A Different Take On Peloton’s PR

Our crisis management consultants share their takeaways from this outrage outbreak

You’ve undoubtedly already seen coverage related to Peloton, maker of high end exercise bikes and treadmills, becoming the first brand to draw the internet’s ire in the 2019 holiday season. While pundits have been furiously drawing lines in the sand for debates over whether the brand truly made an offensive ad or the real offense is how furiously social media users eat up any opportunity to become outraged today, we have a bit of a different take. In fact, we won’t be revealing whether we thought the ad was A-OK or awfully offensive at all because, well, that’s not really what this blog is about. Instead, let’s talk about something we hold near and dear – crisis management! Of course if you haven’t seen the ad yet, take a peek:

What struck me in reading about the fallout from this ad was that it seemed so…predictable. As with most high end products, the folks at Peloton clearly know their brand and they know their customer base. What they also should have known is that some people wouldn’t love the ad they were creating. After all, in a time when topics like body image and sexism are often triggers for intense debate, wouldn’t it be wise for any brand in the fitness industry to analyze their communications through the lense of someone with strong feelings about those issues?

While some might say the answer is to never put out any communication with potential to create offense I tend to disagree. Obviously you don’t deliberately attack or inflame with the things you put out, but as the old adage goes, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” If you want to share your message in a way that truly speaks to the intended recipients but also has a chance to ruffle some feathers then you need two things first:

  1. An acute awareness that you’re likely to spark a bit of “outrage”, and;
  2. A plan for how to communicate about the situation.

Ideally you would understand what groups like internet advocates might be upset about and have your response ready in advance to avoid looking like you’re scrambling for answers that will fit. I’m not talking an apology necessarily, but an having an explanation at least your own stakeholders can accept in your back pocket is a must. In Peloton’s case, CEO John Foley appeared in front of investors just days after the initial burst of online criticism. If you were fully aware of the potential for outrage then you would also know that investors would be concerned about viral negativity, and if there was a plan for how to talk about it then there should have been some simple, reassuring responses to questions about the ad and concurrent drop in stock price. Perhaps something close to what Peloton had released as an official statement, something like, “We wanted to celebrate the fitness and wellness journey so many of our customers share. While we regret that we missed the mark for some we’re always learning, and we’re encouraged to find new ways to celebrate that journey in the future.”  Instead, Foley told reporters “That was last week.” and attempted to force the story onward while ink from the initial round of coverage was barely drying on the page. While we understand the thinking (and more than that, the personal desire to move on to more positive topics!) behind that tactic, it’s hard to deny that it’s not the most confidence-inspiring move.

The ability to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes is priceless to crisis management. Before you launch that hot new ad campaign, before you send out that mass email to customers, before you make major internal changes stop and think…is this sending the message we intended, and how might people be upset by or misinterpret what we’re about to do? You’ll never be able to avoid 100% of criticism, especially when we’re talking online, but by determining the most likely avenues for outrage in advance you can prepare to counteract it and thus reduce the chances of a serious distaste for your communications growing into a lingering and costly negative issue.

Erik Bernstein

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