How a Small Brand Took Control of a Major PR Crisis

Posted on by Patty Odell

When a brand gets hurt by negative press, whether it’s a misstep by that brand or not, it can be challenging to return the brand to good health.

Nike has that problem at the moment as angry customers post Youtube videos of flaming Nike sneakers and call for boycotts in protest of Nike’s decision to pick Colin Paesternick as one of the faces of its 30th anniversary campaign for the “Let’s Do It” motto.

Nike is a behemoth with plenty of PR and crisis management teams to shepherd it though its latest spat with the world. It’s still painful, but Nike will likely come out the other side unscathed. But what about small brands that don’t have huge teams waiting to jump in close the wound.

The Red Hen
The Red Hen

Take the case of a small region in Kentucky that got hammered in June after an incident in a little known restaurant. A co-owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, refused to serve presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family because she works for President Trump. Huckabee tweeted about it the next day. The incident took root in the media and spread across the nation—and the globe. Thousands of nasty emails, phone calls and letters pumped in to the Rockbridge Regional Tourism office with many saying they would never come back to the area. Protesters came to town and marched and shouted outside the restaurant, The Red Hen, calling for a boycott. That scene also drew national coverage. The damage was done and tourism began to slide.

“For a town our size, it was a significant impact,” Patty Williams director of marketing for the tourism office told The Roanoke Times.


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With no PR and crisis teams to be had, a small number of members of the Rockbridge Regional Tourism office—which include Lexington, VA, where The Red Hen is located; Buena Vista, VA; and Rockbridge County—took matters into their own hands. They dipped into emergency funds to spend an additional $5,000 per month for marketing from July through September to try and attract more visitors.

The team deployed a smart, highly streamlined strategy to maximize every nickel in the budget:

1. Surveys: Perception surveys are being fielded in the top four markets to about 400 frequent travelers to find out if they had heard of The Red Hen incident and whether that would affect their travel to the region.
2. Digital: Based on the survey results, a digital campaign will spread positive messages with a sharp focus on Lexington.

Fighting an unexpected crisis can wreak havoc, particularly on small brands or marketers.  Using the surveys to take the temperature of travelers and their thoughts on The Red Hen incident offers key insights to feed the marketing content and messaging Williams and her team will rely on to get it right. Serving those messages through digital maximizes the small budget pulled from the emergency funds allowing the office to spread its messages as far and wide as possible. So while crisis can be self-inflicted or happenstance, every brand has the right aim for a comeback.

Good luck to the team.

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by Patty Odell

Damon Swenson, Brand Activation Manager at Dr Pepper, on crafting a retail program using custom labels tied to Millennials’ passion points and lifestyle interests like fashion, music and pop-culture. He presented his case study at Marketing to Millennials 2017.



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