Unpacking Krispy Kreme’s free donut debacle: Turns out exacerbating a pandemic is bad PR

Krispy Kreme is licking its wounds today after a free donut promotion to celebrate its 83rd birthday went awry, with customers swarming stores in Victoria and NSW – flying in the face of COVID-19 restrictions.

The multinational baked goods retailer thought it would be a good idea to encourage customers to come to its stores in droves this week, despite outstanding public health warnings about large group gatherings.

Thirty stores across the country were to host the promotion, including three stores in Melbourne, where a second wave of coronavirus infections has seen a second round of stage three restrictions imposed.

Then the predictable happened: by midday Monday so many customers had flocked to Krispy Kreme’s contactless drive-throughs that reports began to emerge about traffic being disrupted.

The drama peaked when police were forced to shut down one location in North Melbourne because so many people showed up to claim their donuts, available to anyone who had a birthday between mid-March and mid-July.

Up north in NSW, police were deployed to patrol the stores, a use of public resources that wasn’t winning Krispy Kreme any fans among law enforcement, or customers on social media.

“You guys should get shut down, not only creating a dangerous environment in VIC but also creating traffic issues all over. Sydney traffic is being affected and people aren’t able to go about their normal shopping or get to and from work,” one social media user lambasted.

Funnily enough, the business had another buy one get one free promotion planned for later this week, but perhaps reading the room, that has now been cancelled.

Public relations expert Phoebe Netto of Pure Public Relations tells SmartCompany the Krispy Kreme debacle could have been avoided all together, had the company thought through the implications properly.

“We all know that it is not business as usual, but so many businesses are still not seeing necessary change filter through to every aspect of their business. We are living in a pandemic and toeing the line is irresponsible and dangerous, but also bad for business,” Netto says.

“Business promotions, marketing campaigns and media relations can still go ahead – but they must look different now,” Netto says.

“During any form of turmoil, people’s emotions are a lot more raw, their sensitivities are heightened, they are less forgiving, and they have much higher expectations of brands, businesses and their leaders.

“During this time, marketing and PR professionals need to seriously up the ante across every message they’re putting out. Simply throwing business promotions, social media campaigns, and marketing initiatives out there and hoping they will work, isn’t the way to go about it.”

Netto says businesses risk damaging their businesses in ways that are difficult to repair if there’s a perception that they’ve contributed to potential problems, and in this case the issue is about as big as it gets.

“Businesses need to lead by example, and demonstrate that they’re keeping both their staff and external stakeholders safe,” Netto says.

“Ultimately, it’s about showing a respect for correct procedure, and taking the risks of the pandemic seriously. While you cannot control how people behave outside of your business, once they are engaging with your business you are responsible to do all you can.”

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