Earlier this week, an important lesson in media training and crisis management unfolded on Twitter. On the Friday episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi made unfortunate comments that sent the internet into frenzy.
Answering a question about whether men and women eat chips differently, Nooyi said there’s indeed a difference. She said,
“Male consumers, they love their Doritos, and they lick their fingers with great glee, and women don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And, they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth.”
This promoted the Podcast host to ask if PepsiCo is “playing with” a male or female version of chips, she replied,
“It’s not a male and female as much as ‘are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently?’ And yes, we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon.”
Not much happened immediately after the episode aired until the British tabloid, The Sun published a misleading story claiming, “Doritos to launch crisps for WOMEN because they don’t like crunching loudly or licking their fingers, boss reveals.” By Monday, #LadyDoritos was trending on Twitter and Facebook with women lambasting Doritos and PepsiCo for perpetuating sexist stereotypes, being out of touch with reality and tone deaf.
So, what happened here and what lessons can we learn from this?
While media typically isn’t out to get you, keep in mind they will use everything you say, so choosing your words carefully is one of the most important rules of media training.
The fact is Nooyi didn’t announce a line of Lady Doritos, but that’s irrelevant as her remarks put Doritos in direct context next to her comment about looking at snack products for women that are designed and packaged differently than those for men. Most companies aren’t foolish enough to market something to women in such a way as recent attempts have shown what a PR disaster they can create. Pen maker Bic learned this the hard way when the internet descended on their pens called Bic for Her via snarky Amazon reviews and the subsequent media coverage. Automaker Seat and Cosmopolitan found themselves in a similar situation two years ago when they announced a car made just for women.
The underlying issue those examples exemplify is how brands failed to notice the obvious problem with telling women a specific product is made for them and that it’s different (and often more expensive) than a similar product designed for men.
PepsiCo’s fallout could’ve been avoided had Nooyi been more conscious about how her answers could spark the headlines they ultimately did. It is one thing to market a product specifically to women but another to outright say so. It shows a certain level of distrust in their own market research and brand design and messaging skills if the product has to be labeled “for women.” Especially in light of the current conversation around equality, such practices put you at the center of a sexism debate without considering how much Nooyi’s comments play into the notion that women are expected to be quiet, neat and lady-like.
It’s is good practice to be vague when speaking about unannounced products or internal research. While she said, “looking at it,” she also used language that seems to announce a product by saying “we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon.” That’s very definitive language and should be avoided when speaking about something that isn’t meant to be public yet.
It is up to us, as PR professionals, to prepare our clients for situations like these and train them to use precise language in order to avoid misleading statements that can be used against them. It is also up to us to spot these in interview situations and proactively mitigate the issue. Whoever staffed the interview (and you should always staff interviews) should have caught the potential issue, especially after the interviewer pushed for more. Nooyi’s description of how women do and don’t like to eat their chips should raise every PR professional’s red flags. We are trained to spot the impending doom hiding in off-the-cuff remarks like hers.
For live recordings there are limited options on how to handle the situation. I’ve always found it good practice to stay within your client’s line of sight so that you are able to signal them when you spot a potential issue. You can even agree upon a fixed set of signals to trigger a process, such as moving on to the next question, wrapping it up or clarifying your last comment.
At the very least, if you’re aware of the looming threat, you can prepare a statement that should be published at the earliest sign of trouble.
While PepsiCo did try to curb the situation by disputing the report, it didn’t do so until Monday evening, at which point not only was the Twitterverse on fire with the story but other media outlets picked it up as well. When you’re playing chase with your responses, you’re not in the driver’s seat.