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Running Head: ANALYSIS OF THE PEPSI SYRINGE HOAX

Analysis of the Pepsi Syringe Hoax and The

Effect on the PepsiCo Image

905712802

Virginia Tech
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Analysis of the Pepsi Syringe Hoax and

The Effect on the PepsiCo Image

The United States is increasingly becoming a more litigious society with every passing

year. On the evening news you are guaranteed at least one story that follows the legal matters of

one citizen suing another or suing a business for some outrageous reason and price.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon has people hooked and has become branded as the new “get rich

quick” scheme. Corporations are paying the price for this new fad; people are suing big

businesses for small affairs in order to squeeze money out of corporate America. Pepsi was the

target of one of these popular schemes in 1993. PepsiCo handled the situation proactively with

transparency and honesty to its consumers, proving that the PepsiCo brand cannot be

compromised.

Case Background

Earl and Mary Triplett - natives of Tacoma, Washington - were the first to supposedly

discover a used syringe inside of their Diet Pepsi soda can on June 9th, 1993. They passed this

can on to their lawyer as evidence in order to start a case against the refreshment industry giant.

The following day one local news outlet aired the Triplett’s story. On June 11th, another report

of the same incident was reported in Washington. This time, the Seattle Times picked up the

story, drawing more attention to the rumors of unsafe Pepsi sodas. In neither case so far,

however, were injures reported.

The next day the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “issued a five-state consumer

alert, asking costumers to pour soft drinks, particularly Diet Pepsi, into a glass or cup before

drinking” (Center, 2008, p. 170). The following days many more accounts of this same incident

were reported all over the country in states like Louisiana and 23 others. Eventually, big-name
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media outlets like CBS and the Los Angeles Times picked up the story. However, the entire case

was settled within a week due to the excellent efforts on the PepsiCo crisis management team

and. PepsiCo later was awarded with the “Best of Silver Anvils” by the Public Relations Society

of America in 1994 for its efforts.

The PepsiCo crisis management team, based in New York, was made up of many key

divisions within the PepsiCo organization including: executive, the public affairs department,

consumer relations, scientific and regulatory affairs, sales and marketing, manufacturing, and the

legal department (Center, 2008, p. 173). The decided to handle the matter internally rather than

turning to their hired public relations firm. The president of PepsiCo, Craig Weatherup was the

first to speak out about the incident. Weatherup played an important role and became a

trustworthy spokesperson for PepsiCo and in dismantling the ideas that this tampering was

happening within the borders of the PepsiCo manufacturing plants. Becky Madeira was also a

key player on the PepsiCo crisis team. She was the Vice President of PepsiCo’s Public Affairs.

She and her team developed the ad hoc plan and implemented the strategies and tactics used in

handling the disclosure of information to the public in an intelligent and logical way. Lastly on

the crisis management team was the one and only FDA. The commissioner of the FDA, Dr.

David Kessler served as the external and credible expert and as an influential opinion leader that

corroborated the facts put out by PepsiCo.

There were also key people on the opposing side of this case. These include the first

reporters, Earl and Mary Triplett and the 50 other individuals who reported cases of finding

foreign objects in their soda cans that followed. However, PepsiCo’s main enemy in this case

was the media. The various media that took a hold of this story turned it into a nationwide

catastrophe.
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Research

The definite problem in this case was first the false allegations of the materialization of

foreign objects in their product, Diet Pepsi. The corporation had to first prove the inaccuracy of

the idea that their products were unsafe. The problem then evolved into battling the media and

trying to restore their costumers’ loyalty and trust.

The research methods for this case were mainly formal and primary and were conducted

by either the PepsiCo staff directly or by the FDA investigators. In order to disprove the

allegations they needed to conduct research on their bottling plants. PepsiCo invited the FDA

investigators into their plants to oversee production and follow up on each incident reported.

Following the investigation, “The FDA said continually it could find no connection from a

production standpoint among the growing numbers of complaints” after it had tested the syringes

from the early reports and found no contamination or risk of AIDS and Hepatitis (Center, 2008,

p. 171).

PepsiCo also did investigative research and found a surveillance video of a woman in

Colorado putting a syringe into her opened Pepsi can while the clerk wasn’t looking (Greenburg,

1993). This kind of evidence was instrumental in the clearing PepsiCo’s name.

Many opinion leaders also weighed in on the case, discrediting the fraudulent complaints

even further. Washington’s health research director of Public Citizen, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, stated

in a New York Times article, “If every tampering report were genuine it would need a national

plot of deranged, clever tamperers [sic.] infiltrating bottling plants round the country” (Lyons,

1993). In addition to Dr. Wolfe’s testimony, Dr. Kessler, commissioner of the FDA, was quoted

in the same New York Times article saying, “This is a vicious cycle. We have been unable to

confirm even one case of tampering” (Lyons, 1993).


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The primary research conducted was a content analysis; the researchers had to survey

records, inventories, and the logistics of the complaints. They also conducted a type of informal,

secondary research as well: feedback research. The consumer relations sector of the crisis

management team was given the task of answering phone calls, hearing all the complaints,

reports, comments, and keeping track of the public opinion throughout the duration of the case

(Center, 2008, p. 173).

The stakeholders that are prominent in this particular case are the government, the

consumers and costumers of PepsiCo soda products, the media that is covering the story, the

employees, the bottling companies, and the investors. Each of these stakeholders is directly

affected by the success of PepsiCo’s objective.

The publics are as follows, defined by Madeira: the news media, wholesalers, consumers,

and employees and local PepsiCo bottlers (Center, 2008, p. 173). These publics recognized the

issue of the negative reports and decided to become involved in the case. All publics in this case

were considered traditional, as they each had long-standing relationships with the PepsiCo brand.

The news media acted as the crucial intervening public. One of the main strategies of the crisis

management plan was to fight media with media. This was only possible through the use of this

intervening public and the ability to use this medium to relay messages from the company to the

other publics. Each public could also be categorized as aware; the news media was actively

participating in circulation of information; the customers that normally bought the PepsiCo

products were keeping up-to-date on the case; the wholesalers were reevaluating their restock of

the products in question; and the employees were actively working to cure this crisis and also

working with the FDA to go over all canning procedures.


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Objectives, Strategies and Tactics

After the stories of syringes in Pepsi products started flooding American households,

courtesy of news channels everywhere, the one goal of the PepsiCo Corporation’s ad hoc plan

was to restore trust and credibility with the customers. This goal was achieved through many

objectives including: following the reports and finding the problem, keeping media updated on

facts of investigation, monitoring public opinion as the story developed, and observing sales.

These objectives were fitting for this particular crisis because they were all centered on the idea

of restoring PepsiCo’s public image. The objectives allowed the crisis to be managed quickly

and with full transparency on PepsiCo’s end. These impact objectives can be further classified

into three groups: informational, attitudinal, and behavioral.

Informational objectives are objectives that strive to circulate or spread a message.

PepsiCo’s informational objective in this case was to keep the media updated on facts and

developments in their investigation. They spread this informational message through press

releases given by President Weatherup, and responding to all media inquires with new

information and progress. Weatherup appeared on many TV news channels and did countless

newspaper interviews to spread the concrete facts about the case. They also had more internal

information objectives. These objectives were not to spread information exactly, but were to gain

information. They investigated every report in order to learn more about the situation and the

possibility of any truth to the allegations. They also conducted research within their own filling

plants to determine if the problem was coming from within. These objectives while informational

and did help to circulate the message that PepsiCo was “innocent” of the accused crimes, were

not to be spread specifically to the masses.


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The attitudinal objectives of the case were arguably the most important to the salvation of

the PepsiCo image. These included keeping a tab on public opinion throughout the case, and

following the reports. Even though there was no substance to this crisis and all claims were

quickly disproven, the negative claims were enough to stir up a crisis-like situation for the

company. In this case, the perception of a crisis had the possibility to ruin PepsiCo’s global

image. The strategy used in this objective was to take complete responsibility of solving the

issue. In order to combat this threat, they had manned hotlines operating 24/7 to take calls from

worried consumers and to ensure they integrity of the company. This was a way for them to also

research what the public opinion was.

Lastly, the behavioral objectives include the monitoring of sales. The behavior of the

consumers was critical to PepsiCo income during the crisis. Luckily, sales only dropped 3-4%

during the hoax. The strategy to achieve this objective was to keep positive relations with the

businesses that sold their products. A tactic was ensuring customers that their products were safe.

PepsiCo did not issue a recall to the customers because they knew that there was no real health

concern.

The theme through out this campaign was media relations. From the beginning, PepsiCo

knew that there was no truth to these allegations, but the only way to prove that to everyone else

was to get the media’s attention and dilute the false stories with the concrete, proven facts. For

example, the objective of keeping the media up to date on developments within the investigation

of their facilities was carried out through the strategy of allowing media any information they

need. PepsiCo was honest, timely, and communicative with the media. A tactic of this strategy

was the production of a VNR illustrating the high-speed filling process that was distributed to all
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media outlets that wanted it. PepsiCo was fortunate to have such positive relationships with the

media. This allowed them to get equal coverage on their side of the story.

Media relations played a massive part in the restitution of PepsiCo’s image. However, not

all press in this case was positive. PepsiCo was bombarded with uncontrolled media stories that

centered on their company. Their logo was often pictured with fowl images of syringes and other

disturbing items on broadcasts; the public started to correlate the two.

The only way to fight this uncontrolled media was to put out news that they had

produced. The biggest example of controlled media in this case was the multiple VNRs that

PepsiCo filmed and released the public. These VNRs were the biggest indication to the public

that the rumors were false and eventually lead the downfall of the crisis.

Theory

Public opinion is king of capitalism. Without the support of the public, a company will

fail. Public relations focuses on the idea that effective communication is key to success (Guth,

2012, p. 130.) PepsiCo’s crisis management team had to persuade the public to accept their side

of the story. There are three theories that apply to this idea, each one illustrated by the

communication processes throughout the case.

The first is the Two-Step theory. This theory suggests that opinion leaders influence

public opinion. In this case the prominent opinion leader was the FDA. The FDA is a credible

expert on the matter and was a key component to disproving the claims. Without the backing of

this expert organization, PepsiCo lacked an unbiased supporter of their innocence as a company.

The second is the Diffusion theory. This theory is based on the idea that the media’s

purpose is to simply inform the masses. The diffusion theory is relevant to this case because it

was responsible of getting the word out about the unsafe Diet Pepsi cans. People heard these
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stories and started telling their friends, who told their friends, and so on until it became a nation

catastrophe. People who deemed this story significant and told their community about it became

opinion leaders within their own peer groups.

Lastly, the agenda-setting hypothesis applies strongly to the media in this case. Similar to

the diffusion theory, the agenda-setting theory focuses on the idea that media tells people what to

think about, rather than what to think. While diffusion theory focuses on the opinion leaders in

each community, the agenda-setting theory focuses solely on the role that the media plays in the

conversation. The media, during the time of the case, was telling people to think about PepsiCo

and the syringes. They did this through the multitude of stories ran every day about the incident.

Media published and broadcasted many stories to the millions of readers and viewers, telling

them to think about the case. The story dominated the media world for an entire week until every

person in American knew about the syringes being found in Diet Pepsi cans.

Evaluation

Evaluations were measured by informal research such as surveys and feedback research.

PepsiCo set up a 1-(800) hotline number to take calls and record feedback from consumers. This

measure showed the success of the objective to keep track of public opinion. Many consumers

supported PepsiCo and their PR efforts. The sales of Pepsi products started to recover leading up

to the 4th of July holiday (Smith, 2007, p. 57). This measured the success of the objective to track

sales and ensure good relationships with the customers.

The lasting affects to their public image are harder to ascertain, however. PepsiCo has to

focus on their vital stakeholders and how it affected them in order to determine the magnitude of

damage and/or success the crisis had on those relationships (Smith, 2007, p. 57). In order to do

this, PepsiCo must continue to learn from this situation by questioning all aspects of the plan.
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The PR team should sit down and discuss, in an internal focus group like environment, what

worked and what can be improved.

Madeira handled the situation to the best of her ability. This crisis was unusual in that it

was completely ruled by the media. As Milton Freedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom,

“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions

that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (2002, p. 9). The media made the

problem a nation issue. Because of the uniqueness of the case, the reaction had to be calculated

specifically to the events that transpired. Ultimately, the PR firm’s management of the crisis

upheld the Pepsi image and saved the company from a major downfall.

Many critics say that PepsiCo was too delayed in their response to the allegations. Time

was most certainly of the essence in a case like this. However, PepsiCo made a smart decision to

wait to put out a statement until they got the facts about the happenings. Madeira stated in an

interview a year later, “Speed is essential, but so is accuracy. It is very dangerous to attempt to

explain the cause of the crisis without facts that are corroborated from outside experts” (Center,

2008, p.172).

PepsiCo did everything right in this crisis management effort. They could not have

possibly relied on precedent to help them in this case, as no two crises are alike. They thought

quickly, acted responsibly, were completely transparent, and resolved the crisis in a short weeks

time. Crisis management needs to be a unique, flexible, and essential division of every company.

PepsiCo recognized this fact and acted appropriately to the specifics of the predicament.
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References

Center, A. (2008). There's a Syringe in My Pepsi Can! In Public Relations Practices:

Managerial Case Studies and Problems (7th ed., pp. 170-175). Upper Saddle River, New

Jersey: Pearson Education.

Friedman, M., & Friedman, R. D. (2002). Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press.

Greeburg, K. (1993). Pepsi's big scare. The Public Relations Journal, 49(8), 3-3. Retrieved

November 1, 2014, from ABI/INFORM Global.

Lyons, R. (1993, June 8). Hoaxes are found in the Pepsi case. Retrieved from

http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/18/us/hoaxes-are-found-in-the-pepsi-case.html

Smith, Joshua Lee, "When It Hits the Fan: A Public Relations' Practitioners' Guide to Crisis

Communication." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2007.

http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/communication_theses/19