I was as disgusted as everyone else by the news that former Subway spokesguy Jared Fogle pled guilty to child pornography charges, including paying for sex with two minor girls. Looking at this through the prism of public relations, this development either potentially vindicates Subway for severing ties with him when they did last month, tightens the noose around a once wildly liked brand, or both.
When Fogle became wrapped up in the investigation into child porn by the head of his children’s charity, I wrote here that Subway did the only appropriate thing given the toxicity of the crime. Where business and brand image is concerned, the legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty” does not—nor should it—apply. In the absence of other information, the company chose to “mutually suspend” its relationship with its weight-loss emblem.
The news of charges, the guilty plea and the release of the salacious details proves the chain was entirely correct in distancing itself, and this incident should serve as a case study for other corporations using fallible human beings in their marketing efforts.
On the other hand, this whole affair could leave as bad a taste on Subway as smothering your turkey foot-long with anchovies. Already, a relative who’d read my past columns emailed me as soon as the news broke, saying he’s never eating at Subway again.
That kind of response is understandable. Even if there’s no smoking gun revealing the company knew some damning information before the police raided Fogle’s Indiana home, a certain percentage of hoagie lovers will forever associate the brand with a convicted pedophile. They and others might question why Subway didn’t cut ties in May, when the charity’s executive, Russell Taylor, was initially arrested. It’s a reasonable question. Still others will just assume the company knew Fogle was a hot potato and chose greed over morality, keeping a tight lid on the information to avoid the very maelstrom it now finds itself in.
If, however, Subway is never directly tied to foreknowledge of Fogle’s activities, the privately-held franchisor should be able to move forward and retain its market share after a short-term hiccup. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can hear the huzzah’s coming from the C-suite and legal department as a result of their July decision to cut Jared loose, guilt or innocence be damned. A popular spokesperson (although some question exactly how popular Jared ever was) is no match against even a whiff of pedophilia.
The company’s single-line comment, tweeted on Tuesday, “We have already ended our relationship with Jared and have no further comment,” was terse, and had it been the only response, would’ve been less than satisfactory when trying to assuage angry consumers. Fortunately, Subway on Wednesday tweeted this statement:
“Jared Fogle’s actions are inexcusable and do not represent our brand’s values.”
That’s a little better, and much more human, although I always wince when I read something written like that, as it implies there is some company out there for whom child pornography is in line with its core values.
There’s an opportunity here for Subway to show indignity, that it was victimized by Jared along with the public, stands by its earlier decision to end the relationship, and is moving on. Obviously, every hint of Jared should be—and probably already has been—removed from corporate history. For a partnership that spanned 16 years, that is no small feat, but if anyone can find a Jared commercial or print ad from an official Subway source anywhere online, the company has failed.
I’m not as certain the chain should make a massive donation to a charity to protect children, since that could be perceived as some admission of guilt. But it has earned significant profits on the back of its disgraced pitchman, and would be well-served by ratcheting up its corporate giving efforts across the board, long-term, to children’s charities and other, unrelated organizations.
Barring any new information, by continuing to look toward the future and maintaining the quality and strategies that have made it the world’s fastest-growing restaurant franchise, Subway might just be able to put its Jared past firmly in the rear-view mirror.
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.