What’s a company to do when it finds itself in the crosshairs of a controversy that it did absolutely nothing to court?
That is a question that Dunkin’ Donuts is now pondering after Clickhole -- a parody site owned by The Onion that sends up viral news destinations like Buzzfeed and Upworthy -- posted an outlandish story yesterday stating that the donut chain was going to perform an abortion in one of its 8,000 locations nationwide.
“We feel strongly about women’s health and want to stand in solidarity with the millions of women across the country who deserve the right to choose,” wrote Clickhole, citing a satirical press release from the company. “In addition, the patient will receive a free egg and cheese sandwich and a medium coffee.”
Funny enough. But not only has the post dragged Dunkin’ Donuts into a polarizing conversation about reproductive rights, it also asked readers to share their thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #DunkinAbortion.
While some found the whole ordeal hilariously absurd:
Others seemed to have taken the post in earnest:
“From what we can tell, Clickhole is a parody site and not intended to be taken seriously and there is no truth to this article,” Michelle King, senior director of global public relations for Dunkin’ Brands Group, told Entrepreneur. (This is the same statement that the company reiterated on Twitter to a user who quipped that the company “makes their coffee so gross and hot that your fetus will automatically turn into a ghost.”)
However, such a response is perfectly warranted, says Jeffrey Hazlett, a marketing and public relations expert who formerly served as the CMO of Kodak. “Ignoring anything -- good or bad -- is not a good thing, because it makes you look like you’re either callous or just stupid.” And at the end of the day, he says, “The biggest problem with even the most crazy information is that there are some people out there who believe it’s true.”
When facing these types of quandaries, it’s important to stay calm, delay for long enough to step away from the firestorm, and then respond in as truthful a matter as possible, says Hazlett, who hosts a radio show that has been sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts. “By doing so, it will help elevate your brand above the firestorm -- to show that you are calm, mature and established, so that you are seen as a leader and someone in charge.”
“Always confront misinformation and bad behavior,” Hazlett says -- though not necessarily in a way that matches the tone of the conversation swirling at large, but in a way that stays true to your brand’s values and voice.
Breeding this kind of uncertainty is nothing new for Clickhole, which launched in June 2014 in response to an emerging wave of click-bait content that has taken the web by storm. When CNN's Anderson Cooper vigorously denied a quote attributed to him by Clickhole on Twitter, for instance, the anchor had to admit the misunderstanding on his show.
The site has roughly 30 employees, and aims to publish seven to 10 new stories every day, with 2.3 million unique visitors every month. “We strive to make sure that all of our content panders to and misleads our readers just enough to make it go viral,” Clickhole explains on its about page.