What do Anheuser-Busch and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider have in common? Both were at the center of two PR crises in 2023. The difference is one crisis turned into a win while the other … not so much. But both offer lessons to learn from as well.
Arguably the biggest PR crisis of the year was when Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of beer giant Bud Light, came under fire for its partnership with trans social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Conservative audiences expressed their aversion to the collaboration by making transphobic remarks, calling for a boycott of the brand and even going as far as threatening to bomb one of its factories.
The immense backlash led to Anheuser-Busch releasing statements that didn’t help matters. In fact, it only alienated its core customer base further, as well as the LGBTQ+ community. Here’s a snippet from one of the statements:
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer. My time serving this country taught me the importance of accountability and the values upon which America was founded: freedom, hard work and respect for one another.”
If this vague statement from Anheuser-Busch’s CEO failed to resonate with you, you’re not alone. Even in its entirety, at no point did Anheuser-Busch denounce boycotters’ actions, defend Dylan against the hate she received or even say what the company was taking accountability for. It didn’t do anything, unless you count making everyone more upset. And, most tellingly, sales kept falling.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Now, let’s look at a crisis that ended differently.
This past summer, clothing retailer Adidas released a swimsuit collection for Pride month that featured male models wearing female swimsuits. This sparked social-media controversy, wherein users criticized Adidas for seemingly erasing women from its campaign.
But instead of reneging on its stance amid the criticisms or issuing a “non-statement” statement, Adidas stood ten toes down on the campaign. This was its response to USA Today:
“[Adidas is] one of the first brands to work in partnership with the LGBTQ+ community and the Mnisi collection was designed to celebrate freedom of self-expression in sports and culture. This is reflected in a diverse line of models who bring the spirit of this collection to life.”
This statement earned Adidas praise for being inclusive even when facing backlash.
The response makes a difference
Both brands dealt with similar problems, but only one came out unscathed. And that’s, at least in part, due to how it responded. (Granted, you can argue Bud Light’s audience has been a tougher crowd politically.) When navigating crisis communications for clients, it’s not just about mitigating the crisis but responding in a way that shows the public where a company stands and the actions it plans to take afterward. And that starts with a good approach.
A coordinated approach to crisis management will allow PR pros to maneuver even the most unexpected crises. They can do this by assessing the situation, determining the likely outcomes for each potential course of action and delivering the best results to protect a company’s reputation and, ultimately, its business.
This approach recently allowed my team to successfully overcome a crisis that could’ve been disastrous.
Assess the situation
My Bospar team tapped Snider to breathe new life into San Francisco Pride in order to generate excitement and bridge the gap between straight and LGBTQ+ people. Unfortunately, Snider displayed anti-trans rhetoric on Twitter a few days before we were going to reveal he would be the face of San Francisco Pride 2023, effectively sending us into a crisis. But instead of allowing it to deter our plans, we decided to put a crisis plan in motion, starting with assessing the situation.
Taking stock of a crisis sets the tone for what should happen next. After all, you won’t know where you need to go until you figure out where you are. Assess the situation by asking questions like: What happened? How dangerous is the situation? And what are you doing about it?
In our case, we knew what happened: Snider offended the LGBTQ+ community just as he was about to be featured in one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ events of the year. We also knew how dangerous it was: Involving Snider without acknowledging his comments would lead to backlash and possibly less support when we needed all the support we could get. And, most importantly, we knew what we needed to do: Get Snider to apologize.
Determine potential outcomes
After assessing the situation, the next step is to determine potential outcomes. That means not just deciding on one crisis strategy, but determining what happens if something goes wrong. You need a plan A through Z. Planning for every possible outcome will leave you less likely to be caught off guard.
For us, canceling San Francisco Pride wasn’t an option, so we knew getting Snider to apologize would determine the rest of our crisis strategy. If he publicly admitted his error, we could execute our campaign as planned and possibly deliver better results since we now have a redemption narrative. If he refused, we would share why he was dropped and pivot to a new focus: fundraising.
Deliver the best results to protect company reputation
Lastly, any approach to a crisis should be in the company’s best interest. If a brand’s reputation took a substantial hit, there was a misstep somewhere. Although sometimes it’s unavoidable to be the “bad guy” in a crisis, being accountable and turning it into something positive can go a long way for a company’s reputation.
Our goal with this crisis was to ensure San Francisco Pride occurred regardless of Snider’s involvement. Ultimately, Snider refused to apologize and we mutually agreed to part ways. But instead of pointing fingers, we used it as a teachable moment for allyship.
This statement gained media traction, and we used the attention to our advantage by pushing our fundraising efforts to the forefront. The results were a renewed excitement in San Francisco Pride, exceeded fundraising goals and a satisfied client.
Crisis communications come with PR territory, but the wrong move can be the difference between recovery and lasting damage. By assessing the situation, determining potential outcomes and delivering the best results to protect company reputation, PR professionals can better respond to crises and get an outcome that leads to business success.
Curtis Sparrer is co-Founder and Principal at Bospar.