3 PR lessons from Blue Bell’s massive ice cream recall

The ice cream company was damaged by its recall crisis, but it also had tons of support from die-hard fans. Here’s why.

The mercury is rising, and Texas is heading into summer without its brand of ice cream. No, we won’t get Ben and Jerry’s. That’s not our brand. Our brand is Blue Bell, and we don’t have any, thanks to an outbreak of Listeria.

Not to be flip about the seriousness of the situation. Many people fell seriously, some fatally, ill with the strong strain of foodborne bacteria.

How in the world do this many people care so much about a brand that made people sick? Why does Blue Bell enjoy such brand loyalty even though they’ve had issues with this exact problem since 2013?

Every time a large company experiences a public crisis, it has an opportunity to make it right or make a complete mess of the situation. Time will tell what happens to Texas’ favorite maker of ice cream and memories, but one thing’s for sure: We can learn a whole lot about PR from what has happened. Here are three PR lessons we’ve gleaned from Blue Bell’s national recall.

1. Do It yourself.

There’s a huge difference between a voluntary recall and a mandatory recall. While many argue that its executives should have known sooner, Blue Bell did the right thing by pulling all of its products from stores because investigators couldn’t ensure they were safe. If the FDA had to do that for them, there might not be as much hullabaloo from fans about supporting the brand.

Own your mistakes and right your wrongs before someone does it for you.

2. Build an army.

In Texas, Blue Bell is the treat of choice for family reunions, church barbecues and everything in between. If you’re celebrating, you’re doing so with a scoop of the brand’s homemade vanilla on your apple pie.

When the company announced their recall, people lost their minds. Posts on Facebook underscored the humorous frustration folks in the South had when their beloved Blue Bell went missing.

People also took to the streets and their front lawns with protest signs such as the “Come and Take It” one pictured above. Fans were up in arms and ready to defend the company to anyone who criticized its handling of the situation. Heck, even Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale jumped into the fray.

Blue Bell has a loyal army of fans, one it’s built through years of outreach.

3. No deposit, no return.

A brand is like a bank account. If you make a lot of good will deposits, you’ll have plenty in the bank when you have to make a withdrawal. Blue Bell has made a lot of deposits over the years.

The company has donated ice cream to charity events and sponsored worthy causes. It’s the good, old-fashioned form of corporate social responsibility that existed before that was a common bit of business lingo. The company has a legacy of over 100 years of service to the community and has created many warm, fuzzy moments with the people that buy its products.

This is the reason people are wearing shirts, putting out yard signs and talking to reporters about how they can’t wait until their favorite flavors return to shelves. Can you imagine anyone doing that for Gap or Wells Fargo? Didn’t think so.

For companies today, it’s not enough to be responsive in the midst of a crisis. It’s about building a community before things get out of hand and doing the right thing when everything goes sideways. Maybe Blue Bell will recover from this. Maybe it won’t. Eithr way, we can all use these PR lessons to plan better for next time. A version of this article originally appeared on the Black Sheep Agency’s blog. (Image via)

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