In what’s certainly in the running for strangest headline so far this year, the manufacturer of the sleep aid Ambien issued a statement last week denying any claims that its product "causes racism." The headline read: “Racism is not a known side effect of Ambien.”
If you are unaware of the surrounding context, that statement might read like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch about the laundry list of potential side-effects of certain prescription drugs. But, no, it was an actual headline based on a statement in response to Roseanne Barr’s “defense” of the tweet that got her eponymous hit sitcom canceled last week.
Barr started her PR crisis response by vowing to stay off Twitter. That lasted a few hours.
Soon, she was back, tweeting out apologies and calling her comments “unforgivable” while asking her fans not to defend the comments. In the middle of all that, though, she was re-tweeting comments from fans complaining to ABC about the cancellation of the show. At some point, probably with humorous intent, she dropped the “explanation.” “It was two in the morning… I was Ambien tweeting…”
There have been some “interesting” reports of certain experiences people have had while taking Ambien, and the drug’s maker, Sanofi, has been careful to list precautions and side effects — including nausea, impaired vision, cramps, disorientation, and anxiety — but none of those come close to the Twitter equivalent of “drunk dialing.”
Many of Roseanne’s critics pounced on the excuse the TV star offered, while Ambien’s PR team was left crafting a serious, though clearly tongue-in-cheek response: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication…”
That statement proved far too enticing for most media outlets to pass up, taking the whole Roseanne debacle well into a fresh news cycle.
Later, the comedian amended her comment, saying: “I am to blame, not Ambien.”
While the series of tweets and PR statements proved to offer a little bit of levity and gave Roseanne an opportunity to point a little self-effacing humor back at herself in the face of withering criticism, the incident once again served to highlight the speed at which stories can be created, shifted, or influenced through social media, especially on a platform as “immediate” as Twitter.
It’s easy — and likely true — to assume both Roseanne and Sanofi tweeted with humor underlying their intent, but the sheer speed at which those comments became headlines and filled column inches in news publications and content for radio and TV hosts should be a lesson to anyone interested in maintaining control of the PR narrative and messaging around their brand.
Lose attention for the briefest of moments, and your story could quickly spin out of your control.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent public relations Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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