For any organization, when a crisis occurs the organization must go above and beyond their normal communication practices in order to assure the image of the organization remain in tact and mostly unscathed. Coombs (2011) explains, every organization knows that they are vulnerable to a crisis, and most prepare by creating advanced plans in order to minimize the damage. And while teams can create lists of potential threats, sometimes a crisis will arise that the organization was not prepared to react to, as was in this case.
Background: Overview of Incident
On June 7, 2015 the Subway chain was handed a crisis that they were not fully prepared to handle. Their longtime spokes person, Jared Fogle had an FBI investigation open in connection with a child pornography case. Mr. Fogle had been the spokes person for Subway for more than 15 years. He first gained notoriety when he lost over 200 pounds on what he called “the subway diet”. By 2011, Jared had appeared in more than 300 commercials for the corporation that dated back to 2000. Subway attributed over half of its sales in growth to Fogle and the “Subway Guy” campaign (Murray, 2013).
Coombs (2014) outlines a three step process to organizing a crisis management plan that helps simplify the task. The three-stage approach consist of the pre-crisis, crisis event, and post- crisis. Within each of the stages there are three sub-stages that allow for the plan to appropriate generality.
During the pre-crisis stage the practitioner must address signal detection, where an evaluation of the threats to the organization are identified, could this threat have been identified. Perhaps not, but a similar threat of Spokesperson misconduct should have been. This is notable, because the majority of contracts between organization and their spokesperson contain a clause for termination in this event. So it should have been listed on their threats along with an action plan.
Next the practitioner must address crisis prevention, as a means to fix the problems that do exists before they become a crisis. This step would not have applied directly to this situation, as it could not have been prevented on the part of Subway. Lastly during the pre-crisis stage the practitioner must prepare for the crisis its self. This step involves preparing teams, selecting a spokesperson, drafting messages that can be used, and creating portfolios that are prepared to be used in the event of the crisis (Coombs, 2014, pg. 10). Subway should have had responses prepared that could have been modified for any employees related issues.
Execution: How did Subway Respond
When the allegations and investigation first surfaced, the Subway corporation made an announcement, “Subway and Jared Fogle have mutually agreed to suspend their relationship due to the current investigation”. “Jared continues to cooperate with authorities and he expects no actions to be forthcoming. Both Jared and Subway agree that this was the appropriate step to take” (Oxfeld, 2015). Subways initial response, appears to be in line with what should happen during this type of organizational crisis. What Subway chose to do following the initial statement, is where the company took its first misstep.
Once the initial, official statement was released from the company, Subway decided to continue business as usual not making another comment until a single tweet from the company almost one month later. Practitioners may agree that the organization should have made additional comments sooner. With continued news coverage of the investigation flooding the news sources, it made Subway appear as thought they had a lack of genuine sincerity.
It made the organization appear as thought they would rather burry their heads in the sand instead of abiding by one of the core principles of PRSA code of ethics. Creating a mutual discussion of free flowing accurate and truthful information is essential to serving any organizations public interest (PRSA, 2017).
Between the first and second message, and the increased media reports of additional evidence, Subway then decided to begin responding. Subway should have immediately taken advantage of the potential dialogue with the public in order to mitigate the situation. Even with the ample amount of time between their implementation of a crisis communication plan and the original incident, their communications strategies still fell short. Professionals agree that “no comment” or no response at all equates with 65% of steak holders as an admission of guilt and has negative connotations (Coombs, 2014, pg. 84).
It is also worth noting that in May of 2015 authorities arrested the former executive of Fogle’s foundation, Russell Taylor, for the production of child pornography. The Subway corporation immediately reacted with a statement. “We are shocked about the news and believe it is related to an investigation of former Jared Foundation employee. We are very concerned and will be monitoring the situation closely. We don’t have any more details at this point” (Jacobs, 2015).
Results & Recommendations
First we can look at some of the elements of the Subway crisis communication that hurt their brand.
Responsibility of the organization: Subways decision to not immediately react, left members of the public questioning if they actually felt any responsibility for Jared Fogle’s rise to fame. Many times organizations who are put in similar situations, will use the opportunity to show the community that they do care. Companies often set up funds to express some form of social responsibility, Subway never did this. This could have shown their publics that they do in fact care, and hope to help bring attention to issues surrounding the charges that exist in our society.
Communications actions: It is clear that the publics were not pleased with the immediate “no comment” that was issued by the organization and their decision to refrain from any dialogue with its publics. Simple updated statements from the organization could have shown that they were not trying to ignore the situation. Continued affirmation that they were still working with authorities could have benefited their crisis communication and image. Each message that the organization posted show a genuine lack of sincerity.
Branding: Subway also acted slowly to disassociate its self from Fogle in its ad campaigns. They could have easily used this time to launch a completely new campaign that could help direct attention away from the situation. In stead, they waiting until charges were actually filed to remove all digital and print marketing containing Fogle.
Not all of the crisis communications that Subway reacted with were wrong. We can take a look at some of the actions that were favorable.
Acknowledgment: Following the crisis, Subway was able to acknowledge that there reactions were wrong. They backed up their decision to not release additional information, saying that, “making up information was not an acceptable course of action”. They stood by their decision to only releases information when it was provided to them, and that they were being given information as the media received it.
Communications: The official communication that they did release was truthful, concise and to the point. This was better than the organization not making any acknowledgement of the incident.
Branding: Once the charges were filed against Fogle the organization did shift all of its association away from Fogle to include, all digital platforms, print collateral and in-store reference.
For any organization, a crisis like this has the potential to ruin a company, but especially if the right course of actions are not taken. Unfortunately, for Subway Jared Fogle wasn’t the only problem. Before news broke of the Fogle case, Subways sales had already declined 3% or $400 million, faster than another American food chain. A lot of this was attributed to the announcement from FoodBabe.com blogger that the chain used azodicarbonamide in its bread (Harwell, 2015). The question of whether Subway would have reacted differently if it had already not been inundated with crisis plan implementation from that fallout, or wether it had any baring on their reaction to the Fogle incident remains unclear.
From a public relations crisis standpoint, it shouldn’t have mattered, each of the situations could have been handled better if the organization had an effective crisis communications plan in place. It must not just exist, it must be current, and practiced regularly to be effective.
Crisis was not prepared to react to, as