dolphin“No publicity is bad publicity” is a phrase residing firmly within the realm of non-marketers. Marketers are aware that some publicity is provably bad publicity. One need only look towards SeaWorld, which saw its stock plummet and never recover following the release of the chilling documentary Blackfish, Still, bad publicity only seems to affect companies for a long time if it kicks the proverbial (or, for that matter, literal) puppy. Consumers tend to be very forgiving should there be no direct element of harm. Some companies can even turn their bad press around through effective marketing — and social media is one of the best ways to do it.

ground meatThe Taco Bell 35% Beef

Taco Bell found itself on the wrong side of a lawsuit in 2011, when they were accused of serving “beef” that, in fact, contained only 35% beef. According to the suit, Taco Bell’s seasoned beef didn’t contain enough beef to even be called beef, so it was (again, allegedly) a case of false advertising. The suit further claimed that the rest of the product was made out of water, oats, soy and corn starch — and, to be fair, this wasn’t entirely unbelievable. The class-action lawsuit circulated quickly, calling for Taco Bell to change its marketing to “mixed meat” rather than “seasoned ground beef.”

Taco Bell responded quickly and transparently, producing a recipe of 88% beef. They followed up not only through the press but also by reaching out through social media; the response was overwhelmingly positive through both Facebook and YouTube, with an average of 90% of responses being positive. And, the thing was… well. Most people didn’t really care what went into their Taco Bell taco, they just cared about being lied to. In fact, many  were already gleefully eating Taco Bell imagining the worst: that it was composed dominantly of saw dust and grease.

By showing that it was, in fact, 88% beef, Taco Bell actually exceeded their expectations. Hell — most customers would have counted anything above 50% a win.

By Wasforgas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThe #SusanAlbumParty

Maybe this actually underscores the importance of properly formatting hashes. Regardless, most people wouldn’t have heard about Susan Boyle’s record, released in 2012, if her PR manager hadn’t completely glitched out that day. Seeking to promote the album through Twitter, @SusanBoyleHQ implored fans to tweet in questions to #susanalbumparty, apparently not thinking too much of it. Obviously, the Internet did think something of it, quickly noting the somewhat rude message hiding in the hash, and the tag was quickly trending over the world. The consequence? The album vastly exceeded expectations. It even went platinum in Australia and New Zealand, three years after the height of her popularity.

Obviously, they quite stumbled into this — or, did they? It could have been nothing more than an embarrassing side note if @SusanBoyleHQ had decided to delete and disavow the tweet. It could have even gone very poorly. The web has historically shown a dogged determination not to let such embarrassing mistakes slide quietly into the night. By rolling with it, not trying to hide it and not getting overly aggressive about it, they turned the tide positive with virtually no effort at all. By the end, no one was laughing at Susan Boyle, they were laughing with her — and buying her album. It could have been an entirely different situation had her marketing team not had somewhat of a sense of humor.

pomegranatePOM Wonderful’s Snake Oil

On Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, POM Wonderful was skewered for making unsubstantiated health claims about the benefits of pomegranate juice for prostate cancer, among other health issues. John Oliver gleefully referred to it as “snake oil,” and encouraged purchasers of the juice to add stickers to it suggesting that it contained dogs. False health claims can be incredibly damaging to a company’s brand — and, in fact, can cause harm. At the same time that John Oliver was making his quippy statements, news reports were lambasting the juice business — and the entire situation recently ended in a lawsuit,which POM Wonderful initially lost but appealed and won.

It seems like a nightmare for a brand, but POM Wonderful is still on shelves and the company is doing remarkably well. POM Wonderful responded very quickly to John Oliver by sending a humorous letter, which changed the tone of the entire debacle. By focusing on John Oliver’s humorous take down of their product — and by showing their own good humor — they made the entire issue less serious. The John Oliver segment ended up on YouTube, where it is currently sitting at 2,054,707 views, 18,408 likes and a mere 226 dislikes. Even better, this allowed POM Wonderful to hit John Oliver’s core demographic — males between 18 and 35.

Social media creates a personal relationship between the consumer and the company, making it extraordinarily effective at managing bad publicity issues. When bad press hits, companies need to respond quickly, transparently and in the appropriate tone if they are to keep their consumer base engaged and positive. Many businesses fail to achieve this: they react negatively to bad press, try to sweep it under the rug or simply don’t take it seriously. Above all, customers want to see as though their concerns have been listened to and valued.

orcaEven SeaWorld could have theoretically bounced back from its animal abuse controversy had it taken the concerns of its customers under serious advisement. Instead, the company seemingly ignored customer concerns, repeatedly insisting that there was nothing to worry about and attempting to continue moving forward without any major changes. The company spent large amounts of money on marketing campaigns directed towards bringing visitors in without appropriately assuring them that they had changed — leaving their customers adrift, wondering if they mattered to the business and wondering if the animal abuse issues had been addressed at all.

Jenna Inouye
Jenna I. is a freelance writer, programmer and web developer, focusing on the areas of digital marketing, technology, gaming and finance. Hire Jenna through WriterAccess or contact her directly.

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