The worst crisis a brand can face? The death of a child being linked to your product has to be top of the list. The makers of Monster, the top-selling energy drink in the United States, are in the midst of this nightmare scenario.
Monster, which contains the caffeine equivalent of seven cans of Coca-Cola, is being blamed by the family of 14-year-old Anais Fournier who they claim died after consuming two 24-ounce cans in two days. Her parents allege that the high levels of caffeine contained in the drink aggravated an existing medical condition, which led to her suffering a fatal heart attack.
The USA’s food safety authority, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating four other deaths in which the people are believed to have consumed the popular energy drink shortly before they died. The FDA also reports consumer complaints of vomiting, heart tremors and chest pain from people who had consumed the drink.
The company strenuously denies any link between its product and the deaths - and will contest the Fournier lawsuit.
A global catastrophe?
News of the crisis has now travelled over the Atlantic. Monster is sold in the UK and the British media has picked up on the FDA’s investigation. Although there are no current concerns being mooted by our own Food Standards Agency, how long before the American crisis becomes a global catastrophe?
The crisis management mantra of ‘tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth’ should now be at the forefront of the Monster Beverage Corporation’s communications strategy. There must be consistency in its messaging. Once you’ve lost control of the debate, you may never be able to get it back.
Type ‘Monster Energy Drink’ into Google and a glut of media coverage indicates that the storm is just beginning. The story has been picked up as far away as Australia, where the press is asking whether its citizens are at risk of harm from drinking Monster.
Take a leaf out of Johnson and Johnson’s book. The way the firm handled a similar crisis when their pain relief product, Tylenol, was connected with customer deaths is now legendary and often cited as an effective crisis management case study.
In 1982 it was discovered that someone had placed capsules in boxes contaminated with deadly cyanide. Seven people in Chicago were reported to have died after purchasing tampered boxes and taking the medication.
The incident could have finished Johnson & Johnson. But the company’s swift action, which put its customers first, actually led to it increasing its market share. It recalled all its Tylenol packets, announced an immediate investigation and kept communicating with its customers throughout the process. It worked with the US authorities to produce the first ever tamper proof pillbox, which is still used today across the world.
Monster will no doubt be using both conventional media and social media to get its message across. It must avoid being seen as defensive or uncaring. For the sake of its long-term reputation it must get its priorities right: people, environment, company. No matter what the lawyers are saying about admission or denial of guilt, Monster’s spokesmen can express sympathy and reassurance without admitting to negligence.
The public doesn’t like companies ‘passing the buck’. They will find another energy drink to buy if they don’t like how the company is dealing with the situation.
Fast, dramatic, unstoppable
Thirty years on from Johnson & Johnson, Monster has the additional complication of the Internet and social media to deal with. Once something is posted on the web, it’s often automatically perceived as ‘fact’ whether true or not. There are no rules on the Internet. It’s unstructured and can complicate a crisis or upend even the strongest crisis management strategy. It is unforgiving and if you try to hide the facts or deny something that’s true you’re likely to be caught and the crisis will worsen.
The rules regarding honesty and transparency remain the same but the speed and global reach of the web means companies have to ensure all communication bases are covered.
Monster Beverage Corp. has published a statement on its website and posted messages via social media. It is expressing sympathy for Anais’ family and reiterating its belief in the safety of its products. However, a quick look at YouTube shows plenty of news bulletins and videos highlighting the Monster issue and warning against consuming high-energy drinks. There’s been no proactive response from the company as yet.
The ultimate price
This story is set to run and run and is likely to attract more families claiming that they too have lost a loved one from consuming energy drinks. Monster needs to be proactive and think strategically not tactically. Putting the consumer ahead of profit will literally pay dividends in the end.
My advice to Monster is if it wants to come out of this crisis with its business intact, it must put its customers first and react to concerns. Failure to do so could see the company pay the ultimate price. Monster could, if brave and bold enough, turn this crisis into an opportunity.
Elisabeth Lewis-Jones is CEO of Liquid, an integrated communications consultancy with offices in Birmingham, Guernsey, Jersey and London. She was president of the CIPR in 2008, chairman of the PRCA Council in 2011/12 and is recognised as one of the leading crisis PR practitioners in the UK (PR Week).
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