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Issue management: when to react

By Daniel McCabe

Image: GETTY
Ronald McDonald has been forced to hang up his clown shoes. The decision was made by McDonalds this week amid increasing reports of clowns terrorising people around the world.

'The creepy clown craze' as it's come to be known as has caused mass hysteria and dominated media headlines recently. As a result, McDonald's decided to pull our beloved Ronald out of the spotlight for the time being, putting out this statement:

"McDonald's and franchisees in the local markets are mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities, and as such are being thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald's participation in community events for the time being," said spokeswoman Terri Hickey.

From a PR perspective it raises the topic of issue management. It really drives home the importance of having thorough media monitoring systems in place to make sure you stay on top of issues that could affect your business or your industry.

A poorly handled 'issue' can so easily turn into a crisis. The best analogy to differentiate the two that I've come across is from issues, crises and risk communication consultant Tony Jaques: "Issue management is steering the ship out of troubled waters. Crisis management is trying to save the ship after it has struck and iceberg".

In regards to poor old Ronald, he and McDonald's are victims of this situation. Faced with uncertainty around how this ever-spreading 'creepy clown craze' could be linked to the face of its business, the company made a very wise pre-emptive move before its brand was negatively affected, avoiding a potential crisis in the process.

Sometimes situations which might initially feel damaging to your organisation or industry can actually be opportunities for some big PR wins.

Skittles, the brand of fruit-flavoured lollies, delivered a masterclass in this a few weeks ago.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump's eldest son, the aptly named Drumpf Jr, compared Syrian refugees to Skittles in a Twitter post.

This could have easily evolved into a crisis via social media and been incredibly damaging for the Skittles brand but its marketers, Wrigley Americas, weren't about to be dragged down by what is being called the nastiest presidential campaign in American history.

They issued a quick and, most importantly, dignified response via their corporate affairs team in response to a journalist's enquiry:
As you can see, the post got over 41,000 likes, 27,000 retweets and the hashtag #SkittlesWelcome also trended that day. Skittles won new fans the world over for their genuine, sensitive and compassionate response.

This week, Tic Tac, as in the breath mints, tried to follow Skittles' lead when it found itself also involved a Trump controversy. In the much talked about video recorded in 2005 and thrown into the spotlight earlier this week, Trump is heard making lewd and vulgar comments about women. Somewhere amongst all of his stomach turning anecdotes was the comment: "I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her." That prompted Tic Tacs to respond with this via Twitter:

The popularity of the Tweet is undeniable but some issue management and crisis communication experts have said that it was unnecessary of Tic Tac to even respond because they were not a prominent feature of the video. I would have to agree. Of all the repulsive things The Donald had to say in that video I doubt anyone would have even picked up on the Tic Tacs reference.

These two widely talked about examples illustrate just how fine a balance it is in getting it right. It will be interesting to see which candy Trump targets next!