Crisis communication and celebrity scandals.

Who suffered the most serious setbacks in 2021?

Brand crisis: Żabka and Frogshoposting

A cascade of embarrassment – this is the most fitting description of the series of events that unfolded before our very eyes between the Żabka grocery chain and the Frogshoposting social media profile. In PR, we constantly repeat key slogans such as credibility, authenticity, and commitment. Nevertheless, this did not stop Żabka from running a campaign that was basically the social media equivalent of identity theft performed on one of their employees.

Their means of “inspiration” is hard to comprehend and even harder to explain. But once you’re called out, we all know it’s best to admit to your mistakes quickly, apologize, and make up for any damage. Żabka and the Cukier agency needed 3 days for this. In the meantime, the topic exploded, with other influencers and Żabka’s actual target group – young consumers – joining in all the buzz. Frogshoposting’s reach increased threefold in a matter of days, with its profile growing from 36k to 91.6k followers.

Once things got uncomfortably heated, Żabka and their agency issued a statement that was so clumsy (and paradoxical!) that it only served to escalate the crisis even further. It is basic PR knowledge that if you’re going to apologize, you better mean it. The Cukier agency apparently missed this life lesson. A disrespectful, seemingly “cool” statement and an invitation for Frogshoposting to reach out and contact them (with the e-mail address actually being included in the message) painted a picture of Żabka’s complete lack of respect for its cashiers. Social media were ablaze. One of the many reasons for this was that the company’s apology even misspelt Frogshoposting’s profile name. Both sides never reached an agreement as Viola Kowalska rejected any cooperation offers. Her account is no longer active today.

For Żabka, this was a complete waste of communication potential. The brand missed out on an excellent opportunity to reach its Gen Z customers. And while they can still make up for it, they will have to spend a lot more time and money. Plus, they now have to deal with the fact that this crisis will be dredged to the surface over and over again in the months to come. What’s more, the aftertaste of seeing how the grocery chain lousily treats its employees lingers still. It was clear that the company found this particular pill difficult to swallow; that a cashier was capable of creating valuable and engaging content. Żabka wanted to remain in control and decided that it wouldn’t cooperate with anyone from the very bottom of its chain of command. The company’s lack of respect for Viola Kowalska, also during said crisis, only made matters worse, and the proposal from Żabka’s Instagram team was pure mockery. Now that all has been said and done, the damage from this will stick with the Cukier agency the longest. They will remain in the aftermath of this case for a long time coming, as their most basic competences, i.e. their knowledge of Gen Z, have been seriously undermined.

Public figure crisis: Barbara Kurdej-Szatan

Barbara Kurdej-Szatan’s vulgar Twitter post about Poland’s border guards, which she made in a very emotional state, will have repercussions for the TV star for many months to come. For starters, the Basia we all know from Play telecom’s ads did try to shed a light on a very important matter – the deportation of defenseless migrant children – but ultimately turned out not to have anything concrete to say. Secondly, the backlash as a result of her actions was dealt swiftly – TVP removed her from its popular TV series “M jak Miłość”, and Play took down all of its ads with the star. In both cases, the effect are similar – a loss of income and a drop in fame, as Barbara is no longer present on people’s TV screens.

In the case of Play, this crisis coincided with a natural burnout of the company’s ad format, but now Barbara Kurdej-Szatan’s chances of being invited to the brand’s new communication platform are all the slimmer. Especially after journalists passed on the news to the company’s French bosses. Play is a major market player with many interests and points of contact with the public administration. And multinational corporations don’t like trouble, unless the controversy in question was deliberate.

We must remember that Barbara Kurdej-Szatan is not Maciej Stuhr, a veteran of worldview wars. In addition to his entertainment and theatrical activities, Stuhr is an outstanding actor and activist – his strong words are followed by deep content and real commitment. Stuhr’s audience have a love and hate relationship with the actor – and if they do love him, it’s for life. And this is what attracts advertisers, as any activity that Stuhr is involved in triggers real fan engagement. Maja Ostaszewska presents a similar set of personal brand attributes.

Meanwhile, Barbara Kurdej-Szatan plays in light, entertaining film productions, small theatres, and makes a living playing in ads and through product placement on Instagram. Many advertisers don’t want to be associated with a controversial figure as this can attract negative sentiment and create potential problems for their brands. And while this crisis does not necessarily mean that she has to kiss all advertising contracts goodbye, she will miss out on bigger deals for the next year or two. Having a brand ambassador who cannot control their emotions is too much of a wild card. Barbara Kurdej-Szatan will have to prove that she can be an emotionally balanced and likable public figure who doesn’t have a tendency for vulgar and impulsive outbursts. This isn’t a case against her support for refugees, but her unacceptable behavior in drawing attention to the cause.

Company crisis: Pandora Papers and InPost (Integer)

Rafał Brzóska is one of the most controversial figures in Polish big business. Adored by some for bold, maybe even edgy decisions, he’s also often strongly criticized by others. So when his name appeared in the international Pandora Papers investigation , it was sure to cause a crisis.

The Gazeta Wyborcza daily reported that the businessman transferred money to Cyprus through his network of companies to avoid paying taxes in Poland. The paper’s journalists seemed to have several strong arguments up their sleeve, namely 2,800 documents with the InPost CEO’s name that had been leaked in the Pandora Papers investigation. The scandal made headlines in Poland, was widely commented on and disseminated even further by other editorial offices. Additionally, the scope of the crisis was fueled by the fact that Gazeta Wyborcza mentioned Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Volodymyr Zelensky, Andrej Babiš and even Shakira among other high-profile people involved. The news spread like wildfire. It was taken up by all types of media, from economic websites to tabloids and gossip pages.

In response, Rafał Brzóska issued a long and surprising statement. He attacked Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial office and the credibility of its journalists: “I will not allow for irresponsible journalism and dishonesty to undermine the long-term efforts of people associated with Integer and InPost and infringe on their and my good name” – he said. And it turned out to be a home run.

Why was this so effective? First off, the sharpness of his message – bold words and an almost immediate reaction. The statement was made on the very same day that the findings were published, a few minutes before 11 p.m. Secondly, it contained factual evidence of the journalists’ incompetence. And it hit Gazeta Wyborcza’s  right where it hurts. “I would expect at least the most basic knowledge of law and international business relations from a journalist who writes about economic matters for such a serious newspaper.” Unfortunately, their knowledge did prove to be lacking, as were their control mechanisms at an editorial level. It did not help that the article referred to “experts for whom the subject of tax avoidance was so muddy that they preferred to remain anonymous,” which later turned out to be a statement that compromised the entirety of their allegations. In his crisis strategy, Rafał Brzóska decided that the best defense is a good offence and dove head first. The businessman made the statement via his own Twitter account, which gave him credibility and boosted the impact of his anti-crisis messaging. His counter statement was based on a diagram of five editorial errors made by Gazeta Wyborcza’s , which the InPost CEO proved to the public.

As a result, the narrative shifted and was now about what seemed like an unprovoked attack by Gazeta Wyborcza’s  on Integer. The lawsuit that followed against the daily newspaper’s editorial team was the perfect finishing touch.

The Business Centre Club, the Polish Business Council, Employers of Poland, and the Polish Economic Society all stood in Brzóska’s defense. It’s clear that his crisis management team put in a lot of work. However, the strongest gesture of support for InPost was made by the company’s investors – its stock value didn’t drop by an inch on the day of the publication, but actually increased by 0.3%! This just about shows what the market’s take was on Gazeta Wyborcza’s  findings.

After around two weeks of behind-the-scenes talks, the editorial office officially recognized its mistake and withdrew its allegations, previously touted as a ground-breaking journalistic investigation. Official apologies to the InPost CEO were made in print and online, however these were not signed by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, but… jointly by its editorial staff.

InPost’s mitigating actions focused on one key message – paying high taxes in Poland. Brzóska’s pitch was simple. He highlighted the amount of taxes paid by his companies: PLN 113 million in CIT for 2020 and PLN 94 million in the first half of 2021. As a culmination of the crisis, Forbes magazine published a triumphant interview with the InPost founder in which he pushed the company’s official narrative and positioned himself and his business as a rising star of the Polish economy. InPost was able to divert 100% of the attention it got as a result of the allegations and turn it into a convincing success story about the company and its operations.

This article was published by WirtualneMedia:

Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke
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