Heineken – come clean or obfuscate?

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Social Media Risk


3 PR lessons from Heineken’s bizarre dog-fighting crisis

 Guest Analysis by Grant Rampy

Mr. Rampy is director of public relations at Abilene Christian University. He was White House Correspondent for Tribune Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2009

Story Summary from PR Daily:  There is crisis control, and then there is the ordeal that Heineken is facing. The beer maker has been slammed in traditional and social media since photos of a dogfight with prominent Heineken branding went viral. Heineken has denied knowledge of the event, which apparently occurred at a Mongolian nightclub in 2011.  Of course, the masses took to Heineken’s Facebook page to berate the company. What could Heineken do? Blindsided by the photo, Heineken launched into action.

The choice: come clean or obfuscate?

When faced with a PR black eye, there is a choice to be made: we can get all the facts out – the good, the bad and the ugly – and we can do so in a hurry, or we can try to shade the truth, hide the facts, and make the way toward finding them as murky as possible.

Heineken has just offered a wonderful example of the former. Faced with a photo of Heineken branding visible in the background of what appears to be a dog-fighting match in a foreign country, Heineken’s PR team jumped into action.

To quote one of its reps:

“We are as appalled by this image as you are and have asked the Heineken Global Office to immediately investigate the circumstances of this event and whether Heineken was involved in any way. If you have any further information regarding (the) picture, such as the source, or the venue where it was taken, please let us know.”


Put another way, the company said: Someone did something stupid with our brand. If you haven’t already heard, we want to be the first to tell you since we’re not ashamed. This event wasn’t our fault, and we’re doing everything we can do to get to the bottom of who is behind the problem.

Heineken’s savvy get-it-all-out-there response runs counter to what is, in my mind, one of the textbook PR screw-ups of the recent past.

Faced with complaints lodged by Lexus and Toyota owners in 2007 about problems related to sudden acceleration, Toyota’s lobbyists kicked into high gear. They convinced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that there was no way floor mats installed by the company were behind acceleration-related incidents and accidents. The lobbyists crowed two years later that their work had helped head off a widespread recall and, in the process, save the automaker $100 million.

Just one problem: Concern surrounding persistent acceleration problems prompted the NHTSA to initiate a massive recall in 2010 – one that involved nearly six million vehicles. Six Million. What followed was a shellacking of Toyota’s reputation and a roughly 50% drop in the company’s market value.

In the wake of the calamity, Toyota rallied gamely to assure the public. “Our values have always been to put the customer first and ensure the highest levels of safety and quality. Our recently announced top-to-bottom quality review of company operations, along with new quality process initiatives and a renewed commitment to transparency are all designed to reaffirm these long-held values.”

What if Toyota had demonstrated those professed values back in 2007, when accelerator issues first came to light? Might the stock price have taken a short-term hit? You can be sure. But might a speedy, above-board, do-whatever-it-takes-to-fix-the-problem response have also actually burnished Toyota’s reputation in the end? Possibly.

But we’ll never know.

Firestorm guest contributor Grant Rampy is director of public relations at Abilene Christian University. He was White House Correspondent for Tribune Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2009. 

Mr. Rampy is available to speak on a variety of Media issues, approaches and strategies. If you would like to arrange to have Grant speak to your group or organization, please contact Jim Satterfield at 800-321-2219.


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