BlueBell’s wonderful brand is at risk. Because they don’t understand PR.

3/15/15 Important update: It has now been determined that Blue Bell was not responsible for these deaths.  WSJ article here.  And, in that article “Mr. Marler said he thought Blue Bell had responded appropriately once it knew its products were linked to illnesses and deaths.”

My criticisms of Blue Bell are not relevant now; it seems they have done a laudable job of turning this around, and the news cycle has moved on to other things.

Still, below is a good overview in general of dealing with crisis PR. The original post, below:

 
Ah, people don’t read this blog and pay the penalty. If the BlueBell people had read How to Not Get Killed in a Press Interview, or my post on Intuit, they would have understood the dangers of not getting ahead of a potentially vicious news cycle.

BlueBell is dealing with a problem, that if not handled correctly right now, will blow up in their faces.  You see, a few of their “novelty” ice creams have been contaminated with Listeria bacteria, and three people have reportedly died.

Died. As in Dead. RIP. That sort of thing. Now, these were people in a hospital, and were likely older and had compromised immune systems. But they still died.

So here’s BlueBell’s response: a quaint post on their front page:

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Followed by some bland talk:

For the first time in 108 years, Blue Bell announces a product recall….One of our machines produced a limited amount of frozen snacks with a potential listeria problem….When this was detected all products produced by this machine were withdrawn.  Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage…This withdrawal in no way includes our half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three gallon ice cream or the majority of take-home frozen snack novelties…For more information call 979-836-7977, Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. CST or click here.

The CEO, Paul Kruse, just isn’t handling it right. Look at the tone of some of his remarks to the press:

“They feel that this one production line we use here is what might have caused the problem,” Kruse said. “It’s a complicated piece of machinery, it’s been down for about a month and a half, and what we’re likely going to do with it is throw it out the window, so to speak.”

Mr. Krus, with all due respect, three people have died, apparently because of your company’s mistake.

Where is the “devastated at this loss”, “we have immediately taken action…”, “we have formed a team to directly work on the problem”, etc., etc.

The playbook here is fairly straightforward. The perfection of crisis PR handling was achieved by Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke, during the Tylenol poisoning tragedy in the 80s.  The case studies are numerous, but the key is:

  • Immediately come clean on everything you know. No obfuscation or corporate speak. No excuses. Plain, simple English. What happened, why it happened. If you don’t know, the answer is “we are aggressively investing this issue”.
  • Apologize and show genuine sorrow over the deaths. Ignore the lawyers, who are telling you not to admit fault. Your brand is at risk.
  • Immediately and actually handle the problem.  Not just “we’re going to throw out this machinary”. Something is wrong in your quality procedures if this machine was even allowed to continue in operation. Bring a reputable quality inspection team to go through a top-to-bottom review of your factory. That kind of thing. And then communicate this aggressively.
  • Detail the steps you are taking to make sure the problem never occurs again
  • Continue an active communication cycle
  • Fill the vacuum with credible information, through the press and through advertising.  “Our state-of-the-art factory”, pictures of people in clean suits working on ice cream, that sort of thing.

I love BlueBell. In fact, on our Sunday evening family dinners at my house, it’s the standard treat we serve. I wish them well.

But PR screwups like these, not handled correctly, can cause more damage than one would imagine.

Mr. Kruse, get your act together. You’re no longer an ice cream maker. You’re a news maker.

3 thoughts on “BlueBell’s wonderful brand is at risk. Because they don’t understand PR.”

  1. Alex,

    I went to Texas A&M with Paul, my brother-in-law worked for him. The little town of Brenham and likely Bluebell have never been in the media cross-hairs before. I’d like to forward your blog to him – are you OK with that?

    Elliott

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