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Published: Friday, 7/27/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

For better or worse, crises can define a brand

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The worst of times often defines us.

And while none of us wants a crisis, they happen. In public relations these moments are, for want of a better term, opportunities; a chance to brand a name, company, or image to the masses.

In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, Warner Bros., the studio behind The Dark Knight Rises, took a grim and unimaginable situation and handled it with class and dignity. The studio canceled its splashy Paris premiere of the film, opted not to disclose box-office tallies on Sunday as is the custom (other studios wisely followed suit), and donated an undisclosed but "substantial" amount to the Aurora Victims Relief Fund.

Actor Christian Bale, who plays Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Dark Knight movies, though not officially representing Warner Bros., visited the shooting victims in the hospital. It was an unannounced visit with no media in tow, but it was the right thing to do and added to the positive feeling Warner Bros. fostered in what could have been devastating PR to the studio, its film, and its franchise.

"I can't imagine dealing with a situation as difficult as this one and doing much better," said Mike Hart, president of Maumee marketing-public relations firm Hart Inc. "Everything they've done has been reputable and what I would consider No. 1 first-class public relations."

And then there's the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A, whose president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy became the center of controversy recently for an interview with the Biblical Recorder, a news journal for North Carolina Baptists, in which he expressed a public stance against gay marriage. Mr. Cathy, a member of the New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., said marriage is only between a man and woman, "the biblical definition of the family unit."

Political and religious beliefs aside, alienating millions of potential customers is not good for business, and certainly not a boost to public relations.

"I think he's doing what he thinks is right, but it is potentially damaging to the brand," Mr. Hart said. "I think he's got to separate his personal beliefs from what is best for his business."

But it gets worse from a PR perspective.

On Monday the Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets, Sid the Science Kid, and Dinosaur Train, announced it is ending its partnership with Atlanta-based Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A followed up with the announcement that it was pulling its Jim Henson's Creature Shop Puppet Kids Meal toys "due to possible safety issues."

But does Chick-Fil-A expect any of us to believe these toys were suddenly found to be dangerous only after Jim Henson Co. ended the partnership?

There's also online speculation that someone in the Chick-Fil-A organization -- perhaps in the marketing department -- posed as a teenage girl on Facebook to support the restaurant and offer proof that the toys were defective.

To counter the negative publicity, Julie Hagenbuch, a public relations professor at Bowling Green State University, suggested Chick-Fil-A reach out to a gay rights group and hire an alternative lifestyle marketing agency to repair and rebuild its reputation within the gay community and among those who have boycotted the restaurant.

She also has a simple, immediate PR solution to help solve Chick-Fil-A's growing nightmare. Shut up.

"I think I would stay silent," she said. "You can't get it right so maybe just go silent for a while and wait and see until it quiets down for a little bit."

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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