It was just a simple contest. For Toys “R” Us, Inc., however, it turned into a public relations nightmare.
The toy retailer started off 2007 in ugly fashion after a contest to award the first baby born in 2007 a $25,000 United States savings bond went awry amid charges of xenophobia and racism. The company smartly did an about-face, but will consumers be forgiving?
It all started moments after the calendar turned and welcomed January 1, 2007. Yuki Lin was born “at the stroke of midnight” at New York Downtown Hospital, according to The New York Times, securing her title as the First American Baby Born in 2007. Hospital administrators had filed the proper paperwork with Toys “R” Us to make sure that the child was eligible for the prize. Unfortunately, no one bothered to read the entire set of rules.
Yuki, Toys “R” Us said, was not eligible for the prize because her mother is not a legal resident of the United States. It mattered not that Yuki is an American resident (by law, if you’re born here, you’re a citizen); Toys “R” Us said rules are rules, and that Yuki could not claim the prize. Instead, a baby born in Georgia, to U.S. citizens, was awarded the savings bond, and Yuki got a $100 gift basket as a consolation prize.
Enter the media.
The World-Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper, published a story about Yuki’s missed opportunity. Albert H. Wang, a corporate lawyer, read the story and launched an email campaign to get the word out. Organizations representing Chinese-Americans and Chinese-American businesses lent their vocal support. Then the English-language media called. And then the bloggers chimed in.
Compounding matters for Toys “R” Us was the fact that the company had, just two weeks earlier, opened its first store in China.
“They want business from China,” Wang said, smartly noting that most toys on the company’s shelves are made by Chinese workers in China. “But when it comes to this Chinese-American U.S. citizen, she was deprived of $25,000 intended to be used for her college education, because of who her parents are.”
Toys “R” Us held their ground initially.
“In working with New York Downtown Hospital to verify the potential winner’s information and obtain a signed affidavit of eligibility – which is required under the official rules of the sweepstakes – the sweepstakes administrator was informed that the mother of the baby born at New York Downtown Hospital was not a legal resident of the United States,” a spokesperson for the company told The New York Times, noting that it’s common for contest rules to specify that winners be legal residents.
The tide of negative attention ended up being too much for Toys “R” Us. One day after the story became national news, the retailer decided to award Yuki, the baby in Georgia, and another baby born on Long Island to parents from El Salvador, each with a $25,000 savings bond. The three babies, due to the fact they were all born around the same time, had been finalists in a drawing that Yuki initially won.
“We love all babies,” Toys “R” Us said in a statement. “We deeply regret that this sweepstakes became a point of controversy. As a result, we have decided to award all three babies in the grand prize pool a $25,000 savings bond.”
For now, the world seems mollified.
Did Toys “R” Us screw up? Well, yes and no.
For starters, Toy “R” Us created and promoted a contest in good faith. The idea behind the contest was not just harmless, but a good public relations opportunity to show that the company cares about education. Rules were posted and people entered the contest.
Next, when Toys “R” Us was ready to award the prize in the contest, the company did what any contest promoter would do it investigated to ensure that the rules were abided by. In this case, the company found out the supposed winner was not eligible. As a result, another eligible contestant was awarded the prize. And, while a $100 gift basket in lieu of a $25,000 savings bond could be considered insulting, the simple fact is that Toys “R” Us was under no obligation to award Yuki anything.
Later, when it became apparent that Toys “R” Us was a in a no-win situation, the company quickly retreated, awarding prizes to the three finalists, and supposedly making everyone happy.
All in all, Toys “R” Us handled the controversy quite well. The company responded to the media instead of hiding from it. Its public statements were on point and when the company capitulated to public pressure, it apologized quickly and ended the matter agreeably.
Toys “R” Us’ lone error was in the contest rules themselves. The rules stipulated that the mother of the baby must be a legal resident, which makes sense in most cases because a minor usually cannot accept large awards or gifts (or enter contests) without parental approval. In this case, however, Toys “R” Us got caught up in the oddity of U.S. law. Yuki is a citizen now, but her parents are not.
There are some important lessons to learn from this controversy.
First, if your company is running a contest, it is best for someone to play devil’s advocate and explore every conceivable angle to a controversy resulting from the contest. Sweepstakes and contests are purely promotional, and public relations people normally play a role in helping to market and promote the contest. As such, they should be aware of the rules, and the potential publicity dangers involved with the contests.
For example, imagine being the PR person for a video website that launches a contest calling for the wackiest home videos. Would it occur to you that some kids may engage in dangerous behavior in an effort to make a winning video? Or, what about someone stealing a video from another website and presenting it as their own? Lawyers are supposed to think about this stuff, but so should PR people.
Second, when you’ve done nothing wrong, don’t admit to anything. Again, I believe that Toys “R” Us did nothing wrong. The company was simply following the contest rules, those pesky things lawyers come up with. In their minds, Yuki was simply ineligible to win. Would they have been better-served awarding Yuki and the other babies the prize from the get-go? Of course, but what’s the point of having rules for a contest for being the First Born Baby if you’re going to give out prizes to everyone? What happens to the baby who missed out by three seconds? Thus, when Toys “R” Us stood its ground, the company acted appropriately.
Third, stay on point. The controversy was over Toys “R” Us not awarding Yuki the savings bond. Yuki’s activists were smart to bring the company’s expansion into China into the conversation, but Toys “R” Us was smarter to avoid the topic.
Fourth, when you can’t win, apologize, make reparations and get out of Dodge. Toys “R” Us ended most of the negative PR onslaught with a simple solution and a simple statement. In most cases, this will suffice, and only the blowhards will continue spewing hot air.
Last, recognize that you never know what you’re getting yourself into. Toys “R” Us suddenly found itself in the midst of a controversy regarding immigration, something the company most likely does not want to take a public stance about. It would have taken an honest-to-goodness psychic to even come up with this potential problem ahead of time, but again, it’s important to take a cautious approach to anything with a publicity-seeking motive.
I don’t believe that Toys “R” Us will suffer any long-term damage due to this issue, though it will probably linger over the company’s head for a few more weeks. What’s important is that we learn from Toys “R” Us’ mistake – whether they really made one or not.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.