“Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” It’s not just a piece of wisdom from the 19th Century poet Ella Wheeler; it’s a lesson in crisis management.
Take Netflix’s response to the launch of a “Stranger Things”-themed pop-up bar in Chicago. The bar is an elaborate and loving homage to the hit series, which won over audiences with its combination of suspense and 1980s nostalgia. Among other details that will resonate with show-watchers, the bar, called The Upside Down, included an upside-down table on the ceiling and an alcoholic slushie drink garnished with a slice of waffle. Flattering though it may have been, the bar presented Netflix with an unwelcome communications challenge.
On the one hand, Netflix had no choice but to take some kind of action, lest it jeopardize its ownership of its intellectual property in “Stranger Things”. On the other hand, pouring cold water on such a painstakingly-created tribute is a great way to turn off fans and generate bad press.
Netflix was no doubt aware of this. It was also no doubt aware of the pain that ham-handed communications can inflict on a company, given that its botched rollout of a price hike in 2011 has become a case study in bad PR. But this time, Netflix found the perfect solution: comedy.
Netflix did, indeed, write a letter demanding that the pop-up bar shut down. But it used the lightest possible touch. Invoking the language of the 80s era preteens who populate “Stranger Things”, the letter begins: “My walkie talkie is broken so I had to write this note instead. I heard you opened a Stranger Things pop-up bar at your Logan Square location. Look, I don’t want you to think I’m a total waistoid, and I love how much you guys love the show. (Just wait until you see Season 2!) But unless I’m living in the Upside Down, I don’t think we did a deal with you for this pop-up.”
Levity isn’t always the right solution to a communications or reputational challenge. In fact, more often than not, it probably isn’t. Sean Spicer, for instance, just hardened public sentiment against himself by making his practice of lying to the American public into the basis of a comedy bit. At this point, he would be better served by engaging in thoughtful reflection about his role in the current administration (perhaps via an op-ed), befitting the kind of television commentator that he apparently would like to be. Instead, he reinforced the popular image of himself as a buffoon.
Netflix’s use of comedy, by contrast, works brilliantly. First, it neutralizes the sting of asking the bar to shut down. The lawyer’s good humor, along with the letter’s many references to elements of the show, say something even more important between the lines: we’re on the same side here. The comedic device effectively positions Netflix as an ally, rather than a villain, of the “Stranger Things” fan base. So, while the situation could have easily bred antagonism or resentment, the bar manager has emphasized that the soon-to-close pop-up has “no hard feelings” toward Netflix.
The letter works on a second level too. With the bar and the show being magnets for attention, Netflix’s lawyer knew shutting it down would draw press. The lighthearted letter became the focus of that story, turning a potential negative into a positive – and even working in a not-so-subtle plug for season two along the way.
Now we’re even more excited about visiting the Upside Down . . . on Netflix.