A whole lot can happen out of the Blue.
That slogan never rang truer – or further from its original intent – than it did this week as an attempt by Labatt Breweries of Canada to control its image turned into a public relations nightmare.
On Tuesday, a story on the Globe and Mail website reported that the company threatened to sue the Montreal Gazette unless the newspaper took down a photo of suspected killer Luka Magnotta posing with one of its flagship products.
In the photo retrieved from his Facebook page, Mr. Magnotta poses with a bottle of Labatt Blue. The product is front and centre in the image with its label and logo clearly visible. In its letters to the Gazette, Labatt's legal counsel argued the picture is "denigrating to our brand" and repeatedly requested its removal, threatening to pursue "legal avenues if required" if the newspaper did not comply.
After the Globe story was published, widespread criticism of Labatt broke out on social media. The company was criticized for drawing more attention to the image than it would have garnered on its own.
And then the matter took on a life of its own, as Twitter users spawned a series of tasteless jokes and fake advertising slogans linking the beer to the gruesome crime.
Mr. Magnotta was arrested in Berlin on Monday after a week-long international hunt. He's accused of killing Chinese student Lin Jun in Montreal, dismembering his corpse and mailing body parts to the offices of Canadian political parties.
The Facebook photo represents a worst-case-scenario version of a struggle marketers contend with every day: the loss of control over their brand images. With social media use on the rise, companies cannot control what people say about them or how their products are portrayed. Media outlets increasingly turn to social networks such as Facebook to piece together the image of a suspect in a crime. In an extreme case such as this one, brands are in danger of becoming collateral damage – even if that damage pales in comparison to the larger story.
However, Labatt exacerbated the damage by threatening legal action against the newspaper, said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.
"Anything that's on any kind of social media gets escalated immediately," he said. "You've probably got a multiple of 10 times the people who saw it originally, and they're now sending it to 10 other people. So you have this geometric escalation."
Following hours of criticism on Tuesday afternoon, Labatt released a statement saying it had dropped the matter.
"Our goal was simply to protect our brand. Given the serious nature of the underlying story, we decided it was important to request that an alternate photo be used," said Labatt's vice-president of corporate affairs, Charlie Angelakos. "Once the Gazette explained their position, we promptly thanked them for their response, dropped the matter and we will not be following up further. We accept the Gazette's position."
Brands need to think carefully about when they use their lawyers to handle a matter such as this and when they turn instead to their public relations team, said Janice Mandel, president of Toronto-based String Communications and former head of corporate affairs for Procter & Gamble Canada.
"For PR and law to work effectively together, it is helpful for lawyers to understand how a story can gather steam, whether it's in the media, or on Twitter or Facebook – particularly as an issue or crisis is unfolding," Ms. Mandel said.
"Now even more people know that Luka Magnotta drank Labatt Blue. This is not the outcome they were looking for."
However, as quickly as a crisis can break out in the digital world, attention spans have also become shorter. The question for Labatt now is whether the negativity over this story will last.
It's not the first time a tragic news story has had implications for brands. Last September, French fashion brand Lacoste objected publicly to killer Anders Behring Breivik wearing its clothing to court appearances. According to reports, the company wrote to Norwegian police, asking that he be prevented from wearing a Lacoste sweater during appearances linked to his shooting spree that left 69 people dead.
Even when a product becomes associated with the victim in a crime, and not with the alleged perpetrator, brands are extremely sensitive about being thrust into the spotlight because of a news story. Earlier this year, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida made headlines. After reports indicated the young man was unarmed and carrying a bag of Skittles he had bought at a store, crowds protesting for justice in the case began using the candy as a prop. Many hoisted bags of Skittles in the air during demonstrations.
Mars Inc. subsidiary The Wrigley Co., which makes Skittles, was cautious to stay out of the media attention surrounding the case and the attendant protests, even though the product was largely used as a symbol of innocence.
In response to requests for comment, in March the company replied in a statement that it was "saddened" by the news and expressed condolences to Mr. Martin's family and friends.
Because beer is a highly image-driven product, stories like this may have more impact on consumers' perceptions of Blue than they realize, Mr. Middleton said. For that reason, the smartest strategy may be for Labatt to keep as quiet as possible. Companies are in "the learning stage" when it comes to dealing with crises on social media, he said.
"It's the inexperience of marketers who used to deal with a command and control media structure …. we've shifted to an environment where you don't control it," he said. "You can influence it, but you can't control it."
With files from Steve Ladurantaye
WHAT THEY TWEETED
Some of the tamer comments on Twitter using the hashtag #newlabatt campaign, which was also used to make tasteless jokes linking the beer to Mr. Magnotta's crime:
@blm849: The sad thing about the #newlabattcampaign is that the Legal team likely caused the mess and now the PR team will have to clean it up.
@Scott_Gilmore Marketing students should pay attention to #newlabattcampaign. Great case study on damage control gone horribly wrong.
@michellezarowny: Ok, Labatt, we'll all pretend that this incident is the real reason no one drinks your beer. #NewLabattCampaign