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There are those who think any PR is good PR, and to be honest, most of the time it can be if handled in the right way…

If anyone understands the power of great marketing, it’s Oatly. Despite claiming they “don’t know anything about almonds or soy or cows”, the Swedish-born company t-oat-ally knows its field. After doubling its sales between 2018 and 2019, Oatly’s plant-based empire is now worth $2bn and continues to grow.

However, Oatly’s recent announcement left plant milk drinkers foaming at the mouth: a $200 million investment deal with private equity firm, Blackstone. With the firm headed by Stephen Schwartzman, a major donor to President Trump, as well as being tied to Brazilian companies linked with deforestation, activists quickly responded to the announcement with accusations of hypocrisy.

As a supposedly ethical brand, Oatly created its very own storm in a teacup. Again.

Back in 2016, state-owned investment firm China Resources bought a 30 percent stake in the company. Despite reports flagging China as having the highest CO2 emissions in the world, as well as a questionable human rights record, Oatly responded that they were spreading sustainability.

Anyone getting déjà moo…? Oatly stood by this message then and still does today, choosing to defend its recent investment in an open letter to the public, stating that the online debate has become “black and white” while the deal itself was “nuanced.”

It’s safe to say this caused a stir and, while the decision is indeed controversial, Oatly provided a masterclass in how to turn bad publicity into good PR.

Take it as an opportunity

A negative reaction to unexpected publicity can spread through social channels fairly quickly where brands are concerned.

Regardless of the situation, acting like a human being and providing an injection of personality online can allow a company to get that little bit closer to existing and potential customers.

Don’t stir the pot (or shake the carton)

There’s no doubt about it, Oatly’s social media team deserves a medal for holding fort, defending the company’s decision, and staying professional, despite an influx of comments threatening to boycott or ‘cancel’ the brand.

“No cow! Only deforestation, greed and pro-Trump”

“Every one of these people is investing in pure evil”

“I, on the other hand, only drink blood money oat milk so I’m switching to

@oatly for all my high cruelty, bad environmentalism needs”

No matter how tempting it may be, don’t bite. Most brands have an army of critics, poised to attack with negative messages or discussion and can often do so anonymously, with virtually no ramifications.

Avoid responding to criticism with bad language or with caps lock on.

Don’t retaliate, argue, or try to fight fire with fire. Directing enquiries to a pre-prepared, measured statement can help diffuse the situation, maintain consistency, and ensure any key messaging is heard above the noise.

Even after making a mistake, the best bet is to apologise and move on, or avoid engaging at all.

Let haters destroy their own credibility

Being the bigger person is essential. By failing to engage with incorrect statements, accusations, or those who have simply missed the point, any criticism quickly loses its credibility.

It’s important to remember that while these situations get heated on social media, they don’t always end up causing any significant movement in sales. And while some will argue that Blackstone’s investment in Oatly is a way of greenwashing, for Oatly, the extra $200m may pave the way for a frothy initial public offering in 2021, making it the second plant-based company to hit the stock market. One thing’s for sure, it’s got people talking!

Want to learn more about what makes a good PR strategy? Get in touch!


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