So Long, Sucker City

Back in August, Circuit City ordered all copies of Mad Magazine removed from all their stores that sold magazine (only 40 of 700) because of this spoof:

Initial reactions around the Web at the time concluded it was an embarassing moment for Circuit City, especially after laying off senior employees in 2007 attracted criticism. That was my opinion at the time, too, and I bet both the departing and remaining employees were unhappy. I should know: I’ve been through a couple of job-eliminations.

But Circuit City recovered. While I was vacationing in Ukraine and Romania in late August, the “Sucker City” story became a public relations case study. Via PR News (registration required):

The Crisis
On August 4th an operations employee at Circuit City noticed that the current issue of Mad Magazine, sold in select Circuit City stores, had a parody in it called “Sucker City.” She didn’t find the parody funny, so she sent out the following note.
Consumerist.com, a popular and well-traveled consumer complaint site, got a hold of this e-mail and posted it on their Web site.

From: Elizabeth Barron, Corporate Operations
Approved message.

Immediately remove all issues and copies of “Mad Magazine” from your sales floor. Destroy all copies and throw them away. They are not inventoried, and your store will not incur shrink.

Thank you for your immediate attention to this!

One page of the parody was available on Mad’s Web site as a preview to induce you to go buy the issue. By trying to suppress the parody that would have otherwise languished in an issue, the objection increased its exposure. This is affectionately referred to as the “Streisand Effect,” so named for Barbra Streisand’s campaign to take photos of her house off the Internet. Her campaign has had the unintended result of disseminating those photos even further by giving them more notoriety.

The Circuit City story had two sides: tiny-classic-humor-magazine-past-its-prime versus big-dumb-retailer. Because both sides had been defined (as a result of the leaked internal memo), the chatterati began their work in earnest. As you can see from the timeline above, over one hundred blogs and Web sites picked up the story in the first 24 hours.

The Reaction
Jim Babb of Circuit City’s communications team first heard about the Sunday night story through e-mail. “The issue came to my attention first thing Monday morning. Someone sent me an e-mail about the posting on Consumerist.com, but I probably would have spotted it on my own pretty quickly.” Jim and his boss, Bill Cimino, quickly drafted a response specifically intending to incorporate the humor necessary for the context.

Getting it approved is a different task, and required going to executives higher than themselves. “Bill […] helped me get on executive radar quickly. There was immediate agreement that we needed to respond not only quickly, but also in a manner befitting the subject matter. That quick access and approval made all the difference in responding.”

Here’s the response they sent to Consumerist’s editor Ben Popken, which was posted Monday afternoon about 24 hours after the original Consumerist story broke:

Hi, Ben,
I spotted the article about Circuit City and MAD Magazine on your site.

fyi, I became aware of this “situation” only this morning, and I have sent a note today to the Editors of MAD Magazine.

Speaking as “an embarrassed corporate PR Guy,” I apologized for the fact that some overly sensitive souls at our corporate headquarters ordered the removal of the August issue of MAD Magazine from our stores. Please keep in mind that only 40 of our 700 stores sell magazines at all.

The parody of our newspaper ad in the August MAD was very clever. Most of us at Circuit City share a rich sense of humor and irony…but there are occasional temporary lapses.
We apologize for the knee-jerk reaction, and have issued a retraction order; the affected stores are being directed to put the magazines back on sale.

As a gesture of our apology and deep respect for the folks at MAD Magazine, we are creating a cross-departmental task force to study the importance of humor in the corporate workplace and expect the resulting Powerpoint presentation to top out at least 300 pages, chock full of charts, graphs and company action plans.

In addition, I have offered to send the MAD Magazine Editor a $20.00 Circuit City Gift Card, toward the purchase of a Nintendo Wii….if he can find one!

All the best,
Jim Babb
Corporate Communications
Circuit City Stores, Inc.
Richmond, VA

Editor Popken then added his pithy summary of why he thought this was such a good response. These points should be drilled into PR people daily as advice for handling reputational crises such as this one:

1. Admit you were wrong
2. Stop doing the wrong thing
3. Make a material gesture of apology

Circuit City got their response out as fast as possible, but not fast enough to catch an Associated Press story that hit the wires and was automatically published on hundreds of news Web sites across the Internet. Over the next 24 hours, the Associated Press would update their story with Circuit City’s clever apology, but it would be picked up by an additional 100+ Web sites in the process.

Analysis and Lessons Learned
Given that this kerfuffle didn’t actually touch the core values of Circuit City, some communications professionals might have suggested that this would blow over quickly enough. “I knew immediately there was no upside in taking on Alfred E. Neuman” said Circuit City’s Babb. “Beyond the obvious ‘this cannot be ignored’ element, the situation frankly called out for immediate action to correct the original mistake. We responded quickly because it was the right thing to do, and because it made sense from a PR point of view.”

By intervening and correcting the overly thin-skinned order of another employee, Circuit City sought to change the tone and direction of the coverage to come. By the time they saw it, there was no way to stop the media and the blogosphere from talking about it, so Circuit City’s efforts could only slant the coverage in a positive manner and hopefully let the story die as fast as possible.

By resolving the conflict and providing a sufficient mea culpa, they helped the story go away as quickly as possible. You can see from the graph above that it worked, and the story died within 36 hours.

Note that, at about the same time the apology letter was published on Consumerist.com, the Associated Press put a story about this on the wires. This is awful, as AP immediately promotes the issue from “online kerfuffle bandied about the blogosphere” to “light sarcasm for mainstream media.” It’s the perfect story to make your audience laugh while poking fun at a large retailer that nobody is likely to defend. You can see from the next-day spike of television, newspaper, and radio station Web sites that the AP article gave the story an enormous follow-on audience. This is partially due to the fact that so many media Web sites simply run AP stories without much review.

However, the apology does seem to have resolved the issue, ending any further interest from reporters or the public in the story. It quickly dies one day later. The smartest thing Circuit City could do is to cease discussing it any further.

What should you learn from this?

Monitor the net for your brand: If you don’t have a formal monitoring system in place for your brand that would notify you within 12 hours of a high profile complaint, you need to get one immediately in place. You can’t do it manually, and why would you want to? Many services scan the Net and send you e-mail once a day (or more often) for not a lot of money. “We normally check out the environment with the usual Google & Yahoo searches,” said Circuit City’s Babb, “but we also have a search engine that crawls the Web and sends us Circuit City references that it picks up.”

Remember the three lessons from Consumerist.com: As the editor of Consumerist recommended: Admit what you did. Stop doing it. And apologize in a material way for it. Circuit City’s response covered all three of these bases. They admitted making a dumb move, ordered the magazines put back in stores, and offered a gift card to the editor of MAD.

Keep a sense of humor: Perhaps most important, Circuit City recognized what their Operations employee didn’t: Some things about Circuit City are ripe for satire—a characteristic that sets Circuit City apart from roughly zero other companies out there. And they appropriately responded with sincerity and self-deferential humor rather than PR jargon. The new “cross-departmental task force” is arguably as clever as anything in the MAD spread that originally started all this.

Well now they’re shutting down and liquidating, sucker. Does this change the case study’s conclusion?

My experience with Circuit City was OK, but not all good. Recently, I vowed never to shop at Best Buy again (15% restocking fee did it for me).

Best experiences from national chains includes Radio Shack, but if UPS can ship it, online is the way to go. Face the future.

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