Eric Dezenhall, Chairman and Co-Founder of Dezenhall Resources, shared his best practices and perspectives on the continuing Bud Light controversy
September 2023 – Leading public relations and damage control expert Eric Dezenhall visited Drew University’s digital marketing class, MKTG 352, to share critical lessons learned from decades of crisis management experience.
Dezenhall has appeared in several leading news outlets, including Business Week, CNBC, Fortune, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He has also authored eleven fiction and nonfiction books, most recently a revised version of GLASS JAW: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.
“Dezenhall’s lecture, infused with the depth and breadth of his experience, reinforces how impactful the combination of applied knowledge by a seasoned practitioner and acquired knowledge in the classroom can be,” said Ann Mills, adjunct assistant professor.
During his presentation, Dezenhall tackled the controversy surrounding Bud Light’s promotion with Dylan Mulvaney and answered over two dozen student questions.
Business major Shaohua Ge C‘24, said, “The biggest thing that struck me during Dezenhall’s presentation was not the content of his speech, but the rigor with which he approached things. He not only answered all the questions from the students during our final Q&A session but also read out all the questions himself so that everyone would know what he was answering. This was a detail that I learned a lot from.”
Dezenhall’s insights included:
“Look at the world how it is, even if it’s unpleasant.”
Throughout his crisis management career, Dezenhall has encountered the ugliest cases imaginable and does not consider his job to be one of speaking happy thoughts. These experiences have been foundational for his innovative, disciplined approach to crisis management. He doesn’t follow traditional public relations strategies that view crises as communication problems flanked by different stakeholders. Instead, Dezenhall treats crises as conflicts with adversaries and shares former Kellogg School of Management professor Martin Stoller’s view, “The aim of crisis management is to stop the attacker.” For Dezenhall, crisis management stops attackers and helps guide institutions. It’s not an exercise in improving a brand’s reputation.
“Preach to the choir and know your audience.”
For Dezenhall, staying true to a brand’s values is extremely important. He explained that beer is a badge product. Badge products are about tribes and feelings. Consumers don’t care as much about product attributes. Therefore, marketing to an audience that is the most profitable is a legitimate strategy for beer, as is just sticking to what works. Bud Light’s promotion of Mulvaney did not resonate with its core audience. Consumers interpreted the shift in the audience as: “You don’t like me, Bud Light.” As such, companies that are cautious with their marketing campaigns often do better than ones that experiment. More importantly, a brand needs deep knowledge of its business and audience. When asked by a student if he thought the promotion with Mulvaney might have worked with a different Anheuser-Busch beer, Dezenhall felt the company could have had a different outcome if it had chosen another brand in its portfolio.
“Don’t expect instantaneous recovery in a crisis.”
When asked by the students what Bud Light should do now, Dezenhall said that the brand should bide its time, do some soul-searching, and let the situation calm down. Bud Light must slowly rebuild relationships with distributors and its core audience. Although recovery from a crisis is never instantaneous, brands have an advantage over individuals because they hold diverse product portfolios. Brand reputations never rely solely on one product. Large brands in particular have the time and money to recover slowly.
Marketing major Olivia Oberlin C’26, said, “I learned the most effective way for a company to gain traction after controversy is to let the situation calm down before fixing it. Dezenhall said, ‘You can’t rebuild a house during a hurricane.’ I thought that statement was very powerful because all businesses could use that advice.”
“Try hard to step out of your own beliefs.”
Dezenhall addressed whether “woke” marketing—marketing highly attuned to social issues—is driven by shifting demographics in the marketplace. He believes “woke” marketing results from senior executives pushing their personal values into company campaigns. Dezenhall taught the students about the Overton Window, a construct that helps practitioners gauge whether ideas are gaining acceptance. When policies go through the Overton Window, they become more mainstream and easier to discuss. From his perspective, transgenderism has not made its way through the Overton Window yet. Consequently, it increased the risk of controversy for Bud Light when the company highlighted the social issue in a promotion.
Business major Mike DeMayo C’25, said, “One thing I learned from Eric’s presentation is that it is very important for companies to have a set marketing plan. This marketing plan should not be rushed, and the team should be on the same page in order for it to work. In addition, they must weigh out their options and make sure whatever they decide to go with is the right thing to do for the company as a whole.”
As he concluded his lecture, Dezenhall reminded the students that negativity conducts in digital media. The result is that a digital environment favors the tyranny of speed over accuracy—what’s important is that something was retweeted, not that the information was correct. And, because anyone can retweet, there are no referees to mitigate the impacts for brands.