From Travesty to Triumph: Four Examples of PR Wins Following Crises

On the Gong Blog, we’ve written about brands that have done a poor job with crisis communications. (Remember United’s response to the doctor dragging? Or more recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s five-day silence in addressing Facebook’s data crisis?). But more often than not, even brands that do a decent job communicating through crises don’t get a lot of love. And that’s for good reason—because they handled it well, they are able to suppress its potential impact and even avert the crisis altogether.

Then there are the communications teams that are able to go beyond simply taking the wind out of a gathering crisis. These masters actually flip the story on its head, taking a potential crisis and turning it into something positive. One day reporters are writing about a looming travesty and the next a brilliant triumph.

Not every crisis lends itself to such mastery. We’d be hard-pressed, for example, to suggest how Facebook could now turn its data breach into a win. Some crises need to be faced head on, in a timely, serious manner, which is typically the best way to neutralize the issue, to the extent possible. But every once in a while, there’s an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. Here are some of my favorite examples.

1. Waffle House: Awake and ready to serve?

The crisis

Waffle House is an American institution. It’s open 24 hours, making it a convenient late-night munchies spot, and that’s exactly what was going through patron Alex Bowen’s mind when he sauntered into a Waffle House buzzed, hungry and ready to chow down. Unfortunately, all the employees were asleep. So naturally, instead of leaving, Bowen hopped behind the counter to make his own meal… and posted it to Facebook in a series of selfies.

The posts quickly went viral with the story covered by People, NPR, USA Today, Mashable, and many more. Sleeping employees, back-of-house photos and trolling customers are not an optimal look for a brand in the hospitality industry.

The response

While Waffle House could have issued a public apology, taken serious action against the sleeping employee and condemned the unruly, drunken customer, they didn’t.

Instead, in a couple simple, lighthearted statements, Waffle House acknowledged its faux pas, apologized to Bowen and inserted a little humor. The brand stated, “In a related note, obviously [Bowen] has some cooking skills, and we’d like to talk to him about a job since we may have something for him.”

In addition, they invited Bowen back to the restaurant and “promised him we’d do the cooking the next time.”

The response led to a segment with ABC Columbia that included Waffle House executives teaching Bowen how to cook properly, an piece, coverage in PR Week and a lot of social chatter applauding Waffle House for their swift, humorous response to an egg-on-the-face customer service fail.

2. Tide Pods: For Laundry, Not Dinner

The crisis

Sometimes, a brand messes up big time, gets caught and has to fess up. Other times, a brand can be completely innocent and find itself in the midst of a crisis.

Like Tide Pods when the Tide Pod challenge went viral.

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? Dumping a bucket of ice water on your head to raise money and awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease? Amazing virality, good cause.

The Tide Pod Challenge? Essentially it boiled down to teenagers videoing themselves eating Tide Pods. Amazing virality, utter stupidity.

And Tide Pods got stuck in the middle of it. When the pods first launched, Tide had to baby-proof the containers and add a bitter coating to the pods to prevent curious toddlers from ingesting the soap-filled sacs. What they didn’t expect was needing to teen-proof them.

The response

Aside from the administrative work like removing Tide Pod Challenge videos from social media, Tide partnered with Patriots tight end and influencer Rob Gronkowski to help spread the brand’s key message: Tide pods are for laundry, not eating.

The video of Gronk was not super high-quality, so it felt authentic, especially as he asked what was on every adult’s mind: “What the heck is going on, people?”

Never in a million years did we (or Tide) think a laundry detergent brand would need to create content appealing to teens about not consuming laundry detergent, but Tide listened, responded quickly and got the nation’s attention.

The brand’s response got them major props from Elite Daily, Time and CBS, to name a few. Not many cleaning brands can garner so much media buzz on product alone; it took this crisis to give Tide a platform as “the hip liquid laundry packet,” and it answered that call.

3. Crockpot: We miss him, too. But here are the facts.

The crisis (Caution: This is Us spoiler ahead)

Cult-following ABC show This is Us caused quite the PR fiasco for the brand Crock-Pot when the show’s patriarch died in a house fire caused by a faulty slow cooker. While the slow cooker at fault was brandless, unfortunately, viewers associated the show’s biggest tearjerker with the Crock-Pot brand.

Fans immediately took to social media, condemning Crock-Pot, throwing out their own devices and removing them from wedding registries left and right. And while I’m sure Crock-Pot would have liked to assume the 2016 Taylor Swift position, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” silence was not an option.

The response

Everyone adores This is Us, Crock Pot included.

The company, having never had Twitter before, created its first-ever official Twitter account (@CrockPotCares), and posted this to its channels:

THIS IS US SPOILER ALERT. We’re still trying to mend our heart after watching This Is Us on Tuesday night. America’s favorite dad and husband deserved a better exit and Crock-Pot shares in your devastation. Don’t further add to this tragedy by throwing your Crock-Pot Slow Cooker away. It’s hard to pass something down from generation to generation if you throw it away (grandma won’t be too happy). Spending time with his family while enjoying comfort food from his Crock-Pot was one of his favorite things to do. Let’s all do our part and honor his legacy in the kitchen with Crock-Pot.

In their timely statement, they acknowledged the pain every single This is Us lover was feeling. And continued to empathize with them, as fellow fans of the show.

As days passed with fans still beaten up over the slow cooker betrayal, Crock-Pot’s Twitter launched a #CrockPotIsInnocent hashtag to add some humor to the situation.

Lastly, after it drew people in with empathetic responses and clever hashtags, Crock-Pot hit the media with the facts. The brand released a statement about the safety of its devices, the low wattage and absence of any problems similar the fictional scenario depicted in the show in the history of the company.

From Inc. to the Today show to NBC, the 50-year-old slow cooker brand emerged as a savvy player in the communications world. And again, just like Tide Pods, when was the last time the entire nation was talking about crock pots?

4. Kentucky Fried (No) Chicken

The crisis

To make a long story short, Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken. And when you’re a fast-food chain with the word “chicken” in the name of your brand, that’s a problem.

Growing up, KFC was a go-to desperation dinner for our family of seven. I cannot imagine the wrath of my mother after loading all five of her kids into the van to pick up a bucket of chicken, only to be informed that Kentucky Fried Chicken had indeed run out of chicken.

Now, imagine that situation happening all over the UK. Because it did. Almost 700 KFCs across the UK shut down after problems with a new delivery contract led to a chicken shortage.

There is nothing more ironic than a KFC with no chicken, so of course, people took to Twitter to blast the brand. YouTuber The BIGPAC posted a video informing his followers about the dire situation, and Good Morning Britain aired a segment on the “Chicken Crisis.”

The response

Regardless of how or why it happened, the best thing to do in a situation like this is say, “Sorry. We messed up big time.” There isn’t much else to do. You are a chicken restaurant with no chicken. Sincerely apologize to all your chicken lovers.

And KFC apologized in a brilliant way. Their full-page ad in the London Evening Standard was simple: an empty chicken bucket and the letters FCK.

The upfront, humorous acknowledgement of the colonel’s colossal chicken kerflooey changed the tide of the crisis. It became less about the catastrophe and more about the response. From Adweek to CNN to Fortune to the New York Post, everyone was talking about the KFC apology.

Aidan Newbold

In both her professional and personal life, Aidan is a storyteller and makes it known in her writing, strategic thinking and creativity. Aidan’s experience at Hodges ranges from engaging NASCAR fans through a social media campaign to writing regular content for Swedish Match’s Umgås Magazine, to pitching media for Richmond Region Tourism and planning press and influencer events.

Read more by Aidan

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