Look closely at the photos and the evidence is clear: There were definitely some “Luau Bamboo Torches” ($2.99) in the mix at the white nationalists’ march in Charlottesville last summer, and possibly a “Royal Polynesian” or two ($29.99 for a 4 pack) as well.
Tiki Torches. For their harrowing march through the University of Virginia campus, the “Alt-Right” protestors carried tiki torches.
“When you think you’re the master race but you can’t figure out how to make your own damn torch,” quipped the Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke on Twitter.
“Guys, we need to look tough,” wrote Marybeth Glenn. “GET … THE … TIKI TORCHES!”
No Laughing Matter
Clearly, the thought of militant protestors carrying patio decorations seemed funny to many readers, but others weren’t laughing—and they weren’t just the alt-right. Up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Lamplight Farms, the family-run company that has been making the torches for years, was confronting a public relations disaster—one that it had no part in causing but that threatened its business nonetheless.
It’s an increasingly common problem in this age of social media and 24-hour news cycles; and it affects companies large and small, but it’s particularly those multinationals that tend to get the most media attention. When confronted with a PR disaster like the one facing Lamplight Farms, communication directors have to answer a basic question: Do we respond directly, or keep relatively quiet and hope the publicity fades?
“It’s this intricate dance we do on a global basis every day,” said Jeff Flaherty, Senior Director of Global Crisis & Corporate Affairs at Marriott International, Inc., and an instructor in Georgetown University’s Master's in Public Relations & Corporate Communications.
For its part, Lamplight Farms chose to answer, issuing this deftly understated response to the white nationalists’ march: “We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”
It might have been a tough call for the company, because the statement risked “alerting people to a crisis they wouldn’t ordinarily have known about,” Flaherty said. On the other hand, news of the march and the claims and counterclaims resulting from it had already gone viral and the company may have thought it had no choice but to set the record straight.
Fueling this news frenzy is social media, which Flaherty said “has dramatically changed the way we do crisis communication.” Once, in a pre-digital age, there was something called the news cycle. It had a beginning and an end that corresponded roughly to the calendar, with a new cycle starting every day. “But with social media,” said Flaherty, “there is no end.”
In this environment, a story can go viral in a matter of minutes. For example, last April, when a 69-year-old man was injured while being dragged off a United Express flight for refusing to give up his seat for a crew member, passenger videos of the incident were viewed by millions. (United’s CEO exacerbated the problem by issuing a statement that appeared to blame the passenger, only to backtrack and apologize two days later.)
Social media has also created a new class of citizen journalists. That’s a good thing in that it expands the range of issues and events that get reported—the United incident, for example—and gives more people a voice. But there is also a downside.
“Now, anyone can become a reporter,” Flaherty said. “They can report on anything they want. They can be biased. They can be completely one-sided, and it can be fake news. All of that compounds the complexity for an organization in a PR crisis.”
Social media and the imperative to get “clicks” has also put pressure on traditional journalists, who, in constantly updating stories for the web, may not have as much time as they once had to do research and fact-checking, Flaherty said. And the culture of continuous sharing on social media—while helping readers become better informed—has reinforced the idea that attributing the source of a story is almost as good as fact-checking it.
If social media offers the public more access to news and what passes for news, it also provides a platform for companies that they didn’t have before, Flaherty said. In the past, communications professionals had to convince reporters that a story, or a particular angle of a story, was worth covering.
“Now we can choose to go to our own channels and tell our story,’” Flaherty said.
Lamplight Farms did this. So did Domino’s Pizza after two employees posted a video of themselves supposedly adding disgusting “ingredients” to a pizza. The pizza was never delivered, but the video went viral, and the damage was done. Domino’s CEO reacted by responding on social media, effectively using the same platform to state that the employees’ behavior would not be tolerated and was antithetical to what the company stood for.
The Need to Prepare
To be as prepared as possible, Flaherty and his staff keep in touch with key players at Marriott, including the operations and legal departments, security, and customer service. They follow political news and what’s happening in various legislative bodies around the country and the world.
“Many times, the measure of success in crisis communications is the dog that didn’t bite,” Flaherty said.
But he knows it eventually will.