The PR Winners Of 2019

For most experts in public relations, it’s easy to identify episodes where companies or individuals made mistakes, often making a bad situation worse.

But what about the successes? Those are harder to assess. They may be about the brand that punches above its weight, one that makes a comeback against the odds, or even the crisis that didn’t happen. Here are my nominations for the PR Winners of 2019.

Gillette Gets Woke

This one’s a controversial entry for the winners’ column because reaction to the brand’s 2019 ad campaign was sharply divided. The commercial Gillette debuted in January was a different type of ad for the men’s razor category.

Instead of touting the product’s advantages, it tackled “toxic masculinity” just in time for the Super Bowl. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the two-minute spot depicts boorish or sexist behavior by men, then cuts to a celebration of “woke” men and a challenge to do better. It ends with a twist on the brand tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get.”

Did the campaign boost sales? It’s hard to say. Some men were angered by it and vowed to toss out their Gillette products in protest. In its July earnings report P&G took an $8 billion writedown on the Gillette division. Yet the charge was due to currency fluctuations and a shrinking U.S. market for men’s shaving products — beards remain popular, and the competition from upstart DTC brands is still keen. All in all, I’d say that if the campaign’s goal was to drive conversation and engagement, it was a clear win.

Popeyes Scores In Sandwich Wars

The great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 probably boosted sales for several fast food chains, but Popeyes came out on top both in PR and product quality. (Yes, we did our own taste test in the office.) What’s more, the brand took advantage of a summer news lull and punched above its weight in the social media arena. The feathers started flying when Popeyes launched its first nationwide chicken sandwich, directly targeting Chick-fil-A, but pulling in Wendy’s and even Boston Market and KFC into a Twitter food fight. Celebrities and news anchors weighed in as the sandwiches sold out and customers rushed to find it. Someone even tried to sell one for $7000 on eBay.

When Popeyes ran out of product six weeks early, it hatched a clever plan to invite customers to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bun) and come for its still-plentiful chicken tenders. And according to the Apex Marketing Group, it served up an estimated $65 million in equivalent media value for Popeyes. More importantly, the brand scratched its way to one of the most significant improvements in YouGov’s Ad Awareness metric among consumers throughout September. And the fight lives on today.

Capital One Deals With A Data Breach

In general, companies do a poor job reporting on security breaches. When a hacker accessed personal data from the Capital One account of more than 106 million people, however, it fared better than many before it. The breach was potentially very serious, involving the Social Security numbers and Canadian Social Insurance numbers as well as bank account numbers of Capital One customers. Yet in many ways the company was lucky; the hacker was arrested after she bragged about her exploits on Twitter and on an open slack channel, and she didn’t seem interested in selling or otherwise profiting from the data. And Capital One got credit for addressing the breach less than two weeks after it was discovered.

Capital One’s handling wasn’t perfect, and it initially offered incomplete information about the hack. But when it comes to this kind of disclosure, speed trumps specificity, and it moved quickly. Within two weeks of learning of the hack, CEO Richard Fairbanks released a statement about it, apologizing and assuring customers that it was fixed. The company’s website directed customers to updates on the breach as they became available, detailing what happened and promising to make free credit monitoring and identity protection available to all affected. Months later, reports surfaced that the hacker, a former Amazon Web Services employee, may have obtained sensitive data on other companies, so there may be more challenges to come, but for Capital One, the worst seems to be over.

Barilla Pasta Comes Full Circle

The reputation journey of Barilla Pasta has taken years, and that’s precisely why its recovery deserves recognition. The brand stepped in the sauce in 2013 when company chairman Guido Barilla made anti-gay comments on Italy’s best known radio talk show, publicly praising “traditional families” and criticizing gay adoption. His remarks quickly reverberated across the Atlantic, where LGBT activists called for a boycott and celebrities tweeted in protest. Competitor Buitoni took advantage with a Facebook ad proclaiming “Pasta for All” with images of tortellini pairs featuring gender symbols of opposite and same-sex couples. An Italian-American mother of a gay son started an online petition to ask Stop & Shop to pull Barilla from its shelves.

CEO Claudio Colzani told Bloomberg that he planned the brand’s comeback in three chapters: apology, investigation, and promotion. It started with several video mea culpas from Guido Barilla. But the brand also put action behind Barilla’s words. It appointed a chief diversity officer and set up a diversity and inclusion board of outside experts and well recognized advocates. (Barilla’s attempts to win the trust of LGBT activist and author David Mixner is a great story all by itself.)

It then launched a D&I training program for employees and joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies for LGBT-friendly policies. Five years later, Barilla has nearly pulled itself out of the reputation hole. In fact, it launched a special limited edition of spaghetti in a package featuring two women holding hands and a pasta strand in their mouths, Lady and the Tramp-style. Colzani summed it up this way: “We were simply trying to be a good citizen. Now, we’re trying to be a role model.”

Felicity Huffman Does Her Time

Of the 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, as the college admissions bribery investigation was known, Felicity Huffman may have faced it best. Her handling of the situation was right from the crisis management playbook. First, she issued a well-crafted mea culpa for her actions. Huffman took full responsibility for the bribery and cheating that she enabled, making it clear that she alone was to blame. Looking wan and decidedly unglamorous for her court appearance, she apologized to her family and children (whom she asserted were unaware of the scheme), but that’s not all. She also expressed contrition directly to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” That’s the part of the bribery scandal that so infuriated regular people.

Huffman then proceeded smartly and swiftly with a guilty plea and served a 14-day prison sentence, admittedly a very light punishment. Since her release she has been involved in court-mandated community service and has wisely given no media interviews. I predict a Martha Stewart-style comeback by 2022.

Which organizations fared worst in 2019? Check out my nominations for the PR Losers of 2019 and let me know if you agree.

Gillette Gets Woke: A PR Take

For PR people, the Gillette ad that roiled social media and birthed a thousand thought pieces raises an old question – is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Normally when a company manages to generate international attention and earn millions of views for a brand message, it’s a win. Certainly the controversy has been a huge boost for the ad before its official launch on Super Bowl Sunday. According to  Sentieo, Gillette mentions exploded to 900,000 on Tuesday. The brand’s 30-day average is only 2000.

That’s a lot of buzz for a commodity product. And it’s tempting to compare the Gillette ad strategy with the now-famous Nike Colin Kaepernick campaign. In Nike’s case, the brand suffered legitimate backlash, sporadic boycotts, and even a temporary drop in its share price because the ad offended some people. Yet its success was never really in doubt because the values expressed align with those of Nike’s core audience of young males.

Brand Gillette’s situation is trickier, and the ad’s success is less clear-cut. There’s a lot to like about the message.  As a statement against bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of so-called “toxic” masculine behavior, the video is fine. The tagline “The Best A Man Can Be” is a nifty twist on the classic Gillette tagline “The Best A Man Can Get.” And it’s very topical given the power of the #metoo movement. But that’s also where things get hairy.

First, there’s the issue of tone. The ad is serious to the point of preachy, and that can be…um, irritating. Exasperated customers tweeted things like, “I just want a razor, not a lecture on ethics.” Does our every purchase, no matter how personal or mundane, need to be an extension of our social values? And what is “toxic masculinity,” really? The term is overused and self-important.

More importantly, some men are offended by the message. These are the customers who say they’re dumping Gillette because the ad attacks traditional masculine conduct. The reaction has launched countless Twitter wars by some who insist that if you object to the ad, you must be one of those toxic personalities. Criticizing an ad that condemns bad behavior shouldn’t mean you endorse the behavior, but people have chosen sides, and it’s not pretty.

Ironically, while some are calling the ad “feminist propaganda,” many women and pro-feminist men hate it, too. They say Gillette is exploiting #metoo to sell razors at a time when sales are slipping due to the popularity of facial hair. Like greenwashing, they charge, it has everything to do with making money and nothing to do with making real change. They support the message but don’t trust the messenger.

In fairness, Gillette unveiled a fresh take on its tagline in a new campaign last year aimed at the “expressive modern male,” so the video isn’t entirely a bolt from the blue. But to my knowledge the brand has no real history supporting gender equality or related issues, so it’s vulnerable to charges of opportunism.

But what really burns is a more subtle aspect of the message here. That’s the ad’s call for men to hold one another accountable. And it depicts a real range of “toxic” conduct, from playground fights to #metoo. It’s also where the similarity with the Nike strategy ends. Nike was making a corporate statement about its spokesperson’s stand on racial justice. Customers could support that stand or walk away from it.

But the Gillette ad calls on the brand’s own customers to address an entire spectrum of common behavior where we may not all agree on the rules. Can you really equate laughing at a stupid sitcom joke with overt sexual harassment? Where does personal responsibility begin and end when it comes to the social behavior of friends and colleagues?

It’s okay if a brand statement makes us uncomfortable; in fact, it’s often admirable and may be a goal of great advertising. Yet the many and varied critiques of the Gillette video, and its muddled message, make it a tough one to embrace. I’m not sure if the ad will help Gillette sell razors. But what it probably portends is that we’ve entered a period of “woke” advertising. That means it isn’t enough for the brand message to be socially conscious, or to tap public awareness of big issues to make a statement. Viewers and opinion leaders will weigh in on all aspects of a brand’s position, starting with its authenticity.

Gillette’s next phase should involve a tangible commitment to ending bullying, sexual harassment, or whatever “toxic” behavior it chooses to take on as a part of its brand platform. In the “new” era of woke marketing, brands who want to succeed will need to walk the walk.