Adopt proactive strategy

In our May 3 special report on Public Relations and Celebrity Endorsements, we asked several public relations experts to prepare an action plan in response to a hypothetical case study in which a celebrity endorser is placed under a cloud...

In our May 3 special report on Public Relations and Celebrity Endorsements, we asked several public relations experts to prepare an action plan in response to a hypothetical case study in which a celebrity endorser is placed under a cloud of suspicion.

The experts were told the celebrity endorser, a baseball player, was involved in a barroom brawl. Although the ball player’s involvement was strictly as peacekeeper, he was arrested and missed an important promotion for his sponsor’s candy bar, leaving about 300 youngsters disappointed. Press coverage was extensive.

Each pr expert was asked to prepare a crisis management plan that advised the company’s director of marketing what to do when he received calls from the press; how to distance the brand from the story; and what to do with respect to his own management.

Due to an oversight, one of the seven action plans was omitted from that report. It appears below.

The only caveats to the following counsel are:

- The ball player is innocent.

- His role in the incident was strictly as peacekeeper.

- There has never been any blemish on the player’s blotter before, and his patronship of several charitable causes is genuine.

If the ball player was guilty, our counsel would be different.

We would then recommend the company distance itself from the player/celebrity as soon as possible, following the tried-and-proven crisis management procedure: when did you find out about the problem? What did you do?

In this particular case, we would recommend our client adopt a proactive communications strategy. Specifically:

1. Prepare a statement for the media supporting the player.

The theme of the statement would be: ‘We are confident our player’s role in this unfortunate incident will be proven to have been above reproach.’

2. Speak to the player’s high school and college coaches and secure character endorsements from them.

3. Speak to the various charitable organizations/causes supported by the player and secure character endorsements from them.

4. Call a news conference at the plant for about 10 a.m. Monday, at which time the company announces it is standing behind the player. Items to cover in the news conference include:

- we are satisfied the role the player had in this incident was that of a peacekeeper.

- he has a history of helping good causes and an unblemished record. Offer as examples endorsements from previous coaches. Have former coaches present if at all possible.

- we would not have selected him as a spokesperson in the first instance unless we were satisfied that he, like our products, is first class in all respects. Our opinion is obviously shared by others present here today.

- we are convinced that once his role in this unfortunate and unpleasant incident is fully known, he will be exonerated.

- we try to generate loyalty among our customers for our products. Loyalty is two-way. It cannot be blind. But when it is earned, and deserved, it must be protected and cherished.

Support materials, including photos, copies of letters of endorsement/recommendation, current biography etc., must be available.

5. Develop a series of potential media questions and the appropriate answers. For example:

Q. Are you suggesting the police acted improperly in making the arrest?

A. It is not my job, nor am I qualified, to question the procedures used by the police force. I am satisfied our spokesperson acted properly and that his actions will be vindicated.

Q. If you were not satisfied your spokesperson had acted properly, would you be taking a different stand?

A. Quite bluntly, yes. If we knew he had acted improperly, we would have exercised the appropriate clause in our contract and terminated our agreement immediately.

We have always been open and forthright about our company and our products. In this case, we are confident our spokesperson acted properly, and we have no reason whatsoever to doubt his word.

6. Take a proactive approach with the media.

In this instance, we strongly recommend the proactive approach with the media will produce the best results.

This means that effectively trained company spokespersons must be available to the media around the clock until the matter is resolved.

7. Do not attempt to distance the brand from the story.

‘We stand behind our spokesperson in this instance the same way that we stand behind our products.’

8. Incorporate good works into long-term plan.

Serious consideration should be given in the long term to:

a) having the celebrity spokesperson participate actively in organizations such as the Addiction Research Foundation, counselling young people on the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse; or

b) have the company establish either some form of scholarship, or chair at a university, to examine in detail the issue of alcohol and/or substance abuse by young athletes.

9. Reassure senior management.

First, reassure senior management the young celebrity is innocent; that his reputation is intact and so is the reputation of the company; that the selection process which chose this young athlete was exhaustive, extensive and effective; that his association with the product has produced excellent results to date.

This is not the time to be seen to be acting too quickly, particularly since he is innocent. The loyalty the company exhibits in supporting this young man in his time of trouble could well have a positive impact on consumer brand loyalty, particularly when he is proven innocent.

Keep management fully informed as to developments. Insist that you act as principle spokesperson, so if you are wrong, you can be fired.

On the other hand, because you know you are right in recommending this approach, say that you are going to ask for a large bonus at the end of the year when final results on the brand are in.

Robert N. Baugniet is president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Berger & Associates Canada, a 33-year old national public relations consulting firm which is part of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.