Crisis Communications and Social Media: How a Hot Sauce Company Got in Hot Water

by Ken Mueller on November 12, 2013 · 3 comments

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So, there’s this little company out in California that has very quietly become a bit of a cultural icon in our country, all while flying under the radar. They’ve been in the news a lot lately, but not for all of the right reasons.

First, a bit of back story. Huy Fong Foods, Inc. in California is the maker of Sriracha Hot Sauce, also known as “Rooster Sauce.” It’s quite popular throughout the U.S. and I see their bottles in a lot of stores and restaurants. I have one friend who even has to keep several bottles in the house at all times because her husband loves the stuff. And even if you don’t know what Sriracha is, you’ve probably seen the iconic red bottle with the green lid. For many, it’s an obsession.

The cool part about Sriracha is that it is a product built solely on word of mouth. In fact, by conventional wisdom, the company does everything wrong. No money is spent on advertising or marketing, because CEO David Tran says they already can’t keep up with demand based on the availability of raw materials: chili peppers. The company has no sales staff, and their only online property is a very basic, ugly website with no bells or whistles. There are no social media properties. Nothing, save for a few fan sites.

And while there is a charm to building a business this way, there often comes a time when those things you’ve avoided so long suddenly become important.

While Huy Fong Foods and Sriracha have been the darlings of marketing case studies for years, thereby adding to the company’s mystique, recent events have shined a light on their inability to communicate.

In a world that has become increasingly digital, particularly in the area of communications, not having an online presence can be quite the handicap. Huy Fong is now engaged in a bit of a battle with the city of Irwindale, CA, the city it calls home. Seems that when you use chili peppers and garlic to make sriracha sauce, there is an odor. A strong one that has area residents complaining. As a result, the city ordered the company to shut down until they can remedy the problem. Never mind that the company can only produce this product for three months out of the year, and we’re right smack dab in the middle of that cycle. A judge has since denied the town’s request for the shutdown, but the situation is far from over. In fact, Tran says the shutdown could have cost him $10-million dollars and a potential filing for bankruptcy.

Enter Crisis Communication

But what does this have to do with crisis communication and social media?

Since Huy Fong has no real online presence to speak of and no social media outlets, they’ve been living with their head in the sand. Many avoid social media out of fear that someone might say something bad about them. That’s not why Huy Fong avoided social media, it just wasn’t a priority for them. But this points out some glaring truths about our digitally connected world:

  1. People can complain about you and say bad things even if you aren’t on social media.
  2. Not having social media makes it harder for you to enter the conversation, even when it’s about you.

With no marketing, and presumably no PR department or firm in place, the company got caught off guard. If they had some sort of social presence, even just a Facebook business page, they would have had a way to address the public.

In fact, the company has two very real publics, both of whom would have loved hearing from the company during this time.

First, the citizens of Irwindale who began the complaints about the odor. On the one hand, they had no online place to file their complaints with the company. On the other hand, the company wasn’t prepared to answer those complaints in any timely sort of fashion. CEO Tran had to go through the channels of traditional media in order to be heard. That means the message was both filtered and delayed. There was no direct access to the people where the company could have explained the situation and worked with the public, rather than being at odds with them.

Second, fans of sriracha were thrown in a bit of a tizzy. When this story broke, there were very real concerns that there might be a shortage of the popular rooster sauce, in addition to skyrocketing prices. Oh, sure it’s only hot sauce, but tell that to the hardcore fans who buy the stuff. As my friend Ifdy posted on Facebook while I was in the midst of writing this:

“Has sriracha replaced bacon?”

With a product that popular among its hardcore fans, the company has no means of communicating to the general public. No way to reassure those who need their daily hot sauce fix, and keep them in the loop.

There will always be exceptions to the rules, and perhaps Huy Fong is one of them. But a social media presence isn’t just about marketing. It’s about PR, customer service, and yes, crisis communications should the need arise. A simple social media presence can provide peace of mind that goes way beyond increasing sales and revenue. Remember, ROI isn’t just about making more money against your investments. It’s also about preventing the loss of income and brand reputation during the bad times.

Use social media to keep the public informed. It’s where we are trained to go for information, and where we expect to get it. It’s all fine and dandy to say you don’t need the marketing push because you are already at capacity, but when you DO need to communicate, you have no way of doing so.

Build it, use it, cultivate it.

If you don’t want to use it primarily as a marketing tool, it’s important to have for things like customer service and communication. Think of it as a form of insurance; you have it just in case.

It appears as though Huy Fong might have dodged a bullet this time, but they, and other companies like them might not be so lucky in the future. By no means is it a “requirement” to use social media, and more power to you if you can get by without it, but the rules have changed, as have public expectations.

Have you ever been in a situation, or known of a situation, where a lack of a social media presence hurt a company?

 

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  1. […] Crisis Communication and Social Media: How a Hot Sauce Company Got in Hot Water The PR crisis with Sriracha hot sauce makes it painfully clear why social media is needed for all businesses, and why it’s not just for marketing. […]

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