When a brand gets blamed

 It was just a normal event in the course of the modern world. Eight months later, that meeting had led to the infections of a quarter of a million people, give or take.

Reconstructing a Pandemic, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker 2020.12.15

I used to work in an office in the old Boston Exchange building across the street from the scene of the Boston Massacre — the old Statehouse. Once a day I would try to get my steps in and walk down to the harbor and around the New England Aquarium to check out the seals playing in their outdoor pool. The route took me down historic State Street and past the Boston Marriott Long Wharf. Early last March, while Bostonians fretted over the first reported cases of Covid 19, the news emerged that the first “super spreader event” had taken place inside that hotel at an internal sales conference hosted by Biogen, one of the biggest and oldest companies in a city known for its excellence in medicine and technology.

As the Boston Globe reported the story, it became evident that the Biogen conference had been a perfect storm of bad circumstances. Foreign employees coming into the country through Logan Airport, bringing with them the virus. Colleagues shaking hands, laughing and socializing. The irony that it happened because at an event hosted by a life sciences company only gave the story that man-bites-dog element reporters and editors love. When the Globe dug into the story it became apparent that Biogen’s meeting resulted in a lot of sick people and caused a flood of panicked Biogen employees to arrive at Massachusetts General Hospital seeking tests that simply weren’t available. All eyes were on the company.

Within days, though, the Biogen conference would be infamous, identified as an epicenter of the Massachusetts outbreak of Covid-19, with 70 of 92 coronavirus infections in the state linked to the conference as of Tuesday night, including employees and those who came into contact with them. 

How the Biogen leadership conference in Boston spread the coronavirus, The Boston Globe, 2020.03.10

The meeting was doubtlessly intended to be an important opportunity to get 175 senior leaders at the company company together in the same place to discuss the strategy and prospects for the coming year. There was no conspiracy, no sinister virus escaped from Biogen’s labs, just another meeting like most companies convene regularly, requiring their far-flung staff to get on planes and come together for a few days of speeches, workshops, buffet lunches and gala dinners.

Now Biogen is still in the news, as a cautionary tale, a true epidemiological detective story, a case study in what happens when humans get on airplanes, gather in rooms, breathe on one other and shake each other’s hands.

Every company I’ve worked at has done it, believing it was vital for morale and the corporate culture to get people off of conference calls and into the same room for a few days to build bonds and ensure everyone gets the same information, the same training, and some sort of team-building esprit de corps to break down internal barriers and make the senders of those emails, those voices on the conference call, tangible people and not just names and voices.

Thanks to Biogen, corporate events are dead for the time being. Replaced by the usually silly Zoom events where the participants do the Hollywood Squares thing and toast each other through the glass.

All the company could do was put a spokesman on the phone with the reporter to deny there had been internal discussions to cancel the conference the previous month, when Boston had its first case — a student from Wuhan — and “concerns about holding large gatherings were already circulating locally at least a week before the Biogen conference. The spokesman put on the record that Biogen, at the time of the meeting, had followed “national guidance on travel and in-person meetings.”

What has been the impact on the Biogen brand? A Boston Globe reader commented on the March 10 story about the impact of the conference:

“How about adding the greed and hubris of Biogen. February 26? An international conference in Boston? Have people lost their minds? And this was Biogen. Shouldn’t they know better? Testing is after the fact. Just imagine if this conference never took place like it should not have. How much safer we would be. Where was Mayor Greedy? Where was the Marriott? All counting their money while Biogen execs go conference hopping and infect the world.
They should be held criminally responsible. They are certainly morally so.
They have screwed us. Shame on them all. Such a greedy culture in Boston with this mayor.

Nine months later and Biogen continues to be blamed, most recently by a research paper published in Science, the paper which sparked The New Yorker’s story of December 15. From the abstract of that paper: “an international business conference, produced sustained community transmission and was exported, resulting in extensive regional, national, and international spread.

Now Biogen is on the hook for “hundreds of thousand of infections” according to The New Yorker. The result is a company that will long be associated with what happened at that harborside hotel in late February, and not for its research into finding a cure for Alzheimers.

Because patients rarely (if ever) ask their physician to prescribe them medicine from a specific pharmaceutical company, and because few physicians would avoid prescribing a drug because its manufacturer happened to host a meeting that spread a new virus, and because Biogen’s shareholders probably shrugged off the noise about that meeting and value the company on its financial fundamentals and the promise of its product pipeline, one can argue (from the point of view of crisis communications and brand reputation) that despite some negative associations between the name of the virus, the name of the company, and the name of the hotel, the best response the company could have made was no response other than an expression of concern for its employees’ health and to remind the press that at the time of the meeting there was no way the company could have foreseen that an ordinary meeting would be the source for an estimated 300,000 infections.

Companies have gone so far as to change their names after scandals and disasters. When the Exxon Valdez went on the rocks I stopped buying Exxon for a few weeks until I realized I was just as complicit driving a car that burned fossil fuels and my indignation over the fate of the oil covered sea otters was not going to change one of the largest companies in the world. I didn’t stop flying on TWA after Flight 800 blew up off the shores of Long Island in the mid-1990s. Nor did I boycott United after a baggage handler broke a YouTuber’s guitar and the musician wrote a viral song about it. I do however, continue to steer clear of a well known Mexican fast-food chain after reading too many stories about noroviruses and other food poisoning incidents. I don’t feel any particular ill-will towards the New England Patriots because of Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction or Robert Kraft’s visit to a Florida rub-and-tug.

Barbara Tuchman wrote famously that history is the unfolding of miscalculation. I’d amend that to say that the yin and the yang of good luck and bad luck is just the luck of the draw. Take two leading companies founded by very smart scientists (Biogen’s founders won Nobel Prizes for their work), put their headquarters in the same city (Cambridge), and expose them to the same virus and one comes out the goat, and the other the salvation of humanity. Thus in the same week that Science published a research paper blaming Biogen’s conference for sickening 300,000 people, the FDA approved Moderna’s vaccination.

Crisis communications and reputation repair work begins by planning responses to hypothetical risks. Some of those risks have higher probabilities than others. Some are unique to an industry. Others are too far fetched to even consider. Those responses aren’t the canned statements and carefully massaged expressions of regret the poor corporate spokesperson has to offer a reporter, but are the solutions the company puts into place to fix the problem. Focus on the fix. Plan for the tangible actions that can be taken to solve a potential crisis, then one can worry about how to phrase the press release or who in the company will be making public statements to the media.

Learn by observing those companies that emerge from a crisis and try to determine what worked and what failed. When BP’s CEO blurted out he wished he could get his life back after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he was a goner. When Steve Jobs argued that one of the original iPhone models had no reception problems despite evidence to the contrary, his halo lost some shine. Crisis communications isn’t about apologies, deflections of blame, or stonewalling the press. It’s about changing popular opinion as quickly as possible with clear, forward-looking solutions to very public problems. If, as in the case of Biogen, the crisis was caused by external factors beyond the company’s control, the appropriate response isn’t always “sorry”, but it needs to be a response that anticipates a future when the company may have good news to share, when its halo is shining and all is well with the world. To treat good news and bad news differently; to gush about the good and try to bury the bad; is just hypocrisy the press will seize on.

Biogen’s leadership doubtlessly hoped the tale of its meeting and the people who were subsequently sickened by coming into contact with some infected attendees would just go away. Hope is not a strategy. I think the company played its response correctly by acknowledging the event and not denying it, but also by not indulging in some contrived act of public contrition like a donation to a non-profit or posting of a YouTube video of the CEO wringing his hands with remorse while looking gravely concerned about an incident more due to bad luck and happenstance than bad decision making.