Managing Self-Made PR Crisis Situations

A perfect lesson for PR folks presented itself, and many other people, just before April Fool’s Day. On March 30th, Pollution Probe, a leading Canadian environmental organization, sent 350 packages to businesses in Toronto, Ontario. The packages were supposed to promote an annual event called the “Clean Air Commute.” But the air was blue when the packages were opened.Inside the packages, along with promotional material, were transparent canisters filled with gray powder. The powder sparked fears at three businesses that they had received a toxic substance. Buildings were evacuated. Some employees were “decontaminated.” Pollution Probe got national press. I counted hits from across the country in print and broadcast media. And in Toronto, they pretty much shut down part of downtown.

The group apologized for the event and the consequences, and by now, the story has dropped out of the media’s eye.

We can learn some lessons from this. Sometimes, a PR campaign gone wrong can offer an opportunity to advance your goals, turning a problem into an opportunity.

First, the marketing company that developed the packages was asleep at the switch. During the week before, a toxic materials scare in Toronto left people nervous. And there have been several similar incidents recently. In that context, anything out of the ordinary would raise suspicions.

The marketing company should have adjusted their PR campaign to take the environment into account. Instead, they assumed what had worked in the past would work again.

When the chaos began, a representative of the company told the Canadian press that this should not have been a problem because they clearly marked the material non-toxic. Would a real nut-case label a dangerous substance as such?

Perhaps the marketing company could have sent out a cover letter in advance of the package mailout giving companies a heads-up.

Lesson One: when planning public relations or marketing initiatives, an environmental scan is absolutely necessary. Do not do what has been done in the past just because it has worked.

To their credit, Pollution Probe was quick off the mark to apologize fully and publicly for the inconvenience. In fact, they’ve posted the apology on their website, with pictures of the packages to illustrate what was sent out. That’s a good move. But Pollution Probe could have actually capitalized on this bit of bad public relations. They could have waived the registration fees for companies who were affected by the incident, or even asked them to become flagship participants in their annual event.

Imagine a CEO from a company that was affected by this going public with a PR pitch along the lines of, “Hey — we got this package, and it ruined our afternoon. But air pollution can ruin people’s lives and the environment they live in. We’re taking part in the Clean Air Commute for Pollution Probe, and you should too.”

Lesson Two: Don’t just apologize for your mistakes — capitalize on them. Like a martial arts master, use a point of weakness or imbalance as an opportunity to make a move. If your company’s profile is raised in the public’s eye, even for a shmozzle, you may as well try to take advantage of it.

This article, written by Bob LeDrew, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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