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Pink Slime — Anatomy of a Contagion

23 Mar

The gooey mess known as Pink Slime has suddenly become a public relations mess too.  But, how did it go from a food additive to a food disaster in record time?  A large part of the answer lies in the power of social memes and the ability of key audiences to spread it like a contagion.

Figure 1 - Pink Slime

Let’s break it down.  In this case, the food additive included in some forms of processed beef came with a descriptive slang name and an iconic image: pink slime. (Figure 1)

In its basic form, pink slime a substance made from the rendered connective tissues and intestines of cows.  Because those tissues are susceptible to e-coli contamination, they are processed with ammonium nitrate to kill the bacteria and act as a preservative.   For years the FDA has approved the additive as a safe filler for meat products.  But when an image and video of the substance appeared in the news reports in early March about its presence in school lunch hamburgers, pink slime became a household word as fast as parents could hit the “send” button on their computers.   As a Google Trends analysis shows, pink slime went viral in a matter of 24-hours and has not let up since. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - Google Trends

Three key factors are involved here.  First, the image itself of the pink slime became what social psychologist Jaap Van Genneken would call a strong replicator.  In other words, it’s an iconic image that developed and sealed an emotion in the minds of the viewer.  In this case, the image leads to the very human response of questioning what this substance is doing in our food—especially our children’s food at school.

Second, the image sealed itself in the minds of an important audience.   That audience is mainly women, in particular, the mothers of school children.

Third, these women not only saw the image of the pink slime included in stories in various news media, they spread the story to their friends and peer groups in social media.  My own audience research among social media users indicates that women are heavily invested in, and are heavy users of social channels.   They not only use social media as a way of discovering news from their friends, but to share news and issues that are important to them.   When this story broke, the image, the issue, and the salience to their children and families created its own perfect recipe for a modern-day social issue contagion. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 - Contagion Model

The result has been a sudden abandonment of meat products containing the so-called pink slime.  Several major grocery store chains have now said they have stopped ordering beef products containing the additive.   One of them is Twin Cities based SuperValue which owns and operates Cub Food stores throughout the Midwest.   Here’s its statement:

“We’ve heard concerns from many of our shoppers about the inclusion of finely textured beef in some of the ground beef products available at our stores. Effective today, we have made the decision to no longer purchase fresh ground beef products that contain finely textured beef.”  -SuperValue

            The power of the contagion lies in the statement’s first sentence.   Consumers spoke up.  SuperValue listened.  It’s a 21st century lesson in the speed of which issues closely tied to strong memes can spread, and the power of key audiences armed with a “send” button.

Susan G. Komen’s PR Disaster. What Went Wrong, and How it Could Have Been Prevented.

5 Feb

                The pink ribbon that ties together a breast cancer community managed to tie a pink noose instead. 

               Susan G. Komen somehow hung itself.  Somewhere, someone inside the organization cut the rope just in time.   But, it’s gasping for air.

                The tragedy in its decision to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood not only damaged the image of an exceptionally worthy organization and powerful super brand, it potentially threatened the lives of the some of very women it has promised to serve.  The question is, how did this happen? 

                The legal and moral arguments over the Komen’s initial decision to pull its grants from Planned Parenthood have been well documented.  Komen was getting increasing pressure from the right to life movement to no longer fund breast cancer screenings at an organization that also provides abortions.  How Komen responded to the pressure will be analyzed in case studies that compare it against such classic PR disasters as New Coke, and more the more recent debacles of ACRON, Go Daddy, and SOPA .   Each has its unique set of circumstances, yet each has its similarities.   They all lost track of their audience, their value proposition, and their soul.   But what compounded Komen’s disaster was the speed and means by which its stakeholders struck back.  Social media channels provided the platform and the echo chamber for the outrage to spread like a contagion.

                The outrage begins with what a significant number of Komen’s loyalists and evangelists viewed as a violation of trust.  Komen’s core mission is saving the lives of women.  It’s website boldly states, “Susan G. Komen for the Cure is fighting every minute of every day to finish what we started and achieve our vision of a world without breast cancer.”  It’s not just a credo, it’s a commandment. 

                Komen’s founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker proclaims, “We’re proud of the fact that we don’t simply dump funds and run.  We create activists—one person, one community, one state, one nation at a time—to try and solve the number one health concern of women.”

                But Komen’s announcement that it would suspend eligibility for further grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer examinations seemingly violated its core proposition and values.    Brinker attempted to argue in a YouTube video that the decision was not politically motivated.  But in a world where perception is reality, no one bought it.   Tragically, Komen, never saw it coming.


                From a pure communications analysis, Komen’s actions were incongruent with both with its mission and its constituents.  What it failed to take into account is that Planned Parenthood is also a regarded women’s health organization with considerable overlap among Komen’s own activists and volunteers.  I’ve created a simple heuristic model that shows the positive and negative congruencies between Komen, Planned Parenthood and women.  (Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Komen's Communications Incongruency Model

             Planned Parenthood has a loyal constituency of its own.  Among its supporters is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  When Bloomberg took to Twitter and announced a $250,000 donation to Planned Parenthood, it leveraged more money and buzz. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Tweet

                What Bloomberg effectively achieved was a new congruency.  (Figure 3)  Women and donors who support both Planned Parenthood and Komen didn’t take to the streets, they followed Bloomberg and took to their smart phones and computers.  

Figure 3 - Mayor Bloomberg's Communcation Congruency Model

             The outrage in social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter spread faster than the opening steps of a Komen 3-Day event.   A little more than 24-hours after Brinker took to Youtube defending Komen’s actions, the organization issued an abrupt apology and restored funding to Planned Parenthood.  The carefully crafted message reads as follows:  “We want to apologize for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”   In other words, they rediscovered their soul and their credo.

                 Which brings us back to Komen’s initial decision.  How would the course of events been different had the executive leadership made its decision based upon the organization’s core values and mission?  These are the same questions Komens  PR agency, Ogilvy, will have to ask as well.  In the coming days Ogilvy will have to craft a set of strategic messages to satisfy not just Komen’s supporters of Planned Parenthood, but those supporters who strongly oppose that fact that Planned Parenthood also provides abortion counseling.  The tragedy is that unless Ogilvy is working pro-bono, Komen will spend a huge sum of money on damage control that otherwise would have gone to breast cancer research.

                Komen will likely recover and catch its breath.  But it’s near death experience is a valuable lesson for organizations to constantly pay attention to their core values.  If not, in this new world order of social democracy, their followers will hold them accountable.

PR Failure: When Good Brands Like Applebee’s Refuse To Join The Conversation About Bad News

1 Oct

            Mistakes come in all packages.  This one comes on a 5 x 11” piece of paper.

            The slick color direct mailer went out to 10,000 customers with a nice $5 coupon.  The mailer trumpets a newly remodeled Applebee’s in Maple Grove, MN.  Any marketing executive would tell you it’s a great and efficient “activation” driver to bring lapsed users into the restaurant.  Tragically, the headline on the back of the mailer launches another driver: Buzz.  And this buzz is not good.

            Here’s the headline:  “REDISCOVER YOUR WHITE MAPLE GROVE APPLEBEE’S!”

Applebee's Mailer

            It speaks for itself.  Applebee’s did not.

            Several irritated viewers contacted us about the mailer wondering how could the neighborhood restaurant be so insensitive?  It turns out it was a printing
mistake.   Similar mailers were created earlier in the year for the reopening of the Applebee’s in White Bear Lake, MN.  Applebee’s believes the printer didn’t quite
interchange all of the words.

            When Fox 9 contacted the corporate spokeswoman, there was no apology and little explanation.  My colleague Erik Runge, a good and seasoned reporter, was stunned.  He inquired about getting an interview from someone at Applebee’s explaining the error and was denied.  He then asked about getting a written statement and again—denied.

            There are some basic rules about crisis management.  One of them is get ahead of the discussion.  But the most important rule is to become a part of the discussion.  Applebee’s corporate silence is equivalent to sticking its head in the sand.   By not becoming a part of the narrative, they let everyone else—including their customers and the media—create the narrative for them.  Once that happens, they have lost control of their brand.

             Those of us who are Applebee’s customers know it as a good neighborhood restaurant chain with great service.  The tragedy is it’s painfully obvious that the spokeswoman in the corporate office is not committed to the brand or its soul.

            She needs to be force-fed some PR soul food.  And then she needs to be fired.

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