No-spin zone: Does your PR start with the facts?

December 17, 2021

How would you react if your company was unreasonably targeted by critics, and you felt the need to respond? One way to start is by having a highly credible spokesperson use empathy and facts to take back the narrative.

Exercise company Peloton recently used this approach after distraught “Sex and the City” fans put the company in a bad spot. Already dealing with serious stresses as the home-based fitness market returns to gyms, Peloton was taken by surprise when TV character John Preston’s death turned into stock losses, social media attacks, and media outlets reporting on fans’ over-the-top distress.

But Peloton didn’t panic. Instead, the company released a statement from cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum which acknowledged fans’ distress, pointed to real health challenges which could cause a heart attack after cycling, and then summarized how to avoid heart attacks with and without a Peloton bike. Steinbaum’s statement led to media coverage in outlets like The Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly, and helped turn around a damaging narrative.

We’ve republished the lengthy statement from The Times article in full at the bottom of this post for context.

Why empathy comes first

It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters how you say it. This truism applies to parenting, business, politics, and everything in between. Steinbaum’s statement started not with facts, but with empathy:

“I’m sure ‘SATC’ fans, like me, are saddened by the news that Mr. Big dies of a heart attack,”

Facts are important, but you can’t start with a calculator or a spreadsheet. You must, as Steinbaum did, meet your target audiences where they are. In this case, “Sex and the City” fans were unreasonably distressed, and media outlets reported their distress in a way which hurt Peloton’s brand image. By describing herself as a fan who understood their pain, Steinbaum immediately put herself on the fans’ team.

Facts matter

Facts are critical to a successful PR campaign. Without them, you’re either lying or you don’t know what you’re talking about. Even if people don’t figure it out today, the truth will eventually come out; and then all of the spin in the world can’t help your brand recover with those who would have forgiven mistakes, errors of judgment, or even an occasional ethical lapse.

Steinbaum used facts in three ways:

  • She acknowledged the controversy, not playing dumb or beating around the bush.
  • She shared facts about Preston’s health which are known to be related to the character’s heart problems.
  • Her statement closed with facts about heart health and how Peloton improves heart health.

What Steinbaum didn’t do was brush off fans’ concerns, as tempting as that might have been, or overstate the benefits of a Peloton bike. Instead, she forthrightly addressed the topic at hand, and used facts to educate aggrieved “Sex and the City” fans, the media, and anyone else who was paying attention.

Who is providing your fact-based empathy?

Suzanne Steinbaum isn’t Peloton’s CEO, or a producer with “Sex and the City.” The Los Angeles Times describes her as “a preventative cardiologist and member of Peloton’s health and wellness advisory council.” In other words, she’s highly-qualified to talk about heart health.

Having the right people saying the right things is very important to being taken seriously. Peloton CEO John Foley has a high-ranking title, but having his voice behind the statement would have been seen as damage control. Only a medical doctor who specializes in the human heart had the credibility to release an empathetic, fact-based statement.

Take back the narrative

All of the empathy in the world doesn’t matter if the facts don’t exist. The facts don’t matter if they are presented in a way that doesn’t connect with your audience. And empathy and facts don’t matter if the wrong person is saying them.

Peloton put the whole package together to turn an absurd, yet damaging, brand crisis into an opportunity to educate the public and take back the narrative. We call that a PR home run.

Steinbaum’s statement

“I’m sure ‘SATC’ fans, like me, are saddened by the news that Mr. Big dies of a heart attack,” said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventative cardiologist and member of Peloton’s health and wellness advisory council, in a statement to The Times. “Mr. Big lived what many would call an extravagant lifestyle — including cocktails, cigars, and big steaks — and was at serious risk as he had a previous cardiac event in Season 6. These lifestyle choices and perhaps even his family history, which often is a significant factor, were the likely cause of his death. Riding his Peloton Bike may have even helped delay his cardiac event.”

It continued: “More than 80% of all cardiac-related deaths are preventable through lifestyle, diet and exercise modifications. And while 25% of heart attacks each year are in patients who already had one (like Mr. Big), even then they are very, very treatable. The lesson here is, KNOW YOUR NUMBERS! It’s always important to talk to your doctor, get tested, and have a healthy prevention strategy. The good news is Peloton helps you track heart rate while you ride, so you can do it safely.”

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