2/19/2020 Update: Five months after the ordeal started, Busch still has yet to donate the committed amount according to The Gazette.
Two roads diverged in a Hawkeye-yellow wood, and Busch Beer will be sorry they traveled the wrong one. It’s a monumental communications blunder destined to go down in PR history. Days after dubbing local Iowan, Carson King, a “Legend,” donating 350k to an Iowa children’s hospital, Busch Beer severed ties with him reminiscent of a junior high break up. Their knee jerk reaction, fueled by emotions and zero critical thinking was met with unparalleled anger from Iowans.
In case you missed it, Busch Beer, Iowa’s favorite canned beer, hit the PR motherload when King held up a sign on nationally televised College Gameday, asking for people to Venmo him beer money. To his surprise, people donated, prompting him to pledge the money to Stead Children’s Hospital at the University of Iowa. And that’s when Busch Beer hit gold.
Busch Beer and Venmo both offered to match donations, and before long, King crossed the one million dollar mark. Busch ended up committing $350,000, also offering to deliver a year’s supply of beer with “Iowa Legend” under a depiction of King—and then the gates of communications hell broke loose.
Busch Beer Cuts Ties With Carson King
At the peak of Iowa’s best feel-good story since the Iowa Wave, King called a press-conference apologizing for Tweets he wrote when he was a child. He explained a reporter from The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper (to which I’ve contributed), found “racist tweets” in a “routine background check” as they were writing a profile. It was then announced Busch Beer had cut ties with King. That single reaction proved detrimental.
Busch Beer Lights $350,000 on fire.
As if their corn syrup debacle wasn’t enough, Busch Beer watched the entire state of Iowa turn on them in one of the most spectacular brand debacles most of us will see in our lifetime.
Busch Beer began deleting all tweets referencing Carson King as Iowan’s began digging through the brand’s past, intent on holding the brand to the same standards they apparently held King to. It didn’t take long.
By morning Iowans found not only past seemingly racist ads from Busch Beer’s parent company, Anheuser Busch, but they also found the company had sponsored the very programming and content King had referenced in his tweet, Tosh.0.
Venmo Takes The Path Less Traveled
Venmo saw the exact same scenario, but their path diverged as they re-affirmed their support for King. “Our intent has never changed, and we continue to honor our pledge to support the patients, families and staff members of the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics,” Venmo affirmed.
Venmo chose to wait and understand the facts, instead of reacting like a hormone-driven junior high kid. They chose to stay beside their fund-raising partner regardless of what people might think. The moral high-ground paid off.
Support for King and the children’s hospital continues to rise, with donations expected to cross 2 million dollars. And now, not only is Busch Beer still on the hook for this 350k donation, but they’re now on the outside looking in, failing to benefit from the very PR success they created. A sincere apology to King is the only way they can stop the bleeding.
A Lesson Learned
The negative publicity around this Carson King event rests solely on the executives at Busch. While I certainly applaud how quickly they jumped on the trend, I don’t applaud their awful handling of the situation when the news first leaked of King’s tweets.
Instead of throwing someone under the bus so quickly, they should have immediately acknowledged the news, maintained their donation status, and communicated they were connecting with King to better understand what happened and get all the facts—but they didn’t. They reacted with little information.
Consumers are remarkably forgiving when you admit fault, so it’s not necessary to change course immediately. What is necessary is to communicate the steps you’re taking as fast as possible. No one expects immediate answers, they expect you to acknowledge the situation and commit to getting the right information.
Two roads diverged, and their emotions got the better of them. That has made all the difference.