Review: Public Relations Cases (third edition)

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Public Relations Cases: International Perspectives (Third Edition)
Edited by Danny Moss and Barbara DeSanto
2023, 140 pages, Routledge

In practitioner circles, case studies are often prepared as awards entries or as promotional examples; they exist to showcase a team’s successes. In academic circles, they are used to teach by example by exploring the principles underpinning best practice.

This collection, now in its third edition, adopts aspects of both approaches as the contributors are often practitioners (eg Chester Zoo, Iceland Foods – see below) while the editors are academics, one from either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

‘The chief challenge in using case studies as an effective learning tool or for research is to ensure the case does not remain as a purely descriptive account of what happened in any particular situation’ the editors write. ‘Rather, it is important that the case can be probed, questioned, and analysed from many different perspectives, including those [of] internal and external stakeholders, to enable the generation of additional knowledge or insight that might benefit future courses of action.’

The analytical framework adopted follows CDAO for Context (analysis of the internal and external environment) – Decisions (analysis of key decisions taken by management) – Actions (analysis of how key decisions were translated into strategies and tactics) – Outcomes (analysis of how successfully the planned actions were in resolving the challenges or exploiting opportunities).

There are case studies from Chester Zoo in the UK on how it navigated the loss of income from pandemic lockdowns; how public relations is used by activists to combat gun violence in the US; the campaign against drugs in Malaysia; the uses of public relations in the health and social care sector in the UK; the promotional tactics of Puerto Rico’s tourism industry; addressing the opioid crisis in the US; listening to employees; LGBT+ campaigns; new promotional approaches by a baby gear company in the US; social responsibility within a Portuguese chain of cafes; health awareness campaigns in Colombia.

So this is a sectorally and geographically diverse collection of cases, though the issues can broadly be described as relating to financial or physical wellbeing or social and environmental issues.

For this review, let’s take a closer look at two of the recent cases included here.

First, the problematic Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ diesel emissions cheat device crisis, presented here from a US perspective.

I describe it as problematic because we need to explain how Volkswagen was able to recover from such a deep financial and reputational crisis of its own making. Some have suggested it might have been because of a certain grudging admiration for the clever cheat devices the company had used which could be seen as consistent with the firm’s strong reputation for engineering quality. Or it might have been because the scandal was not easy to depict on prime time television news, as author Stuart Thomson suggests. Perhaps the scandal, by hastening a shift in sentiment away from diesel, forced the firm to accelerate its development of electric vehicles, essential for its survival as a carmaker. Out of crisis, opportunity.

The author of this case study, Matt Tidwell, is a marketing scholar and he focuses on the gap between the promotional promise of ‘clean diesel’ and the damaging reality exposed by this scandal.

He then explores the company’s crisis response which moved from admission to cooperation to compensation. ‘The final settlement was easily the largest in the history of the auto industry and surpassed recent settlements from other crises faced by GM and Toyota by several billion dollars.’

The author calls on Coombs’s Situational Crisis Communications Theory to suggest that Volkwagen had built up a wealth of reputational capital it was able to draw on in this crisis. Volkswagen’s post-crisis reputation in the US is explored through in depth interviews.

What’s not considered is whether a European firm may have been punished harder than a US carmaker. Certainly, this seems to have been the case in the previously-mentioned crisis affecting Japan’s Toyota in the US, and may also have been the case with BP (‘British Petroleum’) over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

International perspectives are indeed useful when reviewing public relations cases.

The second case I’ve chosen is retailer Iceland Food’s activism over palm oil, documented here by consultant Hil Berg. This is a privately-held family business, focused on frozen food and offering value to shoppers. Its ownership allows the business to act quickly in accordance with its belief in ‘doing it right’ and to champion environmental causes.

Iceland’s executive chairman Richard Walker is described as ‘a passionate environmentalist… he decided that his greatest opportunity to fight for climate justice and social justice was as a shareholder and leader of a major brand.’

This is no greenwashing case study: it’s that rare thing, an example of corporate activism. 

Palm oil is a versatile and cheap ingredient found in more than half of all supermarket products. Yet its production is one of the world’s biggest causes of deforestation and habitat loss. So in 2016 Iceland’s own label suppliers were asked to remove palm oil where possible and replace it with alternative ingredients – something deemed impossible by the food industry. Iceland was acting in the face of vigorous industry lobbying and on a cause with low awareness among consumers.

Iceland worked with PR consultancy Weber Shandwick on planning the influencer outreach and media relations activity. In a key partnership, Greenpeace acted as a critical friend to Iceland. Considerable care was taken to ensure the campaign was about removing palm oil – not banning or boycotting it. The media and influencer campaigns were supported by full page advertisements in the national press explaining the rationale behind the campaign.

The campaign was well received by UK consumers and media, but the food industry and relevant trade association responded by putting forward its own spokespeople to make the case for the continued use of palm oil. There was even a paid-for media attempt by an interest group claiming to represent small palm oil farmers to attack Richard Watson personally, claiming he had inherited a ‘Trust Fund called Iceland.’ A Times newspaper investigation revealed that this interest group had been set up by Malaysian groups including the Malaysian government and that western lobbying companies were behind the attack. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments also tried to get the UK government to put pressure on Iceland to back down – but were told that Iceland was a private company and so not subject to government control.

In 2018 the campaign was given a boost when Iceland adopted and edited a Greenpeace video narrated by Emma Thompson about a baby orangutan, Rang Tan, as its Christmas advertisement. Yet this advertisement was banned on the grounds that it was deemed to be political advertising. The banning became the story, and clips were released on social media. Despite never being shown on television, the Rang Tan video was viewed over 90 million times across Iceland owned channels.

Working with Taylor Herring, Iceland created a stunt with a lifelike animatronic orangutan roaming London amongst Christmas shoppers.

There’s something for everyone in this case study: public affairs and lobbying, influencer marketing and celebrity endorsement, media relations, partnerships, controversy, creativity, environmental research and activism – as well as an instance of astroturfing. There are even budgets attached to it: Iceland set a budget of £5 million to remove palm oil from its own brand products, and from this £180,000 was spent on associated PR and marketing.

Among the campaign results, there was a 10,000 fold increase in Google searches for palm oil during 2018.

This educator for one will be using this case study in class from now on.

The book shows it’s a complex world, and most public relations challenges defy clear and simple prescriptions. As the editors note in their introduction to these case studies, ‘to be a successful practitioner in ‘today’s complex world’, increasingly you need to be something of a polymath.’