“Are you afraid that if you go to prison, you’ll get your hair cut?”
It was arguably the best question asked at one of the most bizarre press conferences ever, as well as the only relevant question asked in what was, officially, a press conference about hairstyles in the 1970’s.
To government officials and the media, it was a mockery of what had ballooned into a nationally covered, citywide bomb scare.
To the two men arrested for planting the LED displays mistaken for explosive devices, it was the hardest $300 they’d earned in their lives.
And for two companies, Turner Broadcasting & Interference Inc, it was the worst imaginable outcome of a guerrilla advertising campaign gone wrong.
In the end, the grassroots promotional stunt for the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force inflicted immeasurable damage on Interference Inc and their reputation in the industry, leading to the resignation of Cartoon Network’s then manager, Jim Samples.
The fiasco ended up costing Turner $2,000,000 in settlement fees to Boston Police and the Department of Homeland Security.
For the rest of us, it serves as an extreme example of the potential dangers that brands face when trying to find ways to break through the crowd and create a buzz.
The Constant Threat of Bad Publicity
Sometimes, avoiding bad publicity is unavoidable. Self-inflicted gaffes aren’t even required. What about when bad situations sniff us out like we’re Goliath trying to play hide and go seek in a school playground?
For companies with invaluable copyrights and trademarks, these types of PR nightmares are commonplace. The call to carefully protect trademarks and intellectual property rarely goes unanswered.
What can you do if your organization that has been caught in the spotlight of the public eye? Do you simply take a hit to your reputation to protect revenue streams?
What if you’re the offending party? What is the best course of action (especially if you’re a smaller business)? Is it ok to take things to the public arena?
Let’s take a look at 3 examples of companies unwittingly caught in the crosshairs of a sticky situation.
The New York Times Avalanches ScrollKit
In December of 2012, The New York Times published an impressive piece of multimedia journalism titled Snow Fall. The team of coders, designers, and journalist, John Branch, spent months and months working on the piece. Simply green lighting the project was a big risk for the Times.
The risk paid off. Snow Fall was a raving success, garnering millions of page views, viral buzz, and even winning a Pulitzer.
Better than successful, Snow Fall was influential. Snow Fall inspired similar works from numerous publications. For start-up web design app, ScrollKit, it was a golden opportunity to show proof of concept to the masses.
Seizing the opportunity, ScrollKit founder Cody Brown recorded a video to YouTube titled, ‘The NYT spent hundreds of hours hand-coding “Snow Fall.” We made a replica in an hour’. A success, the video grabbed the attention of the Times– and their legal team.
Protecting their work and investment in their property was clearly a valid concern.
Unfortunately, this situaton put both parties at risk. The Times could make a case that ScrollKit’s demo is a clear copyright violation, while ScrollKit could argue fair use for what was simply a technical demonstration.
So how do you address such a situation?
In the Snow Fall – ScrollKit case, the NYT opted for a traditional approach.
Brown received a cease and desist notice, alloting 3 days to remove the video from YouTube. He complied (or so he thought), until he got a follow-up notice instructing him to completely remove the video, as well as all references to The New York Times on his website.
From there, things got hairy.
Brown made another appeal. He cited how his team were admirers of the piece, and argued that, if anything, a demonstration using Snow Fall as the example only reinforces its impact.
Finally, he made the decision to bring the dispute to the public. His following blog post, The New York Times Told Me to Take This Down put the incident in the spotlight.
While the small ScrollKit team ultimately opted to not get into a legal battle with a company valued near $1 billion, ScrollKit’s compliance came at a cost. It might be unlikely that there will be noticeable financial impact, but the general reaction to how the legal team at the NYT handled of the situation was negative.
ScrollKit was at plenty of risk themselves by bringing the grievances public. Though, it seems the overall publicity generated left them making out ok, bruised pride and lost product demonstration notwithstanding.
One side just loses less
This is a great example because if you put aside some of the petulant language used, rationalizing with either party is reasonable.
ScrollKit meant no harm nor infringement, yet it is entirely true that their demonstration clearly copied/reproduced Snow Fall.
And even though the NYT came off as unforgiving if not aggressive, their case was understandable.
In the end, neither party really suffered any damage, but the entire affair wasn’t pretty. Now, I’ve read The Ugly Duckling before, and that’s not how it’s supposed to end, so let’s look at some uplifting cases where a bad situation blossomed into something good for each party.
The World’s Nicest Cease and Desist Letter
Examine the following two images:
Similar? I think so. Jack Daniels thought so, and probably does anybody with a healthy pair of eyes.
Just like The New York Times relies on copyright protection, Jack Daniel’s brand is everything to them. In fact, just ask a Tennesseean how prevalent the brand is. Most of my out of state friends associate Tennessee with 2 things:
- Country music
- Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey
(Ironically, I don’t like country music nor have I ever toured Jack Daniels’ distillery)
How would anyone expect Jack Daniel’s to respond when seeing their logo rehashed into the cover art for a novel? Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, right?
In fact, Amazon reviews such as this one demonstrate how the obvious inspiration for the book cover bolstered sales.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an example without a plot twist. I’ll let the letter speak for itself.
The tone in this letter starkly contrasts the tone in the NYT letters to ScrollKit, even noting that Jack Daniel’s is “flattered by your affection for the brand.”
In addition to the softer, empathetic tone, Jack Daniel’s goes out of their way to compromise, allowing the current cover to run its course until re-printing even offering to pay for the costs of redesigning the cover.
I can’t help but be reminded of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People when reading this letter. How many of his simple, timeless tenets are present?
Of course, the author and publisher complied. Politely declining JD’s offer, paying their own costs to redo the cover. The aftermath of what is now known as ‘The World’s Nicest Cease and Desist Letter‘ resulted in a boost in notoriety and sales for the book, greater admiration for the Jack Daniel’s brand, and a reinforcement of Jack Daniel’s brand identity.
Despite finding themselves in what’s usually a lose-lose situation, they used tact and empathy. They didn’t just break even, everybody won.
SparkFun’s Fun a Fluke
This next example is still fresh (March, 2014).
After the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department confiscated a shipment of SparkFun’s digital multimeters, the company wrote a blog post titled Fluke, we love you but you’re killing us.
What SparkFun had found out was that their inexpensive micrometers were confiscated because of a trademark filed and awarded to Fluke, a manufacturer of industrial grade test and measurement equipment.
It doesn’t end there. It turns out that the main problem with Fluke’s trademark and SparkFun’s multimeter was a matter of color! In other words, if you’re selling yellow micrometers, you’re gonna get in trouble.
Once again, to the public eye this looked bad. Real bad. The blog post fueled hundreds of comments. SparkFun made a convincing case for what seemed like a ridiculous trademark, how damaging this was for their small business ($30,000 in losses and 2000 multimeters destroyed, as well as having to change the color of all future micrometers).
Fluke’s response arrived a day later — on Facebook, no less.
In it, Wes Pringle, president of Fluke, defended his company. He explained the rationale of the broad trademark, and the fact that Customs is responsible for determining what gets stopped at the border, not Fluke.
Instead of stopping there with a statement of defense, he took it one step further. As a goodwill token to both the DIY/hobbyist community and SparkFun, a company that supports said community, Fluke opted to donate a shipment of their own equipment. With this donation, SparkFun was free to either donate or sell.
Just like in the case with The New York Times or Jack Daniel’s, Fluke was under no obligation to do anything beyond defend their legal rights, but like Jack Daniel’s, they recognized the situation as an opportunity.
Instead of a fire to put out, they took that same fire and boiled up a nice pot of stew for everyone to share. SparkFun graciously accepted Fluke’s offer, announcing plans to giveaway the donated micrometers.
For the most part, everyone came away feeling satisfied (though there is still some dissension on how broad trademark law can reach). And of course, each company leaves with an unexpected boost of publicity.
Nobody expects getting struck by a lightning bolt
Maybe these situations wouldn’t have been handled so benevolently without the scrutiny of the public. I wouldn’t argue for such opportunism, though.
I’d also like to believe that these great examples would hold not only because smart organizations (and legal teams) recognize that the way they handle these delicate situations can easily be made public. Rather, cases like these exemplify the brands, values, and people who encompass them.
These aren’t just good PR, marketing, and business practices. They are good people practices, and as we see, that pays off.
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