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Advertising alone won’t help Subway weather potential crisis

Ad Age reported this week that Subway is conducting a “closed review of its creative advertising.”

That’s not a surprise after the global fast food giant suspended its relationship with pitchman Jared Fogle, whose Indiana home was raided this month by state and federal authorities. This week, Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace announced he was leaving to open a consultancy.

Advertising is important to Subway – it spent about $533 million in 2014, according to Kantar Media – but it’s going to take more than creative genius to help the company weather a looming crisis.

To do that, Subway needs to separate advertising from PR. That’s not easy, and companies often mistake one for the other. Each is important, but in a crisis, deft PR is far more essential.

So far, so good: Subway acted quickly in suspending its relationship with Fogle, whom it turned into a celebrity by attributing his dramatic weight loss to a steady diet of Subway sandwiches. It has seemingly shared as much information as it can with constituents. That’s critical to maintaining trust and staying in front of the story.

There’s not much else Subway can do for the moment, except wait…and wait…and be poised to pivot with the next newsbreak. That requires a communications strategy, not an ad campaign.

The public is savvy – and cynical – enough to understand that advertising represents a company’s effort to create its own facts. But in a crisis, the facts belong to the public, not the company. To maintain credibility, Subway must be honest and transparent with the media, which will shape the public’s opinion.

Ad campaigns are strategic, but they take time, lots of time, and time is something companies don’t have when they’re facing a crisis. News doesn’t wait for your creative team to dream up concepts. Even the cleverest ad plans can be rendered irrelevant overnight by a news development.

How will Subway play any Jared-related fallout? The stakes are high for a brand valued at $6.8 billion by Forbes. Subway has the resources to spend heavily on advertising. But it would be wise to invest in crisis communications as well.

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