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Managing Outcomes
July 15, 2020, Vol 11, No. 14
Managing Outcomes is published by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management
What to do when an "introduced crisis" threatens your brand

What should a business do or say when it gets dragged into a high-profile reputational crisis which is not of its own making?

That question must have confronted the management of fast-food chain Wendy’s when an unarmed African-American man was shot dead by Atlanta police in a Wendy’s carpark, and the store was burned down during the ensuing Black Lives Matter protest.

It’s just the latest example of an "introduced crisis" – a term I coined last year to describe where external events over which you have no control draw negative attention to “innocent” brands or products.

Take for example when Tiki Brand found its product repeatedly associated with white supremacists who marched holding Tiki Torches at an infamous racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

Or when a manager at New Balance expressed support for Donald Trump’s “made in America” trade policy, and the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer labelled the company’s sneakers “the official shoes of white people.” Or when furniture company Wayfair found itself the target of a sex-trafficking conspiracy theory.

Sometimes an introduced crisis simply comes from international events where the target company’s only involvement is its country of origin. Like when the Danish dairy conglomerate Arla faced a devastating boycott across the Middle East in response to a Danish newspaper publishing offensive cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad.

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Or when angry citizens in China launched a boycott and street demonstrations against the French supermarket giant Carrefour after pro-Tibet protesters attacked the Olympic Torch relay in Paris on its way to the 2008 Beijing games.

In all these cases the company caught in the middle spoke out strongly to distance itself from the damaging event. Which brings us back to the case of Wendy’s.

Their brand trouble began at the start of June when it was revealed a wealthy Wendy’s franchisee had donated more than $440,000 to re-elect Donald Trump. Wendy’s tweeted that the company never had and never would contribute to a Presidential campaign and announced a $500,000 donation to social justice and youth and education in the Black community. But the brand damage was already done, with a boycott campaign on Twitter trending under the hashtag "WendysIsOverParty".

Wendy's said: “We know we have a lot more to do than a donation. We are committed to doing the work and we hear you. In the coming days we will be using our Twitter account to amplify Black voices.”

Just over a week later that resolve was tested when police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s carpark. During a protest next day, the Atlanta store was burned to the ground.

While the restaurant chain may have been an innocent party, CEO Todd Penegor wrote in an internal memo to employees: “The tragic death of Rayshard Brooks, and the pain this has caused, saddens all of us,” and he went on to offer support for the store owner and his staff.

However, Adweek complained that the company said nothing on its public platforms and declined to comment about its claimed “social media silence.” Adweek even asserted that Wendy’s “ghosted the public” and abandoned its promise to “amplify Black voices.” 

But it's a far more complex issue. What, if anything, should Wendy's have said to the wider public? Would it have made any difference to speak out in the cacophony of BLM messages? Would Wendy's have been accused of jumping to “copycat conciliation”? Was it a no-win situation? Would they have simply drawn more attention to the brand?

As social media continues to drive the emergence of introduced crises, these are important and difficult questions for managers everywhere.

A Parting Thought

Crisis response is not about self-preservation, but about team preservation.
Richard Levick

Tony Jaques PhD
Director, Issue Outcomes P/L Mob: 0411 276 527
Email: tjaques@issueoutcomes.com.au Website: www.issueoutcomes.com.au
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