Good buzz is like the bubbles in champagne: sparkling, effervescent, and impossibly ephemeral. A company lucky enough - or cunning enough - to capitalize on this phenomenon can float high on its glamorous ether.

But buzz, like bubbles, inevitably goes flat. When that happens a clever marketing campaign or a fabulous new product can provide additional fizz. But when real tragedy hits, a business can fall long and hard. Truly negative buzz cripples - or kills - the company that doesn't take the time to develop a plan to deal with it.

Company owners who look into the face of calamity have to switch from an igniter mindset to an extinguisher mindset. How a company handles adversity and the bad buzz that swirls in its wake is a true test of its operations and management.

In Central California, my neck of the woods, there is probably no business more beloved than Odwalla. Devoted customers have always adored the products (with clever names like Mango Tango, Mo' Beta, and Femme Vitale) as much as they've admired the juice company for its ethics and social conscience.

But Odwalla came this close to losing everything for which the company and its brand stood. In October of 1996, an outbreak of deadly E. coli bacteria was linked to Odwalla's unpasteurized apple-based drinks.

Everyone around these parts approved when the company acted swiftly to pull potentially tainted products off the shelves (although we expected no less). Retailers received daily updates as Odwalla, much to its credit, worked to find and fix the problem. It has since covered all medical expenses for people who became ill from drinking an Odwalla product and has steadily improved manufacturing safety.

Even so, by the time the immediate crisis was over, sales had nose-dived 90%. (Count me as one of those devotees who swore off Odwalla juices for a while.) No way Odwalla could rebound, people said. Buzz on the company was as about as bad as it gets: safety took a back seat to fast growth, went the thinking, and the company got sloppy.

Recall that in May of that same year, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing everyone aboard. The terrible accident claimed 110 lives, shook up the flying public, and again raised basic questions about the degree to which airlines sacrifice safety for commerce.

You don't get first-class maintenance on a cheapie ticket, or so the buzz went. Those newfangled discount airlines use second-hand or worn-out parts, people said, how else do you think they can keep their prices so low? As dark suspicions resurfaced about the health of the deregulated airline industry, the buzz boiled down to this: Making a fast buck is more important than making a safe landing.

Published on: Apr 28, 1998