When sorry is the hardest word… turn to the experts

Ben & Jerry’s isn’t just a great ice cream maker; the company seems to be a fabulous newsmaker, too. Their latest headlines were made just this week, as they apologized to customers for inadvertently offending some customers with their  limited-edition frozen yogurt flavor offered at their Harvard Square location in Boston that “paid tribute” to New York Knicks basketball star Jeremy Lin. Fortune cookie pieces were included in the initial recipe – Lin is the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. And a Harvard graduate.

Pints of “Taste the Lin-Sanity,” which also contained vanilla frozen yogurt and lychee honey swirls (fresh-baked waffle cookie replaced the fortune cookie pieces), sold out over last weekend, so the actual product was popular. Actually, it sounds interesting and delicious – I’m a big fan of lychee! Ben & Jerry’s issued an apology that included the following:

“On behalf of Ben & Jerry’s Boston Scoop Shops we offer a heartfelt apology if anyone was offended by our handmade Linsanity flavor that we offered at our Harvard Square location. We are proud and honored to have Jeremy Lin hail from one of our fine, local universities and we are huge sports fans,” Ben & Jerry’s officials posted on the company’s local Twitter and Facebook pages. “We were swept up in the nationwide Linsanity momentum. Our intention was to create a flavor to honor Jeremy Lin’s accomplishments and his meteoric rise in the NBA, and recognize that he was a local Harvard graduate. We try demonstrate our commitment as a Boston-based, valued-led business and if we failed in this instance we offer our sincere apologies.”

 Hmmm. Although a well crafted statement (who can argue with the company’s motive to honor a local and now national hero?), something is missing. What do fortune cookies and lychee have to do with Boston, Harvard or the NBA? Are those items among Lin’s favorite foods, is he fond of his heritage, is Ben & Jerry’s proud of the NBA for its diversity efforts in recruiting and playing Lin…? Any one of those reasons, and more, would have seemed more authentic than the one released by the company.
 
This brings me to the question at the top of my PR-addled brain: where are Ben & Jerry’s communication advisors? Clearly, their product development and marketing folks are bright, creative and trendy people with many brilliant ideas. Do they run these ideas by people who understand audiences, consumers, and social media so everyone can be alerted to potential missteps, misunderstandings, insults and grievances? And THEN make a decision about whether the risks are worth the financial and other benefits BEFORE releasing the product. And maybe, sometimes, risks ARE worth it – you might want to stir up debate, shake up your image, cause a controversy – just for plain old visibility. (Maybe this is why Ben & Jerry’s released their controversial, ode-to-an SNL- skit  Schweddy Balls ice cream last fall.) That’s all fine.
 
Just be sure you know what you’re doing and why.
 
Not being audience-savvy gets companies into big, big trouble. PR teams are on hand to help. LISTEN to them before making business decisions or releasing new products that are highly visible or will be meaningful to your most important stakeholders. 
 
P.S.
(Another case study for listening to your communication experts is the recent decision by the Susan G Komen Foundation to stop funding for Planned Parenthood, which resulted in major news coverage because of the jolting reaction from donors and the general public. In one of the news stories, it was said that a Komen communication executive had advised against the business move because of just such an audience reaction. The negative effects of the decision will be felt by Komen for a very long time. Read more at the following):
 
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About Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann
Global corporate communication, business, and organization behavior executive; author. My blog, DesigningCommunication, offers inspiration, insight, and tips for all professionals who want to express themselves effectively, and lead with integrity.

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