Subway’s recent PR crisis demonstrates how fragile a public image can be. It also shows the risks of using an advertising or PR brand spokesperson, even one as seemingly innocuous as Jared Fogle. It all happened when the home of the longtime Subway brand ambassador was searched by authorities investigating child pornography charges against a man who had directed Fogle’s charitable foundation. In the wake of heavy coverage and some over-the-top speculation on social media, Subway suspended its relationship with Fogle “by mutual agreement.”
The public relations benefits of a living, breathing spokesperson can be enormous. A known personality can attract media and public attention and add a human dimension to the brand narrative. When that person is actually a super-user like Fogle, there’s often a degree of credibility that is far more powerful than with a rented celebrity.
Yet unlike a cartoon character or a role played by an actor, a real-life human being can betray a brand – even if unintentionally.
Jared may be an innocent bystander here. He hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime, and it’s certainly possible that he simply made a terrible hire. But rather then helping Subway, that fact probably complicates its PR dilemma. For every customer who is horrified by the brand’s indirect link to an accused pedophile, there’s someone who slams Subway for not standing by its spokesperson.
So how to manage the risk? No strategy is foolproof, but there are some steps that can help prevent a reputation meltdown.
Have an actionable crisis plan. Crisis prep is something that many companies give lip service to, but it should be more than a document that’s drafted and forgotten. A true crisis plan should address the most likely adverse scenarios based on past experience and include concrete steps for severing a spokesperson relationship and managing fallout in the wake of misbehavior or worse. For textbook examples, look no further than Lance Armstrong, Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, or Oscar Pistorius. Even Donald Trump’s licensees got more than they bargained for when Trump tossed his hat into the presidential ring and his opinions on hot-button issues were suddenly news.
Hedge your bets. Many legal experts suggest spokesperson contracts of relatively short duration, like two years. When Tiger Woods’ reputation hit the rough, consulting giant Accenture was particularly vulnerable because it had built its longtime marketing campaign around Woods. The longer a brand spokesperson is used, the thinking goes, the greater the risk of damage if something goes awry. Similarly, a brand should have a Plan B. An entire marketing or reputation campaign built around a single individual – whether that person is a celebrity or the CEO – is too risky for most companies.
Act decisively. In this instance, Subway was right to quickly distance itself from Fogle. But what’s surprising is that the company must have known about the potential for negative PR at least since April, when the Jared Foundation employee was arrested. It may have done better to have acted even sooner than it did, despite not knowing if Fogle himself was culpable. It’s not necessarily fair to cut ties at the first sign of trouble, but it’s often the wiser course for brand reputation.
Consider risk insurance. The damage from a truly disastrous public brand meltdown may be incalculable, and cash alone can’t compensate. But for large global companies, a so-called public disgrace policy is a viable step. Insurers have developed products designed to offer financial protection in the event of a reputation crisis, covering expenses like replacing or removing a brand spokesperson, costs to redo ads and marketing materials, or coverage for events like product recalls. Ironically AIG – fresh off its own reputation troubles – began a few years ago to offer something called Reputation Guard, which will pay for consultation with a top crisis PR agency in the event of a reputation disaster. I guess they should know.
For smaller companies, the lesson seems to be caution when a third-party ambassador of any type is used for brand marketing or PR, and for serious limits on the marriage of a brand and a flesh-and-blood brand spokesperson.