A case study in world-class public relations

As someone who has worked in the hospitality industry and in the public relations industry, a recent story caught my eye.

What goes to Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas?

It all started when MommyCon, a “boutique style convention dedicated to bringing modern moms and mothers-to-be together,” was hosted this year at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Mommies of all ages and backgrounds descended upon Las Vegas, which may seem out of place for such an event.  But Las Vegas is used to hosting conventions of all shapes and sizes, so why not?

One of the featured speakers, Jessica Martin-Weber blogger and manager at The Leaky Boob, a website dedicated to breastfeeding support, decided to feed her child at lunch. Naturally she breastfed her infant and being a mother who’s been around the block more than once she chose not to use a cover. Well apparently this made some of the other casino guests uncomfortable.  So much so that a staff member came over and politely asked her to cover up.

The blogger at first laughed, and then stated that she was within her rights (per Nevada law) to breastfeed how she sees fit, wherever she sees fit.  The woman politely, though firmly asked her to cover up again, saying it would make other guests more comfortable.  The irony of the situation was not lost on the blogger.  This was Las Vegas after all.  The casino had a burlesque show.  And (beyond the control of the casino) flyers with sexualized women in pasties were passed out just outside the front door daily.  Breastfeeding is what the patrons found offensive?!

Finally the blogger thanked her and continued about her business. The woman finally gave up. The blogger noted when recalling the story that:

“… she didn’t yell at me, she never touched my baby or me, she did not call me names, she did not go over to the tables that complained and loudly inform them that I wouldn’t comply, she didn’t ask me to leave, and she didn’t threaten me in any way.”

The blogger had a good chuckle, shared her experience on Twitter and tagged the Flamingo.  That could be the end of the story – it isn’t.  What happened next is what sets the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino apart from so many others who have handled similar situations so poorly.

World-class response

Due to the flashpoint nature of the subject the popular blogger’s tweets quickly became viral, and the Flamingo was right there to respond.  Not only did the hotel tweet the blogger and her companion she had lunch with, but also gave individual responses to each to their followers who addressed the situation as well.

The hotel engaged the blogger via Twitter, then e-mail, then on the phone.  They asked to meet with her personally before she left Las Vegas, and publicly informed Twitter.

Scott Farber, Director of Food Operations, met with the blogger to apologize.  He told her that he had had “a meeting with his staff and informed them of Nevada state law permitting a woman to breastfeed her child wherever she has the legal right to be, and instructing his staff that should customers complain about a woman breastfeeding again they would not address the mother but would work with the customers that complained.” She goes on:

“Kind and genuine, Scott laughed with me at the irony of being in Vegas and asked to cover. Scott offered to make it up to me with a free meal and more and was genuinely concerned about how I was after the experience. He shared that Estella, the manager, was horrified that she had misstepped in saying anything to me and he extended her apology as well as I didn’t have time to meet with her.

We discussed how the Flamingo could better welcome families and some changes that could be made to do so well.  The possibility of me returning to train their staff and sister hotels to consult with them on how to be set apart in Las Vegas as a family friendly destination came up.”

These weren’t the actions of a company that wanted to embarrass their customer families, these were the actions of a company that cared to stand apart and understands the value of doing things right.

In the end, she says the Flamingo will receive repeat business because of how well they handled the situation.

Anatomy of a stellar PR response

Businesses and PR practitioners can all learn a lot from the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino and their excellent, organized response.

First, they addressed the issue quickly and directly. Taking their interaction from a public social media level, and then to a private one on one was a good move. Directly engaging the blogger on the phone, and then going the extra step in person wins BIG brownie points in my book. Informing the public of their actions was also a critical piece since the story had gone viral.

They involved the appropriate staff, running the issue up the flagpole to the Director of Food Operations who then had the knowledge of the situation and the authority to handle it. All too often lower ranking staff dismiss complaints, are not given the authority to address complaints themselves, or address the complaint only to give an unorganized, inadequate response.

They said exactly what they needed to say – admitting guilt, apologizing, making things right with the blogger by offering a free meal, and informing the blogger what steps they are doing to rectify the situation so it doesn’t happen again. Sounds simple but many companies falter here. Admitting guilt, or at minimum apologizing regardless, is a critical step in containing a situation. Making things right with the customer is also a critical component. Many businesses would look at a free meal offer as a loss, but she is now going to be a returning customer, worth much more than the meal. Addressing and training staff is an internal matter, but will undoubtedly offer customers a better experience in the future. A win-win.

Asking the blogger back as a consultant goes way above and beyond the usual guest services response, and may be unique considering the circumstances and the people involved, but the casino saw a learning opportunity and took it. Kudos to them. They deserve a gold star for taking what could have been a complete and total PR nightmare and turned it around into a PR success story.

What do you think?  How would you rate the Flamingo’s response to this situation?  Are there other examples that you can think of where companies have responded as good or better?

How Brands Are Leveraging Politics in the Age of Transparency

Don’t worry, this isn’t just another Chick-fil-A post, but rather an examination of where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going in the age of transparency.

Ever since social media splashed on the scene and disrupted public relations as we know it, the industry has been under an exponentially increasing pace of change.  In no greater way has it affected PR than in the fact that PR practitioners,can no longer “hide.” It has pushed us to a new level of information sharing and this is a great thing.

This age of transparency has profoundly impacted brands in several forms.  Prior to the economic downturn of 2008, consumers began demanding to know where their products came from.  This especially held true as part of the green movement. Consumers wanted to know what kind of environmental impact the products they bought had.  Even Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world, began a program to illustrate each product’s carbon footprint.

This movement lost steam with the economic downturn as consumers abandoned the environmental focus in lieu of cost and value. Walmart has since cancelled their program.  As we adjust to this new normal, consumers still have green in mind – it’s just not at the forefront as it once was.

A new trend emerged in the human rights realm. Perhaps the true leader who has ridden this trend more successfully than any other is Tom’s Shoes, who donate a pair of shoes to those in third world countries for every pair of shoes sold.  As a result, Tom’s has enjoyed becoming a bit of status symbol, especially among young people and hipsters.

However no human rights topic has brought more controversy than the topic of gay marriage. Some brands have ridden this wave to success, others have faltered.

But no one cashed in better, than department store retailer JCPenney when they chose Ellen Degeneres as a spokesperson early this year.  An openly gay American, with one of the most popular daytime talk shows, Ellen came under fire from a group called “One Million Moms” who represented what they called “pro-family advocacy.” Used to being attacked on the nature of her sexual orientation, Ellen took the rare step of addressing the issue head on:

“I usually don’t talk about stuff like this on my show, but I really want to thank everyone who is supporting me,” she said. “Here are the values I stand for: I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you’d want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.”

This bold move turned out to be a good one, as public support for Ellen and JCPenney quickly overwhelmed the rhetoric from One Million Moms, who in fact were not one million strong as their name suggested.  Many people expressed that they would become first time JCPenney shoppers as a result of backing Ellen.  JCPenney continued on this thread by running an ad for Father’s Day that contained a real-life family of two dads and their children.

Taking a page from JCPenney’s book, Kraft/Nabisco brand Oreo declared their support of gay rights when they posted an image on Facebook using an Oreo cookie to depict a rainbow on Pride Day – June 25. Under the image they posted “Proudly Support Love!” Kraft Foods representative Basil Maglaris called the image “a fun reflection of our values.”

As one would expect, the image brought a strong reaction from both sides. However, in general, just like with JCPenney the image received more positive than negative feedback.  This a reflection that same sex relationships have become socially acceptable to a growing majority of Americans since 2010, according to polls conducted by Gallup.

But what happens when a brand takes a stance on an issue that is against the majority?  That’s what Chick-fil-A found out when their CEO Dan Cathy was asked by the Baptist Press if he was opposed to gay marriage. He responded,

“Guilty as charged.” Adding, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. … We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

The full repercussions of this off the cuff comment are still unclear. However, what unfolded is perhaps one of the most botched PR responses in recent memory. As a company that has never been shy about its Christian values – even remaining closed on Sundays when malls where it is generally located are filled with people – I was surprised that they did not embrace the comment immediately. Instead they chose not to communicate to their franchise owners who began speaking to the press in support, or against the CEO’s comments creating a fragmented PR nightmare.

Jim Henson Company, who had a contract to supply toys to the franchise and a long history of promoting equality for all, pulled their support, at which point Chick-fil-A said the toys were recalled despite there never being a report filed with the Consumer Protection Agency. When a Facebook commenter called them on this, Chick-fil-A responded by creating two fake Facebook accounts, using stock photography. Again, they got caught red handed, however Chick-fil-A stands by they were not behind these accounts.  There’s no pulling the wool over the public’s eyes in the age of transparency.  Then in a bizarre and sad twist of fate, Chick-fil-A’s lead PR person for 29 years, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to brand’s aid by supporting them with “Appreciation Day” on August 1st where the franchise reported record sales.  People lined up around the block to support the chain’s stance on gay marriage.  It is telling, however, that it took outside support to pull this off.  It is unclear if this brand advocate was called upon by Chick-fil-A, but at the moment the signs point to no as most franchises were unprepared for the crowd – many running out of chicken.

In spite of the day’s success, the brand seems intent on trying to move on from the issue releasing the following statement this week.

“Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” it said.

What the take away of all this is that brands whether willingly or not, taking a stance on political or social issues, better be prepared to handle the response.

Some may argue that the Chick-fil-A CEO’s comments were his personal, not his brand’s, views. However, employees, especially high level ones, need to keep in mind that they are always representing their workplace or brand wherever they go, and especially when speaking to media.  Who “media” are in the age of smartphones is debatable.  And the line between work and home life has also blurred, if not disappeared with the emergence of Twitter and other social media platforms.  You can either choose to embrace this new paradigm and be yourself, or choose to edit your comments.  You’re not safe even amongst “friends” as presidential candidate Mitt Romney has found out the hard way at a few fundraising events.

Whether the new rules of engagement in age of transparency are fair is debatable.  Regardless, as PR practitioners, employees and brand ambassadors, we need to play by these new and ever-changing rules, or suffer the consequences. What is clear is that we have begun a new era in branding where social and political stances of brands and their key stakeholders have entered the marketing conversation.  And I think they’re here to stay.

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