Heineken explains its response to dog-fighting PR crisis

Tara Carraro, senior director of corporate communications for Heineken USA, tells PR Daily how the company snapped into action during a recent PR firestorm.

It was a PR nightmare fueled by social media. Seemingly overnight, Heineken’s Facebook page became a sounding board for people to lash out against the brand when a photo of a dog-fighting event surfaced with Heineken branding at the venue.

(Here’s our previous post that recaps what happened.)

People assumed that Heineken had somehow been involved with the event—something that was far from the truth. But as the Mark Twain quote promises, “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The task of crafting and communicating Heineken’s response fell largely to Tara Carraro, senior director of corporate communications for Heineken USA, along with a global communications team. Immediately, they sprang into action upon learning about the photo and dedicated themselves to responding to every consumer complaint, which meant around-the-clock monitoring.

Carraro shared with PR Daily how she and her team handled the crisis behind the scenes and what lessons we could all learn from the ordeal:

Did Heineken have a policy in place for dealing with social media crises before this incident? What can you tell us about it?

Heineken has a well-established process for managing crisis situations. At a global and market level this process is well understood and is regularly tested. However, this was the first time it was used for addressing a brand-related issue that started and spread primarily through social media channels. So, while there was no specific policy in place for managing a social media related issue, there were some basic principles in place that were adhered to, namely:

• Mobilize the organization;
• Get the facts;
• Show empathy to people’s concerns;
• Respond quickly and regularly;
• Share what you know and what you don’t know;
• Speak in conversational language;
• Monitor what is being said and address misinformation.

Consumers love the iconic Heineken brand. It has been around for 139 years. Its success has been built around quality and enjoyment. So when they see something that they feel does not fit with the brand they tell us. That is what happened in this case and we were thankful that they brought the issue to our attention and demanded an answer from us about the pictures that appeared on Facebook. They could not believe what they were seeing and neither could we.

How long did it take from finding out about the photo to responding to it, and what was involved in that process?

Heineken corporate and several Heineken markets around the world began receiving emails, calls, and posts on their Facebook pages on Apr. 16. The corporate relations team in Amsterdam responded quickly, sharing what it knew and what could be said. This happened in less than two hours.

The global team then started responding to individual emails that were received and shared a statement for the local markets to use while it continued to investigate the circumstances around the photo. Within 24 hours, they had the necessary information about how the photo came to be and shared updated messaging on the company and Heineken brand website.

They also shared information with the local markets and provided guidance on how to respond and set guidelines on response times. What was interesting was that we received help from a Facebook fan who did his own investigation and tracked down the venue to be a club in Mongolia.

I’m sure several departments were involved with this from social media to PR and legal. How did you ensure that everybody was working together efficiently to make sure everyone’s needs were met while still making sure you responded in an appropriate amount of time?

The response to this issue was coordinated globally by our global corporate relations team based in Amsterdam. They led a crisis team that included the global head of Heineken brand, the head of digital ,and the legal department. The global chief group commerce officer, who is ultimately responsible for the Heineken brand, also focused the majority of his time in the first two days on the issue.

The crisis team mobilized its digital agency to respond on Facebook and Twitter and track on-line chatter. The global PR agency was also activated to track global media comment. The crisis team provided regular updates and messaging and shared clear expectations and direction to the markets around the globe. Within the market I represent, the U.S., we worked together with corporate relations, legal, our Heineken brand team, and several key agency partners to coordinate our local market response while providing regular updates and monitoring reports back to the team in Amsterdam.

What did your team learn from this experience?

From a local market perspective, we learned that an issue anywhere in the world can impact your market even if it didn’t take place there. The Internet and pervasiveness of social media have changed the game when it comes to issue and reputation management for companies. On a tactical level, the team overall learned that while it’s important to respond to everyone, you need to prioritize and first and foremost respond to those that form opinion on the greatest scale.

What advice do you have for other corporate communications professionals when it comes to handling a social media crisis?

It again comes down to move quickly, get the facts, be prepared to respond in a conversational manner, be candid and put yourself in the shoes of your key stakeholders. Also make sure that you have the ability to mobilize your response team to answer comments on-line, track the on-going development of the issue, answer consumer questions and monitor the media. If you are always guided by doing the right thing then you will emerge with your reputation intact.

Did this experience change anything about how Heineken will ready itself as a brand for any other social media incidents in the future?

This is a valuable learning experience. Both in how the situation escalated and how we responded. Heineken is the most international beer company in the world. Our brands are available in more than 170 countries and in more than a million bars, restaurants and clubs. When you operate on that scale there is always a risk that something can go wrong. It has stimulated us to take a fresh look at where we are vulnerable and take actions to minimize any risks. And to ensure we have the best processes in place to engage in the on-line space with the right people. Each market has been asked to share what was good and what can be improved, so I am sure we will be able to do an even better job if such an issue arises again.

(Image via)


PR Daily News Feed

Sign up to receive the latest articles from PR Daily directly in your inbox.