How Two Companies Accidentally Committed Anti-Vaccine PR Blunders

As preventable outbreaks rise, businesses need to inoculate themselves against anti-vaccine PR blunders.

Casey Kelly-Barton
Casey Kelly-Barton
Apr 16, 2014 at 2:00PM
The Business

Measles in Manhattan, mumps in Ohio, and whooping cough in San Diego have been making the news over the past month, with at least five outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases under way now around the U.S. Health officials are blaming low vaccination rates, and many states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for reasons other than health conditions are starting to reconsider those exemptions.

Oregon and Washington, both sites of recent measles outbreaks, have adopted stricter rules for vaccine exemptions to try to get the public-health problem under control. Colorado's state senate held hearings last week on a bill that would require parents who want a non-medical exemption to first take an online course about the pros and cons of childhood vaccines. The bill passed the state house in March with bipartisan support.

Public health issues can dent a company's public image

As people start to see the results of not vaccinating, the tide is turning in the debate over vaccine safety, and businesses concerned with their public image need to take notice. Associating with anti-vaccination groups can lead to the kind of press that businesses and brands would much rather avoid.

Brinker International (NYSE:EAT) brand Chili's found this out the hard way this month. The restaurant chain had planned to donate a percentage of April 7's sales to the National Autism Association as part of Autism Awareness Month. Sounds good, right? Diagnosis of autism-spectrum disorders has been on the rise for years, and there's a definite need for more research and better support.

But Chili's got burned when media outlets pointed out that the NAA has a history of claiming that vaccinations can cause or worsen autism—a claim that's been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited by researchers. Chili's ended up canceling the fundraiser the day before it was scheduled, but not before ending up all over the news for its misstep.

Expect more push-back going forward

The Chili's fundraiser isn't the only instance of push-back this year. On April 2, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) users and Raw Story took the social media platform to task for marking World Autism Awareness Day with a post by celebrity vaccine critic Jenny McCarthy. And for five days last month, McCarthy found her Twitter feed flooded with pro-vaccination tweets after asking followers what they look for in an ideal mate. That blowback, chronicled by longtime critic Phil Plait of Slate, may have been part of the reason she wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times last week trying to distance herself from her anti-vaccine views.

It didn't work. Time magazine's Jeffrey Kluger, whom McCarthy mentioned by name in her essay, fired back the same day, accusing her of "trying to launder [her] long, deeply troubling, anti-vaccine history." Other media piled on, and Twitterers used her #JennyAsks hashtag to take her to task for backpedalling.

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PR partners need a clean bill of health

McCarthy still has her job as a co-hostess on ABC's "The View" (despite protests from viewers and public health officials), still has support among the anti-vax community, and has a new endorsement deal with privately owned Vemma Nutrition Company. But as states and public health agencies work to get more children vaccinated—and as reports continue to come in of preventable disease outbreaks—being associated with anti-vaccine ideas is becoming more of an image liability. Bottom line, it pays to give potential charities and celebrity spokespeople a thorough checkup before partnering with them for PR. As Chili's found out, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.