PR Gone Loko

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    Popular drink maker’s poor crisis communications could be its downfall

    You would think one of the nation’s largest independent PR firms would know better than to argue with a reporter, but when Edelman PR, which represents Phusion Projects, makers of the controversial caffeinated alcoholic drink Four Loko, contacted the writers of a Seattle Weekly blog asking them to change the wording of a post, they only provided fodder for another damaging post. Here’s the full exchange, from the Seattle Weekly:

    The flack took issue with Caleb’s statement that Four Loko “has the alcoholic equivalent of five or six caffeinated beers.” (No objection was made to his describing the drink as tasting like “Thor’s piss.”) Said Edelman:

    This statement is not correct…Please remove this error from the online version of your story and please use the correct information from the materials we provided.

    We looked at the materials provided, which said a can of Four Loko is 12 percent alcohol by volume. Well, that’s almost three times the abv of a can of PBR. And a can of Four Loko, at 23 ounces, is roughly twice the size. So that works out to five or six beers’ worth of alcohol per can.

    But hey, we’re always open to a second check of our math. OK, we replied, How many beers would you say a can of Four Loko is equal to?

    It depends on the beer–domestics or the high-end crafts or imports.

    How about an “average beer”?

    What’s an average beer? A Bud or a craft /Euro beer with considerably higher alcohol content by volume?

    Given that your typical Phusion Projects customer isn’t likely to be choosing between Four Loko and a Grolsch, this response seemed evasive to the point of silliness.

    Indeed, the Edelman representative insisted that wine was the better analogy, as if the Four Loko customer might opt for a light Pinot instead.

    A can of Four Loko is equal to about 2 glasses of wine.

    But even that’s complete horseshit. Yes, Four Loko has about the same alcohol by volume as your average wine. But your typical serving of wine is about 5 ounces. Which means there’s actually close to five glasses of wine in a can of Four Loko.

    Behavior like that of the Edelman representative is what earned PR professionals the unsavory nickname, “spin doctors.” At this point, Phusion Projects is facing criticism of its drink purely for its physical dangers, but by attempting to muddy the facts about their client’s products, Edelman is actually laying the foundation for another crisis. With several high-visibility hospitalizations in the past weeks being attributed to Four Loko, Phusion Projects would be better off acknowledging the possible problems and publicly working with officials to find a solution.

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    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management
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    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. , an international crisis management consultancy, and author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training.]