Need Reputation Management? Don’t call SCDP

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Rebecca Maas.

Mad menI like to think that if I were a 1960’s chief marketing officer in need of an ad agency, I’d hire the team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I appreciate, and relate to, their scrappiness. Their creative director is a self-made legend. The work isn’t too shabby, either. But If I were the head of public relations and was called upon by my executive team to manage a crisis of reputation, I’d go elsewhere.

For those who missed Sunday night’s episode of AMC’s hit, Mad Men, here is a quick recap (sorry, space allows for industry-related highlights only. If you want to know if Don is still cheating on Megan, click here. Or, just take a wild guess.):

SCDP client Dow Chemical is in a firestorm of negative publicity thanks to its position as sole provider of napalm to the U.S. government. The chemical compound is used to drop napalm bombs on North Vietnam, aligning the company with war efforts and making Dow incredibly unpopular, particularly with anti-war groups.  The clients turn to the SCDP team for help. Harry Crane, the (formerly likable) agency’s TV department head, offers a solution: sponsor a Joe Namath variety show, “Broadway Joe on Broadway,” with other entertainment heavy-hitters including Juliette Prowse and Joey Heatherton. Good news for Harry: despite the fact that this pitch is completely devoid of strategy and won’t actually alleviate the media’s attacks on Dow, the clients give the green light right then and there. Mr. Crane also lands himself a fat commission.

Those of us who have helped clients through crisis and reputation management issues can tell you right off the bat that this sweet little TV special ain’t gonna solve Dow’s image meltdown. There are three main reasons why:

1.      Broadway and Joe Namath don’t address the issue at hand for the media regarding Dow. Airing this special will not cause newspaper and other reporters to forget about Dow’s government contract. The one thing Harry Crane got right is that there is an opportunity for the company to be in primetime in a positive way. But attempting to fool people into associating Dow with fluffy content instead of napalm bombs is a huge risk. 

2.      The major protesters of Dow, and drivers of media coverage, are college students. Where are college students hanging out in the evenings? Not in front of a TV, looking to catch primetime musical specials. Instead, they are out drinking, smoking grass and planning their next sit-in. The primary audience that Dow wants to see this special actually won’t. Instead, the viewers will consist of housewives who likely already think positively of Dow, thanks to its other products like Saran Wrap and Scrubbing Bubbles.

3.      The wrong agency provided the wrong counsel. SCDP produces great creative and brand strategy for Dow Chemical. They’re not, however, the right team to advise the brand on how to handle this crisis. The result? Dow wrote a check for $150k – almost a million in today’s dollars. Had they gone to their PR team, the amount on that check would have likely been much less and the results a lot stronger.

I’ve spent some time criticizing Harry and his crack SCDP team, so I feel obliged to offer up some counsel of my own. Let’s assume SCDP was an integrated communications agency and had a PR department. I’d quote my esteemed colleague Don Draper and tell the Dow client: let’s change the conversation. I’d take it a step further, though, and instead of offering a misaligned strategy, I would recommend we create goodwill by talking instead about the positive impact Dow delivers to both customer and community, including those who are currently protesting. As mentioned above, Dow produces tons of other products that are way less offensive than napalm. Let’s focus there, and mobilize the fans of those products to drive positive buzz for the company. I’d also suggest we get the CEO on a media tour, having him (it’s the ‘60s so, yes, him) sit down with major players in the press. Prepare him for those tough questions because they’ll absolutely be asked. And if we want to be bold? Send him to some of these anti-war protests and sit-ins; have him make conversation with these students and change their perception of Dow Chemical. 

This episode brilliantly, if briefly, depicts a scenario we sometimes see across the industry: a brand runs into some trouble and a paid media Band-Aid is swiftly applied, with hope that it’s enough to distract us from their issue. The smart brands, though, flex their PR muscle and address the issue head-on. It may not be Joe Namath, but it’s a solution that shines brighter than all the lights on Broadway. 

3 thoughts on “Need Reputation Management? Don’t call SCDP

  1. Thanks, Laura. The Dow story line was overshadowed by Don’s womanizing and Joan’s sassiness but still a fun bit to analyze for show fans who double as communications pros.

  2. Thanks, Laura. The Dow story line is minimal compared to Don’s womanizing and Joan’s sassiness, but it’s still worth watching.

  3. Great post, Rebecca. It’s interesting to see the shortcomings of working with an agency that is only strong in one area. For SDCP, it’s obviously advertising (and maybe “how not to be faithful to your significant other”), but not reputation management/PR. I haven’t seen the latest episode yet, so I can’t wait to see how it plays out in the episode.