Axios Communicators

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March 07, 2024

Welcome back!

We spent the past two weeks highlighting some good CEO comms, so it was only a matter of time before we hit you with the bad. More on that below. ...

  • 🌮 Reach out if you're attending SXSW. I'll be there interviewing GoFundMe's Margaret Richardson and LinkedIn's Aneesh Raman. Follow along on Axios socials.

Today's newsletter is 1,557 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Kellogg CEO faces backlash

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Messaging that lands in a marketing spot might not get the same reception
when coming out of the CEO's mouth.

  • WK Kellogg Co. learned this the hard way after its CEO Gary Pilnick appeared on CNBC and encouraged cash-strapped consumers to consider eating cereal for dinner.

Why it matters: Kellogg's current PR crisis highlights the power of optics and the importance of empowering the right messenger with the right talking points.

Context: Kellogg has been running the "cereal for dinner" ad campaign since 2022, with little to no fanfare.

  • Yes, but: There is key difference in the message the ad portrays — cereal can spice up a monotonous dinner menu — and what Pilnick said — buy our cereal if you're tight on cash and serve it for dinner.

Between the lines: Positioning name-brand cereal as a solution to rising food costs is what ignited the firestorm of backlash across social media.

  • "The reality is the only way a brand like Kellogg should comment on the rising cost of groceries is at the business level or by announcing a program or donation to help ... not by having a CEO tout their marketing campaign as the solution," says marketing consultant Allie Robino.
  • Plus, the optics of Pilnick standing in the courtyard of a 5-star hotel while delivering the message only made matters worse.

State of play: The initial comments were made on Feb. 21, but the backlash didn't start until five days later.

  • Since then, the brand and CEO have gone radio silent, which gave way to more social media chatter and more press coverage.
  • Users across LinkedIn have torched the comment section of Pilnick's recent posts and those on TikTok are encouraging a boycott of the brand.
  • The hashtag "boycottkelloggs" has been viewed roughly 23 million times on TikTok as of March 5.

Reality check: Consumer brands continue to be scrutinized for "shrinkflation" practices, while the cost of cereal has increased 28% over the last four years, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

  • And if Kellogg raises prices in the future, its communications team should prepare for Pilnick's comments to bubble to the surface.

What we're hearing: Nothing. Kellogg and its PR representatives have ignored repeated requests for comment.

What they're saying: What started as a bit of PR drama has turned into a crisis due to the company's lack of response, says Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

  • During the five-day window between the initial comment and the social media firestorm, Kellogg had the opportunity to acknowledge the mistake, clarify what he meant to say, and explain how this would be avoided in the future.
  • Instead, the silence enabled more coverage and social chatter, which has kept the story trending almost two weeks later.
  • "This is a textbook example of what not to do," Argenti told Axios.

What to watch: Consumers across social media are calling on Kellogg to lower its prices and have organized a boycott of the brand from April 1 to June 30.

2. 🧮 By the numbers: How Kellogg's coverage played out

Sentiment of Kellogg's  recent media coverage
Data: Muck Rack; Note: The sentiment assigned to an article is based on scoring applied from an  open-source natural language processing library to articles published online and their headline; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Kellogg typically receives neutral coverage, however sentiment quickly soured following Pilnick's "cereal for dinner" comments.

Zoom in: These comments attracted roughly three times more readers than Kellogg's average news readership.

  • Most negative coverage landed on Feb. 26 — which is also the day that readership spiked, per data provided by Memo.

Go deeper.

3. New report: No politics at work

Share who say employers should take these actions this election year
Data: Weber Shandwick; Chart: Axios Visuals

As the 2024 presidential election looms, employees and consumers agree there's no place for politics at work, according to a new survey from Weber Shandwick.

Why it matters: This presents a major challenge for business leaders, brands and employers in an age where everything has the potential to turn political.

By the numbers: Weber Shandwick surveyed 1,009 U.S. adults from Feb. 9-12 and found that over 70% of employees and consumers want political neutrality in the workplace ahead of the 2024 elections.

  • Roughly 60% say companies need to avoid even the appearance of political involvement inside the workplace.
  • And a majority of Americans don't want to see businesses lobbying for specific legislation or donating to specific candidates or political parties, per the report.

Between the lines: The findings highlight a major conundrum for business leaders, says Weber Shandwick chief public affairs officer Pam Jenkins, because a majority of those surveyed still expect businesses to speak up on societal issues, even controversial ones.

Zoom in: 8 in 10 Americans from across party lines believe businesses play a role in encouraging a free and fair election.

  • During the 2022 election cycle, many companies in battleground states executed large, internal get-out-the-vote campaigns to promote a fair democratic process.
  • For example, The Home Depot and Delta Airlines — both headquartered in Georgia — created resources for employees to check registration status, locate polling places, review candidate platforms and vote early.

Zoom out: People aren't just avoiding politics at work. Most say they avoid these topics in social conversations, and many "cancel" people they disagree with on social media.

  • 30% of consumers and 34% of employees report that electoral politics have divided their family.

What's next: As the election approaches, communication teams are reminding all employees of corporate social media and civic engagement guidelines.

  • "We're actually talking with a lot of clients about setting up internal task forces so that they have some rules of the road — and this is the first time we've ever suggested that to clients," Jenkins told Axios.

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4. Communicator Spotlight: Amy Bonitatibus joins PayPal

Photo illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of Paypal

PayPal has named Amy Bonitatibus as chief communications and corporate affairs officer, Axios first reported.

Why it matters: PayPal is undergoing its first management shakeup in a decade and it will lean on Bonitatibus to provide communications stability through the transition.

📍Catch up quick: Bonitatibus — who previously held communications roles at Fannie Mae, Chase Bank and most recently served as chief communications officer at Wells Fargo — tells Axios that she runs toward challenging opportunities, not away from them.

🗣 What she's saying: "It's an exciting time for PayPal as it transforms and evolves to meet the changing customer needs," says Bonitatibus.

  • "During these moments, the ability to effectively define the narrative and amplify PayPal's mission and innovative work underway is critical," she added.

🏗 Context: Bonitatibus will report to Diego Scotti, PayPal's executive vice president, consumer group & global marketing and communications.

  • She will manage the global communications team and social impact and sustainability efforts across all PayPal brands, including Venmo.

💡 Every CEO should know that brevity is key, says Bonitatibus.

  • "Sharing a concise message that everyone can understand is really hard to do in the financial world, which is rampant with acronyms and corporate speak. ... Too often you see companies that have really good messages, but they just get lost in complex rhetoric."

📈 What she's watching: She cites AI and "how communicators can use it in safe, low-risk ways."

⚾️ De-stress routine: Spending time with her three sons — ages 13, 12 and 9 — all of whom play baseball.

  • "Typically I go right from work to a baseball field somewhere in central New Jersey," she told Axios.

🧠Best advice: "Be bigger than your job."

  • "Someone I respect at Chase voiced these words and it really resonated with me because I believe that the people who consistently raise their hand, go above and beyond and take initiative will see the most personal and professional growth," she adds.

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5. Scoop: OpenAI expands its communications operation

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

OpenAI is expanding its communications function with the addition of new product, policy and partnerships comms leads, Axios scooped this week.

Why it matters: The OpenAI PR team, which has doubled in size over the last year, is focused on winning over audiences amid increased regulatory pressures, legal woes and skepticism among the general public.

Driving the news: OpenAI has brought on Liz Bourgeois to lead policy communications, Lindsay McCallum to support product and research communications and Steve Sharpe to run partnership communications.

  • Bourgeois — who is the company's first D.C.-based comms hire — most recently served as chief communications officer for the recruiting platform Handshake, and previously managed strategic communications for the U.S. Treasury Department and Meta.
  • McCallum is a Twitter alum and most recently oversaw communications for venture capital firm Headline.
  • Sharpe led communications at Sequoia, Slack and Intuit before joining OpenAI this year.

What they're saying: Education remains the top priority as the technology evolves at a rapid pace, OpenAI head of public relations Lindsey Held told Axios.

  • "We're focused on educating broad audiences about our AI tools while also continuing to build trust," Held said. "As part of that, we aim to be really transparent in our communications and forthright about our safety work."

What to watch: The maker of ChatGPT, DALL-E 3 and Sora is expected to continue to build out its communication function and is currently hiring for media relation roles across Europe.

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6. 🤖 1 AI explainer to-go

Communicators are great at simplifying complex topics and making them easy to digest, which is why everyone comes to them for guidance on how to use new AI tools.

  • So when folks come to you looking for guidance, use this handy explainer by Axios tech editor Megan Morrone. Forward it to your boss, friends and parents.

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📚 Thanks for reading! And thanks to editors Nicholas Johnston and Kathie Bozanich for making this newsletter happen each week.

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