A hypothetical PR Nightmare: Crisis Averted
Sims Snacks is a regional baker of pretzels, cookies and crackers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With just over 200 employees working at its sole location, Sims manufactures snacks under several brand names including FunTime and Old World. These are sold primarily through small grocery stores and regional discount chains, although their products are currently being considered for in-flight snacks on a regional airline based in Texas. In a city hit hard by industrial job loss, Sims has never had to lay off any employees since it was founded by Albert Sims in 1955.
In nearby Ringgold, Georgia, 6-year-old River Clarkson opened a family-sized box of FunTime Animal Crackers purchased at the local Dollar Mart. Slithering out of the box, a live snake surprised the young boy. At first, River squealed at the scary new toy in his box of snacks. His mother recognized it as a live snake, however. She immediately chopped the snake with a kitchen knife and brought its two pieces to their local county extension office.
While waiting for information about the snake, River’s parents returned to the Dollar Mart with their report of the snake. Since it was lunchtime, only the new assistant manager of the store was on duty. He called the store’s headquarters, who referred him to Sims. Tired of what they perceived as a runaround, the Clarksons called an Atlanta TV station, who dispatched a camera crew to Ringgold.
Fun Times with Corn Snakes
Little River Clarkson thought he discovered a cool new toy in his FunTimes animal crackers package. However, his mother quickly realized it was no toy, it was a live snake. In a possibly traumatizing act for River, his mother chopped the snake in half. After bringing it to the county extension office where they live in Ringgold, Georgia, the herpetologist determined it was a corn snake. Likely the snake was someone’s pet at one point and made its way into the local store where it entered the outer portion of the animal crackers box. This is good news for the Sims Snacks company. The company’s primary message will be to comfort its constituents that the snake did not come from the manufacturing plant, never penetrated the plastic packaging, and the food is safe.
The first step would be to gather more information about the incident. Did the truck driver or anyone in the plant have a pet snake? After gathering more information about corn snakes and getting quotes from experts addressing safety concerns, it is important to collect the latest inspection health and safety grades received for the manufacturing plant. While gathering all this data, and more, it is important to reach out to the Atlanta TV station, promising them a response in a few hours. This way they will not think Sims Snacks is stalling, but that they are actually doing their research on the matter. Also, in this time, quotes will be gathered from the Chief Executive Officer, Raymond Sims, and the Vice President of Production, Marvin Tanney.
The Vice President of Marketing, Kathy Evans, will appear on camera to address the issue. The CEO, while passionate, is not the best to address this situation; he is taking the allegation personally and is acting defensively. This is understandable, but would not be safe to put him on camera, for fear of him saying something harmful to the delicate situation. Approved quotes from the CEO and other experts will be sufficient for the situation. The VP of Marketing should be the only one to appear on camera, as she has a better grasp on what to say and what not to say. Below is an example statement that Evans will say during the on-air interview:
Good afternoon, everyone: It has come to our attention that a small corn snake was found in the outer portion of one package of FunTimes animal crackers. This is an isolated incident and two expert herpetologists both stated that the snake was likely someone’s pet at one point. The small snake did not penetrate the inner plastic packaging. The reports from these snake experts can be found on our website, along with their contact information.
CEO, Raymond Sims, has expressed his concern and has sent a letter of apology to the family involved. He also stated that ‘This incident, while scary for the affected family, is not an indication of poor conditions for the Sims Snacks manufacturing facility. In over 60 years, Sims has never had an incident like this and has never failed a Health and Safety Inspection.’ All of the latest inspection reports can be found on our website. The VP of Production, Marvin Tanney, added that he’s ‘prepared to tour official media representatives through the plant anytime.’
I’d like to add that we sent the family a full refund and a gift certificate for future Sims’ brand purchases. Also, we have been inspired by River’s first impression that he was about to receive a small toy. Thanks to River we will begin including small prizes in our animal crackers packages. River will be the first to receive one and, in fact, we have invited the family out to our corporate headquarters to help pick out the toys for the first production.
This incident is no laughing matter. The image of a snake in a box of animal crackers can have a lasting impact on not only the sales of that product, but on the brand, and the company as a whole. The possible effects of this situation on our constituents are vast. Sims’ customers could have a legitimate fear of purchasing our product. The public image of the cleanliness of Sims’ plant and health and safety of their food is on shaky ground. Shareholders may sell their shares, Sims stock will likely dip, and employees may even lose their job. So, it is crucial that this crisis is managed properly (and swiftly).
A crisis center should be set up at the Sims headquarters. Argenti suggests that the organization also setup “a comfortable location for media to use during the crisis, including adequate computers or Internet hookups, phones, fax machines, and so on” (2009, pp. 280-281). Communication toward internal constituents is just as important during a crisis as external communication. Everyone needs to be on the same page during the crisis and be aware of how to proceed during this time. Business must go on or there will be a bigger problem at hand.
Overall, the objective of the response, for the company, is to acknowledge the incident and respond in a proactive and positive manner. Showing the reports that the corn snake most likely did not come from the plant should relieve some of the blame from Sims without pointing fingers directly at the transportation company or dollar store. Offering plant tours would alleviate fears of poor plant conditions. Finally, allowing River to be a part of an exciting new addition to Sims’ product should reignite customer loyalty (as long as the toy is not a snake). How do you think this was handled? What would you have done differently? Tell me in the comments below.
Argenti, P. (2009). Corporate Communication, 5th Edition [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. Retrieved from https://bookshelf.vitalsource.com/books/007758726X