How to Avoid Tone Deaf PR: Learning From Colonial Williamsburg’s Mistaken Response to Super Bowl Ad Controversy

By on Friday, February 12, 2016

When the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation aired its first ever super Bowl ad ever in 2016, I’m sure the organization’s leadership hoped their effort would be met with widespread acclaim and praise. Instead, they faced a heap of criticism for showing a clip with the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, collapsing in reverse.

The foundation was in damage control within hours of the ad’s appearance, even issuing a defensive statement in the middle of the night after the game:

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Colonial Williamsburg released an extended online version of its advertisement through its various social media channels. The ad garnered thousands of likes and shares alongside hundreds of positive comments within the hour. Youtube reviews alone ran 10-1 in favor of the ad. Its popularity, and the discussion of the events depicted in the ad, led to the conversation “trending” on Facebook.

We understand and respect that some of the images depicted in the ad are jarring. However, the small data point of people who objected to some of the imagery in the ad does not represent the total viewership. Not even close. We have received an outpouring of support on social media for the ad and its simple, powerful message: All that is past is prologue. Our ad is meant to walk viewers backwards through time, challenging them to reflect on how our collective history and struggles shape who we are as Americans today. We cannot forget our sacrifices or our tragedies even as we celebrate our accomplishments. Colonial Williamsburg does not shy away from these difficult moments in our history because they have made us who we are just as surely as our many triumphs.

An ad doesn’t do its job if you have to explain it or defend it. The foundation called those who complained about the ad “the small data point of people.” That quote showed up in many media outlets, including the Washington Post. Clearly, the people running the foundation’s public relations operation were tone-deaf at best. Sometimes in PR, we have to give up on what we hoped would happen, and recognize the reality.

The foundation’s defensiveness of its own interpretation of history was evident in responses on Twitter to Saturday Night Live cast member  Taran Killam, documented on The Gothamist. Many newspapers in New York reported outrage, and the Roanoke Times editorial board even deemed the ad a “fumble.”

An edited version of the foundation’s statement now appears online. Organizers seem determined to paint an “overwhelmingly” positive picture of how the ad was received saying “the outpouring of support on social media sends a powerful message.”  This version notes that “YouTube reviews alone are running 10-1 in favor of the ad.”

But the truth was stranger than the fiction the foundation spun about the ad. Twitter erupted in negative comments, captured by USA Today and others. Of the 36 comments I reviewed on the foundation’s Facebook page post right after the Super Bowl, about 12, or a third, were negative.  A poll taken by found that 55% of those responding said the ad was offensive.

When I saw the ad during the Super Bowl, I thought of the families of those who died. My personal feeling is that 9/11 was a historic event of massive importance to our country, but the image of the tower falling was also the moment when thousands of people died. As such, the image deserves to be treated with sensitivity out of respect for those who died and for their families. There are ways to represent tragedy without showing the moment of death. Surely, if the foundation’ wanted to include 9/11 in the ad, they could have done it with a different image.

Instead of getting a public discussion about history and its role in making America what it is today, the foundation got an albatross. So if you ever stumble into controversy, how do you avoid the tone deaf response the foundation offered? Here’s a few tips:

Tip #1: Think before you speak. Good crisis PR practice is to respond quickly, but if your rapid response is not right, you can make the situation worse. Take the time needed, an hour, 2 hours, 12 hours – to get your response right – in words and in delivery tone. Both must be right.

Tip #2: Talk to real people. The “small data point” quote was surely one of the worst mistakes made by the foundation in its response. The language minimized and belittled the genuinely hurt feelings of those who were offended. A better response would have been to acknowledge the valid concerns of those who protested about the ad. Offer to talk with people and hear their concerns.

Tip #3: Don’t “spin” things as if they are more positive than they really are. The foundation used a talking point saying that the response to the ad on social media was “overwhelmingly” positive. This was untrue, just based on looking at the foundation’s own social media channels. The fact that the foundation kept saying how “positive” the response was, just make it look like the foundation was disingenuously trying to spin the story to its preferred version. Acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Tip #4: Apologize when you hurt people, instead of going on the defensive. If your actions as an organization have seriously hurt people’s feelings, the sky is probably not going to fall if you say sorry. A sincere apology can go a long way to making things better. Saying sorry early on, can go a long way to diffusing a negative story and prevent it from becoming a festering problem.

Talk to Us: What do you think about the Colonial Williamsburg ad? If your organization or business does something that offends others, how can you avoid a tone deaf response?

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. She blogs frequently about media relations, social media and work-family balance. She also reviews books on her blog. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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