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Subway’s PR dilemma: should “innocent until proven guilty” apply when brand equity is at stake?

by | Jul 15, 2015 | Public Relations, Social Media

It was a virtual certainty that Subway would suspend its relationship with Jared Fogle after police seized computers from his Indiana home as part of an investigation into child pornography. The privately held company had to take this action—and quickly—to preserve the integrity of its brand.

But suspending—or ending—a relationship with your human spokesperson doesn’t necessarily mean that individual is guilty, or even that you think he is guilty. It means you’re looking out for your reputation. It means you cannot afford to be connected to controversy or police activity when your franchises depend on masses of consumers – families in many cases – to buy its foot-longs.  If the investigation had involved a Ponzi scheme or a bar fight, any prudent company would make the same move.  This case just happens to involve a taboo crime that most of civilized society cannot abide.

I wouldn’t even say Subway’s action is disloyal. The sandwich chain’s statement said it was a “mutual” agreement. Yes, many times that’s corporate-speak for “You’re fired!”  But I suspect in this case it is truthful.  Jared has been a living, breathing, dieting symbol of the chain long enough to know that his personal life is a reflection of the brand, and as such must be held up to a high standard.  I’d like to think he proactively offered to resign his role before his cell phone started to ring.

It’s important to note that having your electronic equipment seized as part of an ongoing investigation doesn’t equate to guilt. It has been widely reported that the executive director of Fogle’s charitable organization, Russell Taylor, was arrested this spring after authorities found 400 pornographic photos and videos in his home, many of which he produced. In a sweeping police investigation, it’s inevitable that many contacts, especially your boss and anyone you likely communicated with on a regular basis, would come under scrutiny. I’m not standing up and proclaiming Jared is innocent, but in the absence of facts, and criminal charges, there are many reasons his home and computer could’ve been swept. The media says he has been fully cooperative.

Unfortunately for Jared, even if he comes out of this squeaky clean, this is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. It’s a safe bet his days as Subway spokesman are behind him. The company will be moving on, with no ill will. At a time when your brand is your chief currency, that’s as it should be.

Guest contributor, Gary Frisch is president of Swordfish Communications, a public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J.

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Gary Frisch
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. He is also the author of “Strike Four,” a novel about minor league baseball. Visit the firm online at Swordfish Communications.

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