Leadership Press

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:


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of frozen snacks with a potential listeria problem….When this was detected all products produced by this machine were withdrawn.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.


How to not get killed in a press interview like Tumblr

UntitledIf you want to see a CEO experience a deer-in-the-headlights moment, watch this video of Tumblr CEO David Karp get killed by a sharp reporter on Squawk Box.

It’s painful. (And his mention of the Bill of Rights, while using wording of the Declaration of Independence… eeesh.)

The fault lay in his prep work, which was shoddy.  Going on a show like Squawk Box is no light thing. This is a show whose whole premise is the art of the argument.

In other words, when you’re going to show up at a gunfight, don’t bring a knife. Bring a gun.

Now, I empathize with him. Many years ago, I was one of a bunch of young VPs at a hot software company (Quarterdeck, now Symantec). Our PR exec was (understandably) very worried about our dealings with the press.  One day, I remember her mentioning that we were going to get media coaching, but didn’t pay much attention to it.

A week later, I had just gotten into my office early in the morning, when the whole room exploded in light. There was a reporter with a cameraman barging into my office.

Now, if you haven’t experienced this kind of attack reporting, it’s very unnerving. So I was immediately on the defensive.

“Mr. Eckelberry,” the reporter said, aggressively. “What is your comment on the fact that your software is being used right now by the government of Bosnia to manage the ethinic killings of thousands of people?”


Totally taken by surprise, I gave some mumbled reply, something to the effect that “we can’t be responsible for how our software gets used.”

Then the PR exec walked in and told me I had failed the first part of media coaching. The reporter, who, it turned out, was actually one of the media coaches, was kind about it.  But the rest of the day was spent getting drilled cold on handling the press. And I’ve been working with the press ever since, including stints on national television, radio and various print media. I’ve had varying degrees of success, but at least I know when I’ve made a mistake.

So I had my own “deer-in-the-headlights” moment.

But that doesn’t excuse what happened. His mistake was a) poor preparation and b) poor coaching (which would include heavy amounts of drilling for every type of question asked). In fact, I might look to his PR agency more than I’d blame him.

There are some pointers to remember to avoid getting caught like David Karp.

–  Recognize that the normal rules of communication in a combative situation like this don’t apply. This is a fencing match, not a light dinner conversation with a group of friends in San Francisco.

–  Always have an “island” you can retreat to. This is a safe place, that you know cold. It is a positive response crafted as a response to an uncomfortble situation or a negative attack. Reporter attacks, you don’t know what to do, retreat to the safe place. Great politicians are masters of this. You may disagree with the tactic, but when you’re under the hot lights and a camera, you’ll be grateful to have this advice.

Reporter: “Your product is used in destroying the internet!” Answer: “We condemn any practice that would affect the rights and freedoms of individuals…” and then pivot to the “island”: “Our software is used for productive purposes by millions of people all over the world to create online communities that foster a better life…”

– Use verbal pauses to give you time. When you’re under the spotlight, a second feels like an eternity. But a casual “umm” is not noticed by the viewer. It will give you time to craft your response. It will also make you feel a lot less nervous.

– Don’t get trapped in the reporter’s language. General Norman Schwarzkopf was brilliant with the press. When asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he answered “I am an owl”. Genius response, but then, he was a pro. It takes time to learn how to think on your feet like this.

– Nature abhors a vacuum, so you must have facts to fill the vacuum. This is one thing that is misunderstood by a lot of execs, but it’s incredibly important.

Have facts at your fingertips, and counter negativity with actual information. “I hear you’re working with the NSA to create a backdoor for them to eavesdrop on citizens”.  Answer: “That is incorrect. Our software has gone through a rigorous audit by 17 different security organizations. In fact, there’s a letter I can point you to…”.  You can’t just say “no”. You must fill the vacuum.

–  Crises: If you screw up, take full responsibility, apologize, explain the steps you are doing to make sure it never happens again (and then do those steps).

I’ve had a few crises in my life. I had a news story blow up massively in my face once when it was found that our security software was mis-labeling an innocent component installed on Samsung laptops as malware. This blew up all over the internet, with claims that “Samsung was shipping malware”. Except: They were innocent. I did the only thing I could do — we found out it was a false positive, and I immediately issued a complete mea culpa with a plan on how to fix it.

And in a crisis, don’t ever say “no comment”. Say things like “We are aggressively reviewing the situation and will have a statement as soon as we have all of the facts”. Anything “no comment”.

Realize the court of public opinion is critical, and delays in response are deadly. The lawyers may be advising one thing, but lawyers aren’t trained in PR. Act fast, act decisively, act right, and the crisis will blow over.

Anyway, there is much more to be said about dealing with the media. The key thing to remember is preparation.

Most of the time, dealing with the press can be quite pleasant (especially trade press) and one doesn’t need to be in a hyper-defensive posture. But for those cases when you’re going to be attacked, be ready. As we used to say in the Boy Scouts, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”.

David, are you listening?