What We Can Learn From Cheerios' Potential PR Crisis

How the cereal brand courted -- and then avoided -- controversy.
What We Can Learn From Cheerios' Potential PR Crisis
Image credit: General Mills

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Founder and Managing Director, Clyde Group
5 min read
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By now, you might have read about (or seen) the Honey Nut Cheerios campaign to save the honey bee -- a clever marketing stunt that recently burst into the spotlight, although likely not in the way General Mills, the parent company, would have hoped.

Quick recap for those who don’t have a thumb to the beat of the cereal industry: amidst its seventh straight quarterly decline in sales, and in an attempt to raise awareness of the honeybee’s critical role as a pollinator of many of the world’s most important crops, General Mills decided to strip the Honey Nut Cheerio box of its famous mascot, BuzzBee. But they didn’t stop there; in addition to liberating BuzzBee from his duties, General Mills partnered with Canadian company Veseys Seeds Ltd. to distribute nearly 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to people across the country. Plant more flowers, and you increase the natural pollination habitat for the struggling species -- or so the theory goes.

Not long after they announced the campaign, General Mills came under fire from ecologists who claimed the seeds -- some of which are banned in certain states and regions because they are considered invasive -- could pose a significant threat if they were introduced outside their native range.

Related: 3 Fundamentals Learned the Hard Way About Generating PR for a Startup

Analyzing the response

In response to mounting pressure from both digital outlets and individuals on social media, General Mills focused its response on Facebook and Twitter audiences. The company developed a set of three slight variations of reactive messages designed to address concerns and discourage further interrogation.

Social media has changed the landscape of crisis communication, especially for brands and personalities. Where it used to be possible to delay a report or work on background with a reporter to limit blowback, consumers now demand answers instantly and keep up those demands around the clock. Their questions and accusations can spread both fact and fiction at an incredible pace -- and, often, the stock market listens. It is now vital that companies address concerns, regardless of their basis in fact, as early as possible.

The negative “buzz” around Cheerios provides a great example of how a company can successfully navigate this process.

Issuing reactive statements is the earliest phase of a crisis communications plan. When responding to unsubstantiated (or under-substantiated) negative claims about a company policy or product, we typically advise our corporate clients to provide as straightforward a holding statement as possible, until circumstances warrant further action. This has been a tried-and-true tactic for years (the term rapid response was coined in the 1990s).

Related: Developing a PR Plan

This is the approach General Mills went with. But the simplest strategy is often overlooked, especially in the modern PR environment. Social media has not only changed how consumers react—it’s pushed companies and the public relations firms who advise them to think up entirely new ways to respond. Developing comprehensive crisis strategies; lining up industry and third-party validators; deploying infographics; immediately embarking on apology tours. These are just a few of the options companies have to consider when facing a potential crisis. But, in many of these situations, as the General Mills case shows us, less is more.

How social media changes consumer reaction

First, it’s important to note that the criticism toward General Mills arose over a topic not many people are familiar with. In a bygone era, that might have been enough to limit the scope of consumer reaction. But, social media has proven a fertile breeding ground for charged opinions and pointed narratives that appeal to existing biases and a natural tendency toward outrage. Consumers are primed to latch onto opinions, even if they know little or nothing about the issue at hand. Looking at General Mills’ response language, the messages are effective because they work to subvert these effects by blending technical language with sympathetic concern -- a strategy that effectively acknowledges the issue without fueling any speculation that the company is trying to paper over a misdeed.

Second, General Mills did not make the mistake of needlessly escalating beyond reactive measures. The social media landscape has made it increasingly difficult for brands to sit idly by and watch the pressure mount; their inclination is to immediately respond to customers or members of the media, correcting misinformation and ultimately clearing their name.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a PR Firm

While everyone should be afforded the opportunity to set the record straight, issuing proactive statements is sometimes the most damaging action a company can take. We advise our clients to set and abide by a standard or threshold to determine the need for further escalation, and we’ve seen this strategy pay off time and time again. It is often the case that a story, like the General Mills wildflower seed giveaway, will fizzle out in due course.

Providing answers to the public is a necessary step that should happen immediately following any news that is less than favorable. But, it's equally important to understand when a situation is really a crisis and when it’s simply a fleeting conversation in an ocean of social chatter.

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