Labatt Beers Learn Social Media Lessons The Hard Way.

If your business involves a certain amount of PR work or social media marketing, here’s a question for you.

How do you respond when a photograph depicting your brand is inadvertently associated with a criminal investigation? Do you come out with all guns blazing and threaten legal action, or do you simply keep quiet and accept that sometimes the less said, the soonest mended? Well, if you are Labatt Beers you tell the world about your sense of injustice. Unfortunately, the Canadian beer brewer soon discovered that in the digital world, legal threats can often do more damage than a photograph ever could.

Get on the wrong side of the Twitterati, and you’ll reap the consequences.

The trouble ‘brewed’ when a photograph of accused killer Luka Magnotta was published in the Montreal Gazette. The photo showed Magnotta clearly holding a bottle of Labatt’s Blue beer. The photograph it was claimed was taken shortly after he had allegedly killed and dismembered the body of a Chinese exchange student. Labatt Breweries took offence at the picture in the paper, and threatened to sue the Gazette unless it took down the photograph immediately, claiming that the negative association would be disastrous for the brand. In a letter to the paper, Labatt’s counsel, Karyn Sullivan, wrote:

“As I am sure you can understand, this image is highly denigrating to our brand, and we are disturbed that this image remains on your site despite repeated requests and the many images available of this person.”

All would probably have been well had the story not been picked up on Twitter.

Within hours the story had trended, and that’s when the real backlash began. Journalists and members of the Twitter community jumped on the story and began to ask questions and mock the brand’s overzealous and unnecessary concern. Followers questioned why anyone would in all seriousness ever associate a respected beer brand with the killer. Parallels were drawn with the O J Simpson PR fiasco, where he was seen driving a Ford Bronco in the infamous police chase. Admittedly both were high profile crimes that were associated with big name brands. However, there was one fundamental difference: O J Simpson’s car chase was screened live on TV to a nation. The picture in question only appeared in one city newspaper, and was effectively just one picture amongst hundreds that were seen in the media.

Cultural associations and media depiction can have a significant effect on brand’s reputation, but at the end of the day a sense of proportion is needed. Hopefully Labatt Breweries will have now learned that in the world of social media marketing, overreaction is generally met with an equal overreaction. Better to bite your tongue and let the storm blow over.

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