Which fail is better: Poland Spring’s silence or the real-time tweet from McDonald’s?

Posted on May 14, 2013 6:54 am by | Crisis Communication | Marketing | Twitter

Rubio's Poland Spring MomentLast week, while attending a conference where I was the opening keynoter, I was interviewed by a reporter for one of the local TV affiliates. I saw the resulting story (which also featured other conference speakers, notably Lee Odden). I was struck by a comment the reporter made in during the segment. He called U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s awkward off-camera grab for a bottle of Poland Spring Water “a miss” for the brand because they didn’t capitalize on it.

The lack of a real-time missive from Poland Spring Water was widely criticized when it occurred in February. C|Net proclaimed that Poland Spring blows Rubio #watergate moment, fails Twitter 101. A day-and-a-half after Rubio’s GOP response to the president’s State of the Union address, Poland Spring posted an image to its Facebook page of a bottle of its water looking at itself in the mirror. The caption: “Reflecting on our cameo. What a night!” The Huffington Post proclaimed that Poland Spring Finally Responds and characterized the lack of engagement as a “failure to seize on the Rubio meme.” Marketwatch said Poland Spring fumbled its Rubio moment and FastCompany said the Poland Spring “botched” a product placement meme.

And that’s just a small sampling of the heat Poland Spring took for not saying anything. That kind of pressure could lead marketers to develop an itchy trigger finger. After all, who wants to be accused of missing an opportunity when his brand suddenly and unexpectedly makes an appearance in a breaking news story? Especially when real-time marketing has been hailed as the future of marketing?

Knowing they might have been subject to a piling-on to ignore an overt reference in much viewed news reports, McDonald’s may have felt compelled to comment when Charles Ramsey said he was eating McDonald’s when he heard screams from next door, leading him to kick in the door panel leading to Amanda Berry’s escape from the Cleveland home where she and two others were allegedly held hostage for a decade. The verified McDonald’s Twitter account featured this missive:

The initial flurry of reports of McDonald’s tweets were generally positive, simply noting that McDonald’s had been quick to jump on the story. But things rapidly went south from there. First were the grumblings that the burger chain was capitalizing on a tragedy. No matter how sincere the sentiment, or the person who decided to send it, injecting itself into a story like this will always include a subtext. People will always see ignoble motivations, like one retweet that read, “REALLY??? cause he was eating $MCD Corporate whores!”

Charles Ramsey: Hero?But it gets worse. As news reports continued to emerge, it turned out Ramsey had a rap sheet of his own; he served time for domestic violence, burglary and drug possession. Next came word that it might have been another neighbor—Angel Cordero—who claims he actually aided in Berry’s rescue; Ramsey actually showed up afterward. But Ramsey spoke English, which the TV journalists preferred to Cordero’s Spanish-only accounts

Some are even suggesting that McDonald’s helped shift the focus from the seriousness of the story to a more comical racial stereotype. Slate’s Aisha Harris objected to the perception Ramsey perpetuated of the “hilarious black neighbor.”

Now, McDonald’s is staying mum about the whole thing other than to say they’ll do as the tweet promised: reach out to Ramsey one-on-one.

Of course, none of this would be an issue if McDonald’s had just opted to say nothing. Which brings us back to Poland Spring. Remember that Sen. Rubio’s gaffe occurred while he was delivering the Republican party’s response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Would a quick response have angered Republicans? Or Democrats? Is it worth alienating half your customer base in order to get a quick marketing hit? (Poland Spring reportedly saw a bump in sales as a result of the meme without uttering a single word.)

All those who are twitching to jump on brands that don’t deploy real-time content whenever their logo or name finds itself the subject of attention need to shut up. Not succumbing to the pressure to issue real-time marketing is not a fail—at least, not necessarily. Undoubtedly, the same voices that were quick to slam Poland Spring would have chastised McDonald’s if they hadn’t responded. McDonald’s now undoubtedly wishes they hadn’t.

There will be plenty of real-time opportunities to be clever and quick without risking your company’s reputation. But when dealing with news that bears even a whiff of sensitivity, think long and hard before giving in to the pressure of the shiny-object crowd to do something Right. This. Minute.

It’s your job that depends on it, not theirs.



  • 1.Bravo, Shel. I love your whole take on this imbecilic and dangerous newsjacking fad.

    David Murray | May 2013 | Chicago

  • 2.At this point, is anyone other than Oreo doing anything successful on Twitter?

    Scott Miller | May 2013 | United States

  • 3.Two places it's best to keep marketing out of: Politics and Tragedies.
    It's hubris that anyone criticized Poland Spring for not exploiting Marco Rubio.

    Robert Moss | May 2013 | United States

  • 4.My favorite : the last three paragraphs of this article, as they echo my own opinion.


    Meagan Healy | May 2013 | MD

  • 5.It all revolves around comprehensive environmental scanning. Current events do provide opportunities to deploy real-time content, however a situational analysis should be conducted. Some basic background research might have prevented McDonald's questionable tweet.

    Charles Meaodws | May 2013

  • 6.You are so right. Thanks for injecting a dose of sanity.

    Steve Singer | May 2013 | US

  • 7.Judgement - and that can only be made by a 'thinking' human - another great story Shel

    Stella de Vulder | May 2013 | Sydney, Australia

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