Paid Advertising May be a Necessary Element of Your Crisis Response
12/28/18 – – Successful publicists know that the best way to get a story “placed” in a news media outlet is to make their pitch as newsworthy and relevant as possible. Journalists receiving blatantly promotional materials from PR folks rarely respond. But when they do, they’ve been known to reject such self-serving marketing stuff with this snarky rejoinder: “Go buy an ad.”
When a company finds itself in the center of a reputational storm, that advice may make a lot of sense.
In Chapter 11 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient — Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Determining Guilt or Innocence”), we focus on the advantages of using communication platforms you control during a crisis battle. In addition to the unedited online channels available for response (your website, social media, paid Google search placement, etc.), traditional advertising provides an excellent opportunity to tell your side of the story without the media’s filter. Advertising is a significant expense, but it may be necessary if news outlets have already proclaimed your guilt and labeled you a villain. There’s no due-process or presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion, and negative media momentum is hard to reverse.
We’re witnessing a great example of a company using strategic advertising during a crisis right now. Johnson & Johnson is responding to a devastating Reuters article accusing the company of hiding evidence dating back to the 1950s that the talc in its Baby Powder contained the carcinogen asbestos. J&J has been battling legal claims and defending the safety of its Baby Powder product for years. But the Reuters story, offering evidence of willful deception, has dramatically heightened criticism of the company.
J&J is aggressively challenging the accuracy of the reporting, insisting that Reuters, “repeatedly refused to meet with our representatives to review the facts and refused to incorporate much of the material we provided them.” It’s unlikely that any other news organization will give J&J a fair hearing in the wake of the powerful Reuters exposé. Reporters are prone to group-think. And as a former-reporter colleague of mine at Hill & Knowlton advised me years ago, “No one ever won a Pulitzer Prize for defending a company under fire.”
On December 17, the Monday after the Friday Reuters story broke, J&J full-page advertisements with the headlines “Science. Not sensationalism,” “Your questions deserve answers,” and “What we know” began appearing in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Post, as well as multiple digital platforms, directing readers to J&J’s website and a special microsite, factsabouttalc.com. Google “J&J Baby Powder” and you’ll find a link to the company’s information atop a number of paid placements by trial attorneys (some of whom may have assisted Reuters with its reporting) trolling for class-action clients.
I believe these ads are much needed and brilliantly executed. The layout of the ads is uncluttered. A color image of a container of J&J Baby Powder dominates the page. I don’t know about you, but to me the whiter-than-white iconic Baby Powder container has always symbolized purity and trust. It’s a very powerful, comforting graphic element alongside the advertisements’ brief, confident copy. To get the whole story, readers are directed to J&J’s online discussion.
Back in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear power scare, I helped create a radio and newspaper advertising campaign called “Neighbors for Safety” in defense of Consolidated Edison’s Indian Point nuclear facility in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point, which at the time had generated electricity safely for more than 20 years, was operated by ConEd employees living in the towns immediately surrounding the plant. They were highly trained, dedicated professionals with great stories to tell about the care they took every day to make sure their families and communities were safe. No reporters, even at the smallest local papers, were interested. Believe me, we tried. So, we shared the workforce’s safety record and told their stories through paid advertising. Public confidence in the safety of the plant improved dramatically.
It’s important that J&J reassure consumers, investors and regulators — as well as potential members of future juries — that the company has acted responsibly and can be trusted. In the midst of this storm, J&J cannot rely on anyone but themselves to tell their side of the story. They made the right decision to “go buy an ad.”