How would you react if your company was unreasonably targeted by critics, and the criticism resulted in stock losses and bad press across the country? If you’re fitness company Peloton, you roll with the punches by:
- Issuing a reassuring statement which highlights value to customers.
- Releasing a high-quality video poking fun at the controversy.
- Bringing in actor and businessman Ryan Reynolds’ star power to get even better press.
Not everyone has connections to nab a Hollywood star or the resources to produce an amazing video on short notice. But PR professionals, business owners, and non-profit leaders can learn from Peloton’s crisis communications judo to take back control of the narrative.
And just like that…
Peloton is an exercise company dealing with serious stress. Their stock is down by 75% as people are replacing home bikes with new gym memberships. The company implemented a hiring freeze, and they’ve instituted massive customer price reductions even as they recalled their treadmill.
Each of these challenges is an obstacle to long-term brand positioning. And then popular “Sex and the City” character John Preston, also known as Mr. Big, died of a heart attack after riding a Peloton bike.
The reaction to a TV character’s death was immediate and astounding. Peloton’s stock dropped by about one-eighth, and “Sex and the City” fans turned the incident into a trending social media topic. Media outlets from Deadline to NBC reported on fans’ reactions to the fake death.
A lot of companies would panic at such an irrational audience reaction, issuing terse statements that would make them look stiff and disconnected. Other companies would ignore the “controversy” entirely, knowing that it’ll blow over. Peloton took a different approach, combining Hollywood actors, a medical expert, a popular Peloton instructor and an expert video team to turn publicity disaster into positive media coverage.
Three steps for disarming critics
Peloton had a three-part response to the unforeseen brand crisis:
1. Issue a statement from cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, a medical doctor on the company’s Health & Wellness Advisory Council, which acknowledged fans’ distress, pointed to real health challenges which could cause a heart attack after cycling, and then summarized how to avoid heart attacks with and without a Peloton bike.
2. Declare through a spokesperson that Peloton was unaware of how the bike was going to be used in the show.
3. Release a video titled “He’s Alive” which featured Preston actor Chris Noth and popular Peloton bike instructor Jess King discussing going for a bike ride, with Ryan Reynolds’ voiceover declaring Noth to be alive and well.
By deflecting instead of fighting, and by taking fans’ over-the-top reactions in stride, Peloton won the day. Over 300,000 people watched the ad. Entertainment Weekly, which received the statement from Steinbaum, closed its article with lighthearted gratitude “for Mr. Big’s stationary bike” keeping “him around…to get this one last episode with him.” CBS’ headline called the response ad “clever,” and Reynolds’ declaration that working on the ad was “pure magic” rocketed across the Internet.
Critics might not be rational—but you have to be
There are many ways to deal with critics. You can ignore the irrelevant ones, anticipate the likely ones, or stay silent to let things blow over. But even the best-prepared organizations might face unreasonable and damaging controversy.
The new rules of the branding road, therefore, are simple: Be prepared for likely crises and be agile enough to quickly and effectively respond to those which are out of left field (or, in Peloton’s case, out of a TV show). Start with empathy and understanding, pivot to the facts, and then use all of your available branding resources—including Hollywood actors, if you have them on speed dial—to turn the narrative to your advantage.
Dustin Siggins is CEO of Proven Media Solutions, a Virginia-based PR firm.