February 16, 2020

Viral Happens…Best to Make a Plan

When developing any public relations campaign, implementing the four-step public relations process (RPIE) of research (analysis of the situation), planning (goal/objective setting), implementation (execution and communication) and evaluation is always a best practice as well as emphasizing measurable goals and outcomes. During this process, businesses and organizations may turn to their public relations team and “request” a viral video or promotion. At this point, it is your turn to manage expectations.

By its very nature, a calculated viral anything is improbable. Viral events, promotions and videos happen organically, and they usually equal chaos, whether good or bad, no matter your intentions. But what happens when the improbable becomes a reality? Should you plan as if your next promotion will go viral?

In terms of public relations, viral can equal a need for crisis communications. So, it is critical for public relations professionals to take the lead in anticipating issues or challenges with any promotion or campaign, prepare and plan for those possible contingencies, and provide counsel to the executive team.

Let’s take a look at what happened recently for Build-A-Bear who wanted to boost the number of their loyal reward members by offering a national promotion where you could “pay your age” for a bear. So, for your 5-year-old child, you could purchase a bear for $5. This sounds great, right? It turned out not so great for customers who waited on line for hours at Build-A-Bear locations across the nation and were turned away due to an inability to provide the service. As the day unfolded, there was little to no effective communication internally to employees on what to do about long lines and the inability to serve customers. There was also a lack of communications coming out from Build-a-Bear to its reward customers. Only as an afterthought, corporate decided to release $15 vouchers for those customers who waited on line that day and didn’t get a bear. However, this was after this epic campaign failure was out of control, the social media backlash was in high gear, customers were outraged, and the damage was done to this otherwise fun and family-friendly brand. All in the course of one day.

Anticipation and strategic thinking in any public relations campaign plan is crucial. If we promise something, can we deliver? What is this going to look like for sales and operations? What could go right, and what could go wrong in the delivery of that promise? How will we be communicating with staff and customers in either contingency? Are we preparing employees so that they are confident in delivering the promise?

Identify your key publics and establish how you will communicate with them in the early stages of developing the plan. Which groups or subgroups (internally and/or externally) do you need to communicate with? What do they need to know? Who needs to be involved? Who will be affected? It goes without saying that you need to do research with your customers and analyze market data, but have you considered doing research with internal stakeholders who will need to support and help you execute the plan?

Don’t just present formulated plans and a list of tasks or requirements to sales, operations or other internal teams. Start gathering information and working with these stakeholders early on in the research phase – even before planning begins. You will be able to build more realistic and measurable goals and objectives for the campaign or promotion.

At Build-A-Bear, decisions may have been made at such a high level that store managers were not able to offer their experience or insight into the planning of the promotion. With a fuller understanding of day-to-day operations and how employees interact with customers, this campaign may have been planned differently and issues may have been identified which could have shaped a more positive experience for customers on the day of the event.

As this event crossed from promotion into a need for crisis communications management, it became apparent that there was no crisis communication plan in place either. Every business or organization should have a crisis communications plan, whether you are publicly traded like Build-A-Bear or not. This would have enabled executives to have pivoted more efficiently and effectively addressing and managing the crisis as it unfolded.

A week later, Build-A-Bear started doing damage control for their brand with a Today show appearance and the formulation of a Count Your Candles program which is a more controlled way of rolling out the “pay your age” concept.  If research had been properly conducted with both internal and external stakeholders prior to planning, issues with the original concept may have been identified and addressed.

No matter the nature of your business, organization, products or services, carefully going through RPIE is a best practice. May your next campaign be successful and viral. But remember to anticipate and strategize like it will get out of control or be a complete flop.


By Patricia Vernon/Director, Communications, FPRA Gainesville Chapter

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