little social media crisis? Whatever is going on, it’s unlikely you have it as bad as the Betamax of mobile payments has it lately.

Isis, as I had known it before a few weeks ago, is a mobile payment application that utilizes the NFC chip in many smartphones to make retail purchases once you tie your account to credit cards you already have. Probably the only reason I had ever heard of Isis is that Austin, Texas was one of the early places it rolled out and presumably because Verizon (my carrier) owns part of Isis, Verizon preloaded the app on my phone and for a long time blocked its users’ ability to use competing Google Wallet. Although Verizon always denied it was “blocking” Google Wallet.

bar
On vacation with my family last week, however, and out to dinner with friends, all around me had to endure my geeky ponderings on how the company with that purple decal on the window of the restaurant next to the credit card decals must be feeling about the violent militant group currently occupying parts of Iraq and Syria – also named ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Well, today we found out how they’re feeling when Isis announced they’ll be changing their name; not to be confused with the news last week that ISIS in Iraq was also changing its name.

Some have reasoned that because relatively few Americans are paying attention to the crisis in Iraq and because of the obscurity of the mobile payment system at this point, changing the name and all of the costs associated with rebranding might be overkill. However, for a company still trying to grow and gain brand awareness, the uncertainty of the duration and severity of the crisis in Iraq and Syria does pose a real problem.

A cause for pause

Media outlets are still almost universally using the name ISIS to describe the militant group despite their own rebranding efforts, and the mobile payment company has to be asking itself what the value of the name Isis was anyway. It certainly doesn’t describe the service in any way, and it is likely they initially chose the name because it wasn’t associated with much of anything other than an Egyptian Goddess who was basically the Mother Teresa of Egyptian Goddesses. But now they cannot as easily define the word “Isis” in consumer’s minds while competing with a violent movement in the news.

It is unlikely that your company’s name will be adopted by a terrorist group, of course. But the whole scenario might cause you to pause and consider the value and identity of your own brand. What would have to happen for you to decide you had to completely rebrand? And if you are considering the creation of a new product or brand, it is worth taking the time to imagine the most likely potential threats to that brand and what your reaction would be to those threats.

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Opinion Editorials

BioMarin CEO calls terminal cancer patient a “spoiled petulant brat”

BioMarin pharmaceutical continues to astonish, not by their move to refuse a dying cancer patient life-saving treatment, despite the FDA’s direct approval to do so, but by their CEO writing aggressive emails laced with insults and condescension. Not advisable to any company, whether in a moment of crisis or not.

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biomarin ceo

Jean-Jacques Bienaimé, Chief Executive Officer, BioMarin Pharmaceutical

Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or we grow weak, and at last some crisis shows us what we have become. – Brooke Foss Westcott, British Theologian, 1825-1901

BioMarin Pharmaceutical continues on the war path

Two weeks ago, I forewarned that BioMarin Pharmaceutical was headed toward a crisis and last week we discussed the accidental “reply-all” email the CEO sent out revealing the company’s crisis strategy.  I could never have predicted this week’s developments.

I have witnessed and studied crises of one sort or another over the last two decades and I have difficulty recalling too many examples of companies handling issues they face as poorly as BioMarin has.

Oh, we had Kenneth Cole tweet a few months ago that the uprisings in Egypt were caused by his Spring collection; and Abercrombie & Fitch has endured several years of criticism after their CEO said that the company only markets to good looking people.  But even in tasteless fashion empires, we do not frequently see CEOs go on email rampages in response to public outcry about their company’s behavior.

Supporters of Andrea Sloan have forwarded emails I will share below, and in conversation with Andrea, she discussed with me her feeling of having been mislead by the company’s Chief Medical Officer, who is no longer a licensed doctor.

To catch you up if you have not read previous articles on the situation, Andrea Sloan is an ovarian cancer patient.  Her doctors at MD Anderson say that due to her treatment history, traditional, available therapies will no longer be tolerable by her body.  BioMarin pharmaceutical has had a drug in trials that the FDA has indicated it will permit Andrea to use if the company will give it to her.  BioMarin has promoted this particular drug, BMN673, to investors as the safest and most effective drug of its type.  But to Andrea and her doctors, the company says they just don’t know if it is safe enough.  Over the last few years, the FDA has allowed over 3,000 patients to use drugs that are not yet approved as, basically, a last resort; while denying only a handful of such requests.

What Not To Do if You Are a CEO

Supporters of Andrea Sloan have used social media and letter writing campaigns to appeal to the company in hope they will allow her and others who face her circumstances a last hope.  The letters that I have seen range from heartfelt appeals for moral and ethical behavior, to logic and business reasons it would make sense for the company to grant Andrea compassionate use of their drug.

For a couple weeks, most of the emailed letters Andrea’s supporters sent to the company went unanswered.  Over the last few days, though, that changed; and in a somewhat dramatic manner.

BioMarin’s CEO, Jean-Jacques Bienaime, suddenly started replying to the emailed letters. Far from the measured, careful responses one would expect to come from the CEO of a company, Bienaime resorted to insulting language and at times, unable to come up with his own words describing his perspective, forwarded someone else’s email calling Andrea Sloan “petulant” and “spoiled” as his response.

In Bienaime’s “reply-all” email discussed last week, he laid out two strategies for fighting Andrea:  1. Contradict her doctor’s conclusion that BMN673 is the only drug that has a potential of helping, and 2. Hire a PR firm.  Bienaime made good on the aim to contradict Andrea’s doctors in a national media appearance, but BioMarin is apparently still in need of a PR firm; and one which specializes in crisis management at that.

The email exchanges:

What follows is an email exchange; the first from a supporter of Andrea to Bienaime, the second, his reply to that email:

email1


email2

Beyond it being difficult to understand why his reply is about insurance coverage, which has nothing to do with the situation at hand, his tone is entirely inappropriate.  Does BioMarin’s Board of Directors support their CEO’s statements?  How do his investors feel?  If the company had any type of crisis management plan in place, Bienaime’s responses would not have fit within it.

To another supporter of Andrea, instead of writing his own reply, Bienaime simply forwarded someone else’s words as his response.  The email is far too long to paste here in its entirety, but toward its conclusion, it reads:

email3

On social media, supporters of Andrea were livid and a number of them wrote the CEO in complaint of his having endorsed that perspective of Andrea.  Here is an excerpt of Bienaime’s reply relevant to those complaints:

email

No matter what kind of email the CEO of a company gets, this kind of response is never the correct reaction. How does the CEO of a public company think these replies will help his company in any way? And surely he understands that by writing no words of his own in response and simply forwarding someone else’s words instead; those words become his own.

Also of concern: licensing

Given that BioMarin’s primary strategy to deny Andrea the drug is to disagree with her doctors at MD Anderson regarding the availability of other options, it came to a surprise to Andrea Sloan that the Chief Medical Officer of the company let his license lapse a few days short of five years ago.  According to The Medical Board of California and referencing the date on the image below, if Dr. Fuchs does not renew his license by the end of this month the license will be canceled entirely.

medical

While it is not illegal for Dr. Fuchs to serve BioMarin as its Chief Medical Officer without an active medical license, there has been controversy in other places where problems have occurred in entities which had a non-licensed doctor as its CMO.  In this situation, Andrea Sloan feels mislead because she was told that she needed to sign a waiver so that her doctor at MD Anderson could talk to their Dr. and Chief Medical Officer.

Because of communications Dr. Fuchs has had regarding Andrea Sloan’s medical condition and the company’s insistence – amounting to medical advice – that she has other options, at least one Texas Legislator has agreed to file a complaint to the Medical Board of California for there to be an investigation into whether or not Dr. Fuchs actions amount to practicing medicine without a license.

How Does This End?

BioMarin, some argue, is justified in deciding to wait until later in the drug’s trial process before dispensing it outside of trials for any reason.  But even setting aside bioethical and moral issues surrounding the ability of a dying patient to have every treatment available that has shown promising results, how can the company justify promoting the safety and efficacy of the drug to investors if they will not stand behind those claims with critically ill patients?

Crisis management can get somewhat complicated at times, but for the most part, common sense dictates the bulk of it.  BioMarin, and its CEO in particular, has gone off the rails in their response to the tens of thousands of people who have called on them to provide compassionate use to Andrea Sloan.  At this point, the source of the damage that is occurring to the reputation of the company is happening not because of the actions of those contacting the company, but because of the actions of the person who is supposed to be capably guiding the company.

In a situation like this, if I were advising the company as a Crisis Management consultant, I would go directly to the other board members running the company and suggest they sideline the CEO for the duration of the crisis and set forth in a new direction that is less damaging to their mission as a company.

Note: as of publication, the BioMarin PR department has not responded to a request for comment regarding the validity of these emails.

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Opinion Editorials

BioMarin reveals crisis strategy in callous “reply-all” as patient nears final days

BioMarin continues to be at the center of a crisis management nightmare as they deny a cancer patient a life-saving drug, but their strategy was unveiled as the CEO accidentally hit “reply-all” on an email, including the patient’s supporters he is seeking to avoid.

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Reply-all happens to the best of us

Everyone has hit “Reply-All” on an email by accident at one time or another. It is not often, though, that the CEO of a public company facing a full-blown media crisis emails his strategy to the people he is trying to avoid.

Last week I discussed the predictable crisis that BioMarin pharmaceutical company is heading toward and its ethical obligation to at least try to avoid that crisis. Since that article was published, BioMarin seems determined to prove me prescient.

It is difficult to imagine a company less prepared for a crisis of its own making as BioMarin circles its wagons to wage a media war against an ovarian cancer patient named Andrea Sloan who has only days to receive treatment.

This week, we will look a little deeper into the company and their CEO’s strategy revealed in his “Reply-All” email on which he included Andrea Sloan’s supporters, and which was subsequently provided to me.

A deeper dive into this CEO’s crisis “strategy”

As any crisis management professional will tell you, the best way to avoid a crisis is to plan ahead. Large companies with potentially dangerous products – like oil companies – regularly have intricate and well developed crisis management plans in place. Unfortunately, most small and medium sized businesses have no active plan. BioMarin is no small company, however, and the current issues they face are not new to the company.

A pharmaceutical company with over 1,000 employees located in offices all around the world, BioMarin has had over $500 million in revenue in the last twelve months. There is no excuse for this company, which focuses on developing drugs for rare diseases, to not have a plan in place for dealing with the problems they are most likely to face.

Earlier this year, BioMarin faced pressure in the UK when a 17 year old named Chloe Drury applied to be part of a trial as a last hope in her battle against cancer. The trial was arbitrarily limited to patients 18 years and older. Chloe was three months shy of turning 18 years old and her doctors and family approved of her use of the drug, but BioMarin forbade her inclusion in the trial.

Soon after her 18th birthday, Chloe passed away. Chloe’s mother is now leading a fight for new legislation to be passed in the UK that will help others in situations like that her daughter endured.

BioMarin faced some scrutiny because of that situation, so one would think that even if they had not had the foresight prior to the efforts by Chloe Drury’s family and friends to focus attention on their behavior, that afterward they would have gotten prepared in case a similar issue ever arose. The simplest solution would have been to develop a compassionate use policy with clear guidelines and a plan to be able to effectively communicate the policy and rules.

Instead, their promotional materials say that they support compassionate use policies – they just seem to very rarely actually implement them for patients. Compassionate use is described in this article in the Washington Times.

BioMarin’s CEO Jean-Jacques Bienaime is not a man of many words if this one email is typical of his normal communication, but his meaning is clear. After receiving an email from some of Andrea’s supporters to the executives in BioMarin imploring the company to establish a compassionate use policy, Bienaime hit “Reply-All” from his iPhone and apparently did not realize he included Andrea’s supporters on the reply. Let’s take a look at the three sentences he aimed at other leaders of the company on September 8, 2013:

reply

Why this reasonable response is unreasonable

While this argument may sound reasonable – the idea that BioMarin should point out that there are other drugs in this class available – in truth, this is a callous and calculated comment. The drug Andrea Sloan is trying to get from BioMarin is a PARP inhibitor that is thought to be her last chance against the precise type of cancer she has. BioMarin’s BMN673 is a PARP inhibitor that the company has been excitedly telling investors is a drug that is far more effective than other drugs in its category and safer for patients because it can be given in dramatically lower doses.

Because of the extensive, traditional treatment Andrea has faced in her battle against cancer since 2007, her body simply cannot tolerate other drugs on the market. Due to the results of trials BioMarin has touted to investors and scientific journals, Andrea’s doctor has indicated that BMN673 is Andrea’s best and possibly last chance. In extensive communication Andrea has had with the company, this set of parameters has been made clear.

The “Hank” to whom Bienaime addresses the first portion of the email is presumably Henry Fuchs, M.D, BioMarin’s Chief Medical Officer who is included on the email and who is well aware of the unique value of BMN673 to Andrea and that other drugs will not work. It is clear from the sentence, though, that Fuchs actually came up with the idea to spin the company’s response by telling others that Andrea can go find other drugs even though, as a doctor, he knows this is not the truth.

parp

The databases of ongoing trials are easily searchable and this statement either shows neglectful ignorance or a disregard of BioMarin’s own promotion of the results of trials of the drug and the unique way the drug could help Andrea Sloan. And while it is possible that the CEO of the company was simply unsure of the answer to this question, Dr. Fuchs could not be uncertain.

Enter the PR folks

The previous comment did seem to offer an optimist a glimmer of hope, though, until:

pr

Debra Charlesworth handles BioMarin’s public relations, but those relations are normally only aimed at potential investors and so far, the company’s efforts at dealing with local and national media on the issue of Andrea Sloan have proven horribly clunky and cold. Precisely the same, stock wording is used in canned responses BioMarin made to media inquiries during both Chloe’s and Andrea’s ordeals.

BioMarin recognizes that the intense media spotlight on their response to Andrea Sloan and the over 125,000 supporters she has amassed online is outside their current capacity of response and they had no plan for this event, which given their pattern of behavior, was entirely predictable. BioMarin has not spoken directly with Andrea, and instead of having their doctors talk to her doctor at MD Anderson, they had their lawyers talk to him. They have no apparent interest in resolving the issue in an ethical or practical manner, but instead have focused on spreading misinformation and spinning their position through an outside PR agency.

The answer is not hiring an agency

The fix to this problem does not lie in hiring a PR agency, but in fixing the problem which is causing the need to engage in public relations; and other companies should take note of that. And remember, public relations and crisis management are not the same. Besides, I have a hunch that there is a PR agency of about 125,000 people and growing who would be happy to go to work on repairing BioMarin’s image if they were to shift to an ethical behavior by developing a reasonable and functional compassionate use policy.

A KXAN News open records request showed that the FDA has approved 3,149 compassionate use requests over the last several years. The FDA only approves the drug once the pharmaceutical company has agreed to give it to the patient. So, in 3,149 recent cases, drug companies have said yes to patients in this situation. It is clear to no one why BioMarin has not.

Below: petition on Change.org calling for BioMarin to grant access to this life-saving drug that the FDA has approved for Sloan’s case
biomarin refusing care

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