Strategy’s brief for PR nightmare

A CrisisIt is Sunday afternoon.You are relaxing at home with the Sunday morning newspapers when the telephone rings.The caller is an obviously distraught marketing executive who says you were recommended to him as one of the best in the public relations...

A Crisis

It is Sunday afternoon.

You are relaxing at home with the Sunday morning newspapers when the telephone rings.

The caller is an obviously distraught marketing executive who says you were recommended to him as one of the best in the public relations business at handling crisis situations.

He says he is in the midst of the worst pr disaster of his life. He has never been in a situation like this before and has no idea how to handle it. He needs to meet you immediately.

Having just read the papers, you have a pretty good idea of what he is talking about.

An hour later you are in your office, your mind racing through a number of potential action plans, as you listen to a harried 35-year-old director of marketing tell you his story.

The background

The executive heads the marketing department of a medium-sized Canadian-owned food manufacturing company.

The company’s roots go back to the turn of century when it began as a small family-run maker of fruit preserves.

Based in Ontario’s Niagara fruit belt, the company expanded into jams, spreads and pie-fillings and grew steadily into a significant Canadian food manufacturer.

Several years ago, the company entered the confectionery business with a line of fruit-and-yogurt-based candy bars.

That is when the marketing executive entered the picture.

he company is run by a scion of the original founder. It is well-managed and conservative by nature.

Its brand names are Canadian institutions, and the company’s rather cautious advertising and marketing activity to date has both created and perpetuated an overall image of quality and dependability that apply both to the company and the products it sells.

Current management realizes, however, that the company must expand and move ahead. Its entry into the confectionery market was a bold move by company standards.

Management also recognized that going after the advertising- and image-intensive candy bar market also meant bringing some new life into its marketing efforts.

To lead this charge, the company recruited its new director of marketing from a leading multinational confectioner. The marketer’s references described him as bright, entrepreneurial and a person filled with energy and ideas.

The marketing plan

After a complete analysis of marketing resources and the competitive environment, the director of marketing came up with the following proposal:

‘We must break out of our holding pattern quickly and dramatically.

‘What the candy bar line needs is a ‘home run’ idea that will give the brand overnight Big League status, and there’s no better way to do that than to seek the celebrity endorsement of a Major League baseball player.’

It was a tough sell. Unaccustomed to the publicity limelight, senior management at first challenged the necessity of such a grandiose plan, but ultimately, gave it their approval.

As the company president put it: ‘I guess it’s time to shed our low profile.’

To his surprise and delight, the director of marketing managed to secure the endorsement of one of the young, emerging stars of a Canadian Major League Baseball team.

he player was his first choice. He is perfectly suited to the brand personality and its positioning as a relatively new product that is hip because it is healthy and tasty. A snack food for smart, active, health-conscious teens.

The player was born and raised in Iowa, and, in addition to his significant baseball skills, is known for his fresh-faced appearance. He is often depicted in the media as having farm-boy innocence.

He is co-operative with the press and has become quickly popular in Canada not only as a baseball player, but also because of his substantial community involvement as a patron of several charitable causes.

The entire 1993 marketing plan was built around the celebrity tie-in. The athlete appears prominently in all advertising and collateral material and has generated extensive media exposure through various public appearances.

The month of April was extraordinarily successful from the perspectives of sales and promotion. Baseball fever is running at an all-time high in the key Canadian urban markets.

The company’s prized spokesman got off to a fast start at the plate, which translated into extra media coverage.

Best of all, the retail trade is so pleased to have the tie-in that shelf space and point-of-purchase materials are getting first-rate positioning. Stores reported a significant increase in sales towards the end of April.

The disaster

At 8 a.m., Saturday morning, May 1, the director of marketing is at a major suburban shopping mall going over last-minute details of a special-appearance promotion in which the ball player would be signing autographs and handing out free candy bars.

The appearance had been arranged long ago to coincide with a team home game that was being played that evening.

Organizers were expecting about 300 youngsters, many of them underprivileged children from out of town, which gave the promotion an added dimension since it had piqued the interest of local media as a good photo opportunity.

The event was to begin at 10 a.m.

Just after 8 a.m., a phone message described as ‘extremely urgent’ came through the mall office to the director of marketing. It urged him to call the ball player’s lawyer at once.

The director of marketing rushed to the nearest phone. His mind was numb and he began to feel short of breath as he listened to what had happened.

Late Friday night, his star endorser was involved in a violent barroom brawl. Several people were sent to hospital and there was extensive damage to the premises.

Early reports suggest there were racial overtones to the incident.

The endorser, who is white, was at the downtown bar with several of his teammates when they encountered a group of non-white youths.

Police who arrived at the scene arrested the ball players and put them in jail for the night.

The press had just picked up the story. Radio reports were playing up the angle of racial tensions and at least one report was taking a subtle shot at the erstwhile innocent from Iowa, suggesting the idol may, in fact, have clay feet.

Ten o’clock in the morning was a nightmare.

The director of marketing remained at the scene and did his best to pacify the disappointed children and parents, handing out as many free bars as possible and making vague promises of restitution.

The press was another matter. Reporters from all media arrived and the best the director of marketing could do was say he knew nothing more about the incident than the reporters, and, therefore, had no comment.

The roughest part of the morning, however, was several hours later when the director of marketing fielded a conference call from the president and several other senior managers demanding to know what had happened.

The director of marketing did his best to calm them down and said he would be meeting with the athlete later in the afternoon and that he would report back as soon as he could.

The real story

Saturday’s only ray of sunshine for the director of marketing appeared later that afternoon when he heard the true story of what had happened.

Yes, there had been a fight in the barroom, but, in fact, his ball player had been in the men’s room when it broke out.

His involvement was strictly as a peacekeeper and he is certain that witnesses will attest to that fact.

He believes police overreacted to the situation, and that he became embroiled with police because of his insistence that he had nothing to do with the initial flare-up.

He also claims the bar patrons instigated the altercation after they found out who the athletes really were.

The ball player and his lawyer are certain he will be exonerated when all the facts are known.

The damage

It was an otherwise slow news day on Saturday, and the story made it into the late editions on Saturday and the front page of all the Sunday papers. There were short clips on the 6 p.m. national tv news.

News accounts were fairly straightforward, but they certainly left readers and viewers with the sense that a bunch of over-paid and egotistical professional athletes had been involved in a punch-up with less privileged ordinary citizens.

Most damaging was a side-bar story in several papers of the failed appearance at the mall, with a photograph of obviously disappointed children and a picture of the candy bar inset into the story.

Back in your office

The director of marketing is prepared to hire you on the spot.

He is meeting with his senior management later in the evening and would like you to present them with an action plan.

The director of marketing is open to your ideas, of course, but the key elements as he sees them are:

1. What are we going to do tomorrow morning when we get calls from the press?

2. Is there a way to control the press coverage?

3. What can we do to distance the brand from the story?

4. What is our long-term plan?

5. What is my pr plan with respect to my own management?