Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What constitutes a PR problem?

A tweet this afternoon led me to a story on the O'Dwyer's PR site entitled "Google, Starbucks Take First PR Blows of 2012."

The O'Dwyer's article linked to a piece in the New York Times, which quoted a retired NYPD bomb squad member on how Starbucks' Frappuccino bottle makes a suitable container for a Molotov cocktail, after an arsonist used the bottles in a series of firebomb attacks in Queens, NY over the weekend (thankfully, no-one was hurt).

Is this actually a PR problem for Starbucks?

Embarrassing, yes, but I don't think it's really a PR problem for Starbucks. Actual PR blows, to my mind, de-value an organization in the eyes of its publics; for instance, it would be a PR blow if this story revealed that Starbucks' product or behaviour didn't deliver on its brand promise, and/or that it operated in some way irresponsibly.

While I'm sure any reputable company would be aghast that its bottles were being used to help people hurt other people, and might even decide to change its packaging to reduce that potential, I don't see this as a reason for anyone to think less of Starbucks as a company... or to be any less likely to want to do business with it.

The fact is that bottled drinks come in bottles; and while we're at it, people intent on hurting others will find a way to do it, no matter what kind of bottle Starbucks uses for its Frappuccino.

Unflattering headlines aren't necessarily bad PR

This story reminded me of a smart post I read by Judy Gombita on the Windmill Networking blog late last year, about what constitutes an online crisis.

Thanks to social media, there are many, many voices out there -- and because of their interconnectedness, an observation or opinion from a small group can quickly start to look like a PR problem.

But I think it's important to recognize that embarrassing or unflattering coverage doesn't necessarily mean bad PR, if by PR we mean the relationships our organizations maintain with their publics.

If we deal in good faith, and a by-product of our good-faith dealings has a negative impact, we have the opportunity to consider making changes (if they're warranted) to reduce that negative impact -- and I don't think our publics would be likely to think any less of us for it. I don't have any research on hand to back that up, but it's what my years as a PR practitioner and even more years as a consumer tell me.

How should Starbucks respond?

I'm going to ask my classes about this tomorrow. If you have opinions to share, please do!

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