What do you get when a company combines one of the most beautiful women in the world with volatile politics, threats of a boycott, and warring ideologies?
SodaStream, that's what. And in early February, the SodaStream Super Bowl ad featuring actress Scarlett Johansson sipping sultrily on a straw and sniping at beverage makers Coca-Cola and Pepsi only served to light a fire under the tinderbox steadily building beneath the company for years.
Currently, the Israel-based carbonated fizz maker's issues are such a crazy ball of elastics, you can yank any rubbery strand and learn something significant about how to run your business during a crisis. Among the lessons: Be prepared. Have an emergency plan. Keep your employees informed. Fix your mistakes. And be public about what you've done.
"SodaStream is experiencing what many experts would define as a perfect storm," says Kenneth Kracmer, managing partner and public relations director for HCK2 Partners, a public relations company in Dallas.
The storm's elements include deeply entrenched political and religious differences in the Middle East, a hotly contested and coveted new global market, and a high-voltage movie star.
SodaStream dates its corporate history back to 1903. But its 21st-century problems began shortly after it listed on the Nasdaq in 2010. For more than a year, things were great. Sales exploded, and its share price nearly quadrupled from an initial offering price of around $20 to $75 by mid-2011. SodaStream had a great green message, too--stop using so many bottles. And large soft-drink makers were starting to worry about the small company's "make-it-yourself" soda message.
But its stock tanked about 170 percent after some bad guidance in late 2011. Soon after, European Union countries began organizing boycotts, because one of SodaStream's 22 manufacturing facilities is located in the West Bank. The company employs some 500 Palestinian workers there, in the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. And there have been disputed allegations of employee mistreatment at the plant, reported in some news outlets.
And then just this year, actress and screen siren Scarlet Johansson became the company spokeswoman. That might seem like a huge stroke of luck for any company, but Johansson signed on after controversially severing her ties as an ambassador with human rights and aid organization Oxfam, which has long opposed Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Remember: Critical situations can get out of hand quickly when companies don't have a crisis plan in place. And that's the case for most small businesses, says Kracmer.
A Crisis Road Map
Among the things your crisis road map should include are both internal and external communications plans, says Larry L. Smith, a senior consultant at the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville.
You should also have a trained spokesperson at the ready, in addition to carefully prepared standby statements about what happened and how your course of action will resolve what happened. Your plan should map out how your business will continue operating while you get through the crisis and establish the "new normal."
"[SodaStream's] issues involve politics, ideological differences, religion, and management that appears to have been less than truthful and fair with internal and external audiences," Smith says.
In this case, SodaStream's chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, must make a full public accounting of anything he said or did wrong, Smith says. If the claims of unfair employee treatment are true, those issues must be rectified immediately, including changing work conditions, hours, pay, and benefits.
Full disclosure must also include clearing up inappropriate things company representatives may have said in public. In Birnbaum's case, he was quoted as saying his West Bank plant was "a pain in the ass." He should apologize for that, Smith says.
The Bright Side
Next, leverage your advantages, says Hope Gibbs, founder and president of Inkandescent Public Relations in Arlington, Virginia. In SodaStream's case, being in the news for controversy isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Ruffling the feathers of high-profile folks ranging from executives at Pepsi to Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Scarlett Johansson's titillating performance, and her role as an advocate who seems to be flip-flopping, just fuels the fire," Gibbs says.
The controversies have only served to introduce SodaStream's products to millions more potential consumers. What's more, just as many people have learned about the dispute over the West Bank, and they will be thinking about it, which is a good thing, Gibbs says.
And, hey, Scarlett Johansson is still SodaStream's spokeswoman.
"After the dust settles, it's Johansson sucking on a straw that people will remember," Gibbs adds. "The key is to take a broad perspective and go for it."