This week, Barilla’s “foot in mouth” move got lots of people talking about the right way to conduct a damage control campaign on social media. Yesterday we connected with Solomon McCown & Company president/crisis comms expert Ashley McCown to get her thoughts on the case and the challenge of planning and directing successful campaigns.
What’s your take on Barilla’s damage control efforts?
I don’t think the chairman of Barilla really cares. He issued an apology, but he also made it quite clear in his initial statement that if people don’t like what he says, they don’t have to buy his pasta. It was a muddled response and a hollow message without much emotion behind it and it did not clarify the matter. An apology has to be genuine, and his was not believable.
Also: the company is based in Italy, but their apology was only released in Italian on Facebook and Twitter at first, and that was a mistake. The U.S. is a significant market share for them, but they didn’t bother translating it—someone else did.
Another murky part of his comment was that women should be “central to the home”, which made clear that he was focusing on gay men, not lesbian women. And yet lesbian women are certainly the center of their home, right?
He went through the motions, but all he’s doing is fanning the flames. You can easily make a situation worse, and I think that’s where they’re headed right now.
How about the public’s response?
I’ll be looking for real boycott activity. With Chick-fil-A, there were restaurants where people could stand outside and protest. It’s different here with a product sold through grocery stores, but will people truly try to coalesce to demonstrate their disgust? That will be interesting.
What are the basic steps required to deal with a crisis situation like this on social?
First: Develop a strategy before you engage. The apology is one step, but you have to know what you want to say with the follow-up.
Second: Respond quickly with a credible apology and put it out across channels. Be acutely aware of the impact of your initial crisis statement by monitoring the results.
There’s no question that you need to keep a 24/7 watch on your social channels. At the same time, I don’t suggest you jump into engaging with your followers when they’re angry and go back and forth with them online. You will probably just fan the flames.
Third: There’s no media playbook, but if there are inaccuracies in the stories or if they haven’t updated them to include your statement, then you should proactively engage with journalists. But again, that’s all in the framework of a company that truly regrets the statement and wants to set the record straight.
Fourth: Ask yourself what could you do to demonstrate, in a meaningful way, that your views were in fact misrepresented. Someone else might have put a gay family in their next commercial as the most visible way to say that, in fact, our chairman’s views are not the views of our company.
Another example: company reps could meet with groups that represent the affected community. People want to vent their anger, and you should let them know that you’re ready to talk to them.
Fifth: Review your PR program, your social media program, your advertisements, etc. and ask yourself whether they’re sensitive to the issue. Do you need to change your messaging? Does it reflect the fact that you are sensitive to and respectful of the community in question?
This probably won’t work for Barilla, because he’s made his position clear.
Also: all competitors should be looking for ways to turn this into an opportunity. (Ed. note: advantage Bertolli.)
What do you think Barilla will do next?
I feel like Barilla will sit back and not do much at all. He’s made clear that he’s willing to lose customers over it.
But there’s a difference between outrage on social and a true impact on sales. If they see an impact, then their messaging may go in a different direction.
Whatever they do, social stories live online forever. Search for Barilla in six to eight months and I guarantee this will show up.
Do we have anything to add?
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