3 PR lessons from Heineken’s bizarre dog-fighting crisis

Photos of a dogfight with prominent Heineken branding went viral. The beer maker has denied knowledge of the event, but that hasn’t stopped the criticism.


There’s crisis control, and then there’s the ordeal that Heineken is facing.

The beer maker has been slammed in traditional and social media since photos of a dogfight with prominent Heineken branding went viral.

Heineken has denied knowledge of the event, which apparently occurred at a Mongolian nightclub in 2011. Any sane person would realize right away that Heineken is probably not sponsoring dog fighting. But it wouldn’t be the Internet if everyone were of sound mind.

Naturally, the masses took to Heineken’s Facebook page to berate the company. What could it do? Blindsided by the photo, Heineken launched into action.

On Tuesday, Heineken posted twice to its Facebook page—first at 2:00 a.m. Central Time and again at 5:44 a.m. The company moved quickly to investigate and craft a response, which can be found on its website and its Facebook page.

Here are few lessons we can take from Heineken’s misfortune:

1. Expect the unexpected and create an escalation plan.

Part of the inherent risk in having a social media presence is that you’ve created a sounding board for the disgruntled. If you believe the Heineken press release (and I do), it was impossible to know that a photo existed of their branding at a dog fighting event. Therefore, it would have been impossible to plan an immediate response when the image went viral.

Social media managers can only create a solid response plan for the unexpected. Last week, Heineken could have listed 1,000 possible scenarios that it could potentially have to respond to, and it’s doubtful that the dog-fighting scenario would have come up.

What social media managers can do is teach clients and their managers and executives that these things are possible. They’re part of the risk you take on with social media. Decide who will be on the team that tackles the crisis and who has what type of responsibilities. In Heineken’s case, there was someone to identify the crisis, someone to craft an immediate response, someone to investigate what happened, and someone to craft a formal response. Then you have to get it all approved by legal and implement it. Knowing who has these responsibilities will expedite the process.

In a PR crisis like this, timing is everything. The faster you can respond, the faster the crisis dies down.

No one will be talking about this story next week. In that regard, Heineken has done a good job. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

2. Talk like a human.

Take a look at the immediate response Heineken put out on Tuesday:

“Heineken is aware of a shocking photo of what appears to be a dogfighting match in a foreign country with Heineken branding visible in the background. We’d like to thank the community for bringing this issue to our attention.

“We are as appalled by this image as you are and have asked the Heineken Global Office to immediately investigate the circumstances of this event and whether Heineken was involved in any way.

“If you have any further information regarding this picture, such as the source, or the venue where it was taken, please let us know in this thread.”

It’s not corporate speak. It doesn’t smack of a heavy legal hand approving the copy. It sounds like a human who is genuinely appalled by what happened and is getting to the bottom of it before making any claims before having all the facts.

I believe that if you’re not going to speak like a human in social media, you’re better off not participating.

3. Defend ’til the end!

There is room for improvement in Heineken’s response. The company stopped responding to people who post on its page. Users are still posting their messages of outrage, and Heineken’s page managers aren’t bothering to respond.

If I was handling this PR crisis, I would respond personally with a link to the formal letter, explaining to everyone that it wasn’t a Heineken-sanctioned event and the company had no hand in sponsoring it. When people come to the page to complain, they’ll see the responses to other people and they won’t bother posting themselves. That’s how you make these things go away quickly.

(Image via)

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