Over the course of a weekend, a winery went from being a beloved LA-institution, frequented by locals and tourists alike, to being shamed, boycotted and vilified. What could possibly spur such a shift in consumer sentiment?
Meet Stanley, Malibu Wine Safari’s de facto mascot and Instagram prop for most visitors. He even has his own Instagram account.
Concern for his safety arose during the horrendous 2018 California wildfires when Khloe Kardashian asserted that the winery did not evacuate Stanley or some of their other exotic animals on social media. Though Malibu Wines assured the public that Stanley was safe, pictures surfaced of Stanley in an encampment that had clearly made contact with fire. More celebrities jumped on the shame wagon and vehemently accused Malibu Wine Safari (MWS) of animal neglect and irresponsible emergency planning.
Whitney Cummings, comedian and animal activist, was unquestionably the most vocal and visited the Winery amidst the fire to report on Stanley’s state and assist in evacuation. Her live reporting on the status of the winery and emotional slams to the company no doubt contributed to a wave of social media lashback to the brand.
I won’t comment on the appropriateness or benefits of Cumming’s actions, but the result was:
1. Stanley and the rest of the animal crew made it safely through the fire
2. Malibu Winery’s reputation was destroyed over possibly sensationalized rumors.
While there is nothing better for a brand to do than have responsible emergency plans in place (in this case having an evacuation plan for it’s 80+ animals), what hurt the brand the most was their obvious lack of transparency. When MWS posted their first update on Stanley, after the safety accusations had circulated, they disabled comments. This was most likely a move to mitigate hate comments and trolling, but resulted in followers leaving horrible comments on prior posts with comments still enabled. No one likes to feel silenced, especially during a time of potential injustice, and disabling comments leaves the same taste in the mouth. While this could have been the death to MWS, following a trajectory similar to that of Sea World, their quick shift in strategy could help them survive.
In the past 24 hours, MWS posted 22 images and videos of the property, animals, food, etc. and enabled comments on some of their posts. MWS also called out the support of the Wildlife Way Station and America’s Teaching Zoo. By embracing potentially excessive transparency and aligning themselves with animal welfare organizations, MWS may have a chance at improving their evacuation planning and putting this PR nightmare behind them.
Malibu Wine Safari exemplifies that no brand is immune to or safe from public backlash. This is even the case if your brand is ‘innocent’ or ‘situationally misunderstood’. Jon Ronson writes about the outrage culture and its effects at length in his So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. This should be mandatory reading for everyone that has a Twitter account. For brands, it is immensley important to have a plan for how to handle public backlash, so that you’re not groping in the dark trying to nullify the press, while also solving the emergency that caused the outrage. This article is a great common sense resource for companies to to consult before a crisis. If you’re in marketing, pause and read that article now.
Above all, when caught in the crossfire, be transparent, be informative (not defensive) and humbly admit when you are wrong. We’ll continue to watch how Malibu Wine Safari continues to handle the literal and PR fire.