Subway’s spokesperson crisis: PR experts weigh in

Reaction mixed to the chain's response to the investigation and brand implications

Rebecca Harris July 09, 2015

Jared Fogle

Former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle

Jared Fogle’s weight-loss story made him a celebrity, and it made Subway a lot of dough. But their relationship came crashing down after the longtime spokesperson’s home was raided by the FBI earlier this week.

On Twitter, Subway said the raid might be linked to the arrest of a former Jared Foundation employee. That person is the former director of the Jared Foundation, Russell Taylor, who was arrested in a child pornography case earlier this year.

A few hours after its initial response, Subway said it was suspending its relationship with Fogle.

Marketing asked PR experts to weigh in on Subway’s response to the Jared situation and how it may impact the brand.

 

Martin Waxman, president, Martin Waxman Communications

First of all, I want to stress the situation with Subway and Jared Fogle is an issue right now and not a crisis. It could become a crisis or it could fade away. That depends on a lot of ‘what ifs’ including what the investigation uncovers and the court of public perception. Right now, it’s important Subway monitor and stay on top of the story and they seem to be doing that.

Their response was quick with a holding statement that demonstrates the company is aware of the situation and is monitoring it. As a first course of action, they suspended their relationship with the spokesperson, leaving the door a little ways open. That gives them time to make a final decision based on the outcome of the investigation and it could go either way.

Celebrity or spokesperson scandals aren’t new – we just hear about them loudly and more often because of social media. The BBC did a good look back at scandals through the ages and you can see they’ve been a way for media to attract readers for a long time.

Whenever a company works with a big personality, there’s always a danger that something could go awry. That’s why brands should do their homework and make sure they have a good idea of what they’re getting into, each side understands the other, there’s a good cultural fit and they have enough confidence to build a foundation of trust. Then, you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open and have a contingency plan.

I believe Subway’s smartest strategy is the one they’re pursuing: a wait-and-see approach. With the speed of social media, it’s easy to make snap judgments. They need to stay on top of the situation and continue to monitor it. Ultimately they will have to decide if they want to continue to work with Jared, with whom they’ve had a long and successful relationship, and I’m sure they’ll be spending a lot of time weighing their options.

 

Carol Levine, CEO and co-founder, Energi PR

In the social media world, minutes can seem like an eternity. Followers on Twitter were practically begging for a response, and when none was forthcoming, people formulated their own opinions. There was no upside to Subway speculating on why the raid was taking place and by stating that it may be linked to the arrest of Taylor two months prior, they reinforced the connection to child pornography and Jared’s potential involvement in it.

Part of our training as PR professionals, at least when I started out, was to define how any given initiative or tactic can hurt a client as much as help them. I have found this element of negative thinking to be a valued strategic imperative in counselling clients. Subway needs to take a page from other companies’ marketing handbooks, and work with a variety of spokespeople on targeted initiatives. Keeping the brand fresh is every bit as important as product innovation – two areas where Subway could have paid more attention.

There is no question the Subway brand will be tarnished by this crisis – and most especially if criminal charges are forthcoming. Any connection to the exploitation of children is beyond reproach from a customer perspective. Due to their close relationship, which is only in suspension, the company’s reputation is entangled in his.

My advice for Subway? Think Fresh and move on. Sever your ties to Jared Fogle. Be clear on your position of zero tolerance, understanding that customers are families for the most part, who will make the decision with their wallets. Stay true to the brand voice; it should become more about the food and how it is produced, where its grown, recipes on healthy eating, stay fit challenges on social media, endorsements from credible associations like Heart and Stroke and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Time heals all wounds and long-term implications will hinge on how seriously Subway handles this going forward. Subway needs to retake ownership of its brand and define what the company stands for. If it can do this effectively, it should be able to repair the damage and move on.

 

Stephen Murdoch, VP, Public Relations, Enterprise Canada

Subway has a PR crisis on its hands and it cannot play ostrich when it comes to a crisis of this magnitude.

Once it was announced the FBI was conducting a search of Jared Fogle’s home, social media platforms were abuzz with rumours and innuendo. I thought Subway was slow to respond. It certainly took some time for them to craft a statement, and the fact that it took three hours to suspend ties with Jared tells me they were trying to figure out what they should do.

In the long run, Subway’s affiliation with America’s favourite symbol of weight loss shouldn’t hurt its brand and reputation. If nothing else, this has been a hard lesson for Subway and other organizations that utilize celebrity endorsements—it comes with a risk.

Looking ahead, you don’t want to get out there and do too much and seem disingenuous. That being said, you cannot go silent. Through their social media platforms and the dissemination of media collateral to traditional media outlets, Subway needs to stay ahead of the story. If and when possible, provide updates.

As a means of offsetting the negative publicity, Subway must be honest and forthcoming. Internally, Subway needs to undertake a formal analysis of what they did right, what they can fix and how they can improve elements of crisis preparedness.

 

Daniel Tisch, CEO, Argyle Public Relationships

While Subway’s response was less than swift and sure-footed, it was the right one. Suspending the relationship by mutual consent shows that both corporation and spokesman recognize the seriousness of the investigation, without rushing to judgment.

For brands, some of the greatest reputational risks lie in negative perceptions of character and values – and anything less than a total repudiation of any suspicion could be toxic for Jared Fogle’s personal brand. For Subway, however, unlike a corporate ethics scandal, this is not something that most reasonable people would say its management could have foreseen.

The bigger lesson is the risk of investing too much equity in a single spokesperson – be it a CEO, expert or satisfied customer. That is why we often recommend developing a stable of spokespeople who can resonate with different publics.

Subway’s brand is bigger than Jared alone. This dark cloud may present an opportunity to chart a new course in the quick-service restaurant category, in which others have stolen its healthy-eating thunder. Subway’s best move may be to use this as an opportunity for a brand refresh, with product or service innovations, new faces and new voices.