Social media and public relations lessons “out of the blue”

Some brands sign celebrities for endorsement of their products. Strategically selected for their alignment with brand values and appeal to the brand target group, it’s a formal arrangement offering financial gain for both parties.

What then to do when a self-appointed celebrity selects your brand, and you unwittingly become dragged into a negative association not of your own making? That’s exactly what happened with Labatt’s last week, when a photo of the now infamous Canuck cannibal killer Luka Magnotta surfaced, courtesy of the Montreal Gazette, holding a tin of Labatt’s Blue. While the paper could be accused of inflaming the story for their own readership gain, having selected the photo from hundreds available on Magnolla’s Facebook page, it was the actions of Labatt’s lawyers that drew the attention that ultimately turned the story into a public relations nightmare.

Simply put, the lawyers acted in a command control manner, as though they could reprimand the Gazette in a vacuum. Of course the world of social media would have none of that, and it wasn’t long before someone on Facebook speculated it was all a cleverly shielded campaign by Labatt to gain attention. Before long someone else had created a hash tag on Twitter #newlabattcampaign. That’s when, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, “it tipped.” News of the supposed campaign spread and actually became a trending topic on Twitter in Canada last week. Clever, yet tasteless headlines such as “I would give an arm and a leg for a Labatt Blue,” and “Labatt Blue: All beer, no head,” were bantered about while the creation of campaign one-liners became sport for many. It only came to a halt when thankfully; the public relations department rescued the lawyers mired in unfamiliar social media territory. Labatt’s retracted their threat to sue the Gazette and simply stated that they had been trying to protect their brand. An earnest cause for sure, but unfortunately they learned the hard way that consumers owned the message, not the lawyers in corporate headquarters.

For me what became painfully obvious in all this was the utter importance of having brand equity and good will in the bank, so if need be in times of crisis, some equity can be squandered, while still maintaining brand value. Framed from a different perspective, I’m not sure had Mr. Magnotta been sporting a Molson Canadian, would the resulting fall out have been the same. Molson has invested heavily in brand building, aligning themselves closely with brand Canada since the 2010 Winter Olympics. I don’t think the social media sphere would have turned so quickly on something that tapped that inner connection to Canadian values.

While Labatt’s hasn’t used their 1998 campaign line, “A whole lot can happen out of the blue,” for some time, but they certainly learned last week that public relations lessons in the age of social media can happen out of the blue!

Mary Charleson

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