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Free pizza costing Chevron its public image

Everyone loves free pizza...right?
Everyone loves free pizza...right?

There's a country song from the 1980s: “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”

It's advice that the CEOs of major corporations should have taken to heart lately.

While the default "no comment" to scandal or disaster has long been out of vogue in public relations circles – a couple of recent corporate embarrassments have shown that top-level executives should at least take a little more time to think before they speak or act.

A viral campaign is circulating on social media to order a pizza from Chevron corporate offices on Monday, Feb. 24, in response to the CEO's attempt to make good with neighbors of a recent southwestern Pennsylvania gas explosion.

On Feb. 11, one Chevron employee was killed and another seriously injured when a natural gas well exploded in Greene County. The explosion sparked a fire that burned for four days, emitting gas and heat into the surrounding community.

In an apology letter that CEO John Watson sent out to about 100 nearby residents, he included a coupon for a free pizza and two-liter bottle of soda.

While most PR experts would say a sincere apology in the wake of an industrial accident is sound policy – what the heck does pizza have to do with a natural gas fire?

It's hard to imagine the logic that went into the offering. At some point, it must have seemed to the corporate management that some sort of peace offering would be appropriate. In reality, however, it seemed to the affected residents that someone in an ivory tower thought, "Hey, poor people like pizza. Let's send them pizza!"

While surely the intent wasn't to say a free pizza made up for the danger in which families were placed, the loss of life or the general inconvenience the entire incident created for the community, to many it came off that way.

It has long been a tradition to offer a peace offering to a wronged customer. If a consumer writes to, say, Frito-Lay, saying he bought a stale bag of Doritos, generally the company would respond by sending a coupon for a couple of free bags to make up for the problem.

But is that token of apology scalable to an entire community?

In the era of social media, people were quick to respond to what they viewed as a slap in the face to the coupon recipients.

"I truly believe that your company and your PR staff have had a psychotic break with reality and need to be relieved of your positions in life," wrote one poster on the Facebook event page created to inundate the company with pizza orders to shame the Watson for the act.

On Twitter, another person quipped, "I survived the Bobtown Chevron gas well explosion and all I got was this lousy pizza gift certificate."

If the company meant to engender good will, its actions had the opposite effect.

Watson was not alone in his moment of public relations shame. A number of other incidents illustrate where corporate leaders shouldn't have "gone there."

Earlier this month, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had to apologize after blaming changes to the company's retirement benefits to the higher cost associated with insuring "distressed babies" in the company's self-funded health insurance plan. His comments ignited a firestorm of backlash from employees, the media and the mothers of the referenced "distressed babies."

Over the holidays, the normally scandal-proof Target Corp. took a hit when it offered a 10-percent off discount-day to apologize for the problems caused when a hacker stole the personal information and credit card numbers of nearly 70 million customers.

While I took advantage of the discount with last-minute Christmas shopping, as did many, most people considered it a paltry response to an act that caused untold stress and significant time and effort for the millions of people that had to get new credit cards. (I had to replace the account number on nearly a dozen automatic payment accounts I have for utilities, cable and subscriptions, and I'm still not finished sorting out the issue.)

Certainly, the news that the company was investing $100 million in upgrading its credit card security system was more comforting to those who want to hear "this won't happen again" versus "here, save a nickel on socks."

So, while most people like pizza – and everybody loves a freebie – in the future, corporate communication teams need to think past the quick apology or excuse for a problem and think about how the offering will play out on social media in the minds of millions of people who could have thousands of different reactions to one simple gesture.

Think twice or that free pizza will cost you!

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