by Mark Braykovich
When PR is done well – whether by design, pure luck or a little of both – it makes clients look great and their PR agencies look like geniuses. The Wilbert Group’s Crisis PR and Issues Management team keeps its eyes open for such strokes of genius – so that we and our clients can learn from others’ successes.
#1 LeBron’s Return: If “The Decision” of four years ago was the worst sports PR move of all time, then “The Letter” by NBA star LeBron James is the greatest sports PR move of all time. In a thunderous slam-dunk of PR brilliance, James undid the earlier damage and suddenly made himself (and Cleveland) the darling of the sports world again.
His letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site was poignant, seemingly sincere, and the perfect tonic to the hubris King James displayed when he told a live ESPN audience in 2010 that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
“The Letter” was amazing and the delivery perfect: No TV this time, only silence from James so that his written words were quoted, re-quoted and tweeted a zillion times. The result: Wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN for days and so much media buzz that you can’t put a price tag on it.
I read an article last week that considered whether James – like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson before him – is a basketball genius. Probably. And perhaps he’s a PR genius, too, although I’d like to think a PR pro had a hand in this.
#2 Waffle House Boycott: Poor spelling is easily forgiven during a stroke of genius. And both were on display when Waffle House sent out one of the year’s best tweets on the eve of the USA-Belgium World Cup match. The tweet “We don’t believe in Belgium waffles” was sheer PR brilliance, as the resulting 23,000+ re-tweets and days of media buzz attested.
Okay, so it should have been “Belgian” not “Belgium” waffles. That’s nothing folks chomping on American-made pecan waffles would complain about. Plus, Waffle House quickly made light of it, calling it a “blonde moment” in a follow-up tweet. (Of course, Waffle House has now offended blondes AND Belgians.)
This Yankee Doodle of a Dandy tweet was a perfect salvo to fire up fans of U.S. soccer and Waffle House. It also was unplanned, according to Waffle House, which does all of its social media in-house. Atlanta-based companies now can boast of two of the year’s best tweets. Back in January, Arby’s got international attention when it tweeted during the Grammys about Pharrell Williams’ hat. Later, the restaurant chain bought the hat for $44,100 and now has it on display at its Atlanta headquarters.
The lesson here: A good tweet will make them eat. #3 KFC’s Compassion: What do you do when a customer makes a salacious complaint that grabs national headlines and makes your fast-food chain look heartless? That was the question KFC faced in June when the grandmother of a disfigured three-year-old girl claimed she was kicked out of KFC because customers were scared by the girl’s scars.
Almost immediately, KFC apologized and promised to investigate. Good first PR move. But what followed was sheer PR brilliance.
After two different investigations proved the complaint was a hoax – in fact, surveillance tape from the KFC branch revealed that the girl and her grandmother didn’t even visit the restaurant the day they said they’d been shunned – KFC didn’t excoriate the girl and her family. Instead, KFC donated $30,000 to the foundation of a plastic surgeon who agreed to work on the girl’s facial injuries for free.
Late last week, little Victoria got a new eye – although she faces at least 200 more surgeries to repair damage from the attack by dogs.
The episode serves as a textbook lesson on turning the worst possible PR into the very best kind.
#4 CVS’ Halting Decision: Maybe it was a tad late in coming. And certainly a lobbying effort from a member of Congress had something to do with it. But CVS still gets PR kudos for its recent decision to stop selling in West Virginia a cold medicine that contains an ingredient used in methamphetamine production.
In case you didn’t know, West Virginia is a hotbed for meth labs. In the past year and a half, more than 730 meth labs have been seized there. As a result, pressure was mounting on CVS, Walgreen and Rite Aid to halt sales of single-ingredient pseudoephedrine, often sold under the Sudafed brand name. Drug enforcement officials complain the medicine has become a key and too easily obtained ingredient in meth.
Walgreen and Rite Aid previously capitulated. Now it was CVS’ turn.
“We took this step as part of our longstanding commitment to assuring that (pseudoephedrine) products are purchased at our stores only for legitimate medical purposes,” a CVS spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.
As they say, doing the right thing is always the best PR.
#5 CDC’s anthrax response: The CDC’s early response to reports that dozens of its employees may have been exposed to anthrax was slow and difficult to comprehend. As the crisis has worsened – a second safety lapse was revealed in which a CDC lab accidentally contaminated a relatively benign flu sample with a dangerous bird flu strain that has killed nearly 400 people in the past decade – the CDC’s PR response has improved.
The agency’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who was not publicly visible early on, eventually began granting media interviews and took center stage last Friday at a press conference in which he announced the CDC had temporarily closed its flu and anthrax laboratories in Atlanta and halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.
Better still, Frieden spoke in sincere and personal terms about the safety lapses that “should never have happened.”
“I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”
Those words were accompanied by other strong messages, including Frieden’s promises that the labs would remain closed until new procedures were imposed, a committee of experts will be convened to revise procedures, and staff members who knowingly failed to follow procedures or report dangerous incidents will be disciplined.
Better late than never with a good PR response.