How Not To Manage A Crisis: Labatt Blue 5

There are some particularly good examples in the history of crisis management.

Take Tylenol, who in 1982 suffered a major setback in Chicago. Some bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol had been tampered with and contained potassium cyanide. Because the bottles came from different factories, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t the result of a disgruntled employee. It is likely that because all of the capsules had been from around Chicago, there was some maniac going around tampering with the Tylenol on the shelves at different stores. Seven people died from ingesting the capsules. It’s referred to as the Chicago Tylenol Murders.

The answer was to recall all of the Tylenol on the market. Whether or not the company was at fault, there was something wrong with the product and since there was no easy way to ensure that the product wasn’t tampered with in an isolated region, they just pulled it all.

It was a sensible solution. In fact, it was the only sensible solution. They were open and transparent about why it was being recalled. Sure, it was a $100 million dollar loss of product, but compared to the lasting damage to the brand that might have happened, that was a reasonable loss to take. They brought in the Chicago Police, the FBI and the FDA in order to help in the search for the person responsible for the tampering.

There is still a $100,000 reward available for the capture and conviction of the Tylenol Killer, which you can probably try to claim if you’re feeling like getting your Mickey Spillane on.

Let’s look at this rationally

1) There was a problem with their product.

2) Which led to a problem with their brand.

3) Which they took positive action to resolve.

Eventually, partly because the solution was so sensible, they received a lot of sympathetic media coverage and the brand rebounded within a year to its previous market share.

I mention all of this because this was a CRISIS in all caps.

Do you know what’s not a CRISIS?

That’s right: Having a newspaper print a story about a deranged serial killer accompanied by a picture of the serial killer enjoying your product.

If you’re not already aware of the situation, the Montreal Gazette printed a story about Luka Magnotta with a picture of the guy enjoying a bottle of Labatt Blue.  If I had to guess, I would guess that the picture came from facebook.

What seems to have happened is that someone at the top of Labatt saw the story and panicked, calling on the lawyers to send a cease and desist letter to attempt to get the picture removed. The press, the legitimate press, I mean (not guys like me who contribute from the periphery), don’t really like being told what to do. Other newspapers, like the Toronto Star, have people like Josh Rubin who write about beer and are certainly going to report on a story like this. Not only did the Gazette not remove the picture from their online news, it spread to other papers. And then twitter. And Facebook.

It’s really best not to try and bully the media.

Let’s objectively assess the situation:

Labatt Blue is the same product today that it was on Monday. While beer nerds will probably tell you that Blue is fundamentally flawed, nothing has changed. The fault doesn’t lie with Labatt and there is therefore no reason for them to have reacted in the way they did. If anything, the problem with the photo is that Blue is so universal. It’s something that average people drink on a daily basis. It’s pervasive in Canada. If anything, the reason that the picture is affecting is because of this omnipresence. This is an abnormal person doing a normal thing. I can guarantee you that if you commit some series of bizarre and horrifying crimes, we will be able to find pictures of you on facebook that would be totally mundane in any other context.

This wasn’t a CRISIS. This fell very much in the category of “Shit Happens.”

It’s unfortunate that the picture exists, but once it was out there, it was out there. What Labatt managed to do was turn an unfortunate thing that people would have shrugged off into a calamity.

There are a couple of ways that this could have been handled better:

1)      Do nothing. Absolutely nothing. The nice thing about the 24 hour news cycle is that the constant stream of new coverage pushes things down below the fold. Possibly Labatt might have taken some gentle ribbing for a couple of days, but it would have disappeared down the memory hole without international attention and satire. Just because you can take action doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Sometimes you just have to weather the storm.

2)      If the first idea doesn’t seem like a good idea, and trust me, it would have been the best option, it would have potentially been a good idea to play off the brand’s omnipresence. Something like “We make a good product that is very popular and we don’t have any control over who consumes it. While we don’t like that this association now exists, there are any number of completely normal, law abiding citizens who also enjoy Labatt Blue.” They could then have followed this up with examples of those citizens. Possibly a celebrity spokesperson. This would also have had the effect of dragging the coverage out, but it would have been possible to control the situation to some extent.

The thing that’s really important to take away from this, if you find yourself in a situation where your product is somehow associated by a certified sex maniac psycho killer, is that there’s very little you can do about it. There will be some backlash. All you can do is limit the amount of media coverage that exists online. With the internet existing as it does, every story will find some kind of online reaction. If people can make jokes, they will. Twitter more or less exists to allow people to make calculatedly witty comments. More stories mean more jokes.

No one would really have carried on the association with Labatt Blue for very long. To be honest, the news story is of the variety that creates a certain amount of grim, morbid fascination. People would have forgotten about Labatt Blue with the next grisly detail.

Labatt exposed their belly and made for an easy bunch of news stories and fed into the machine. The twitter hashtag #newlabattcampaign trended massively in Canada. Whoever made the call to try and force the Gazette to do something should be seriously evaluating their ability to understand the way media and social media interact. The lawyers should probably have counselled against the action. Someone, somewhere, should have been able to stop the dumb thing from happening.

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5 thoughts on “How Not To Manage A Crisis: Labatt Blue

  • Alan

    Vic Toews in an ad extolling the virtues of having a Blue? Maybe the people of Winnipeg seeing as the beer is connected to the Blue Bombers. No, Vic. Gotta be Angry Vic.

  • Duncan Matheson

    Solid post, except for the end where you suggest the lawyers should have counselled against this. In my experience as someone who has been doing crisis communications for 20 years, lawyers are the last people who should be giving counsel on communications or Public Relations matters. Who knows how this played out, but I would hope it would have been run through Labatt’s communications dept. so either the comms people made a poor decision or he/she/they were over-ruled. Lawyers don’t tend to understand these kinds of things as it is not their job. Their job boils down to 2 things – keeping clients out of litigation, or if already in litigation, mitigating the damages. That’s it. When they go beyond this into communications matters, that often leads to grief. Come to think of it, maybe that was the root of the problem here.