DashVapes looks to The Legal A Team for PR crisis management in vaping industry
OVERVIEW OF PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT:
In late August and early September 2019, a number of news stories started to surface about patients with a mysterious lung-related illness in hospital emergency wards in a number of U.S. states. All the news stories reported that patients had been “sickened due to vaping.” Suddenly, DashVapes found itself shopping for a PR crisis management agency. DashVapes hired The Legal A Team, a Toronto-based law firm marketing and law firm public relations agency, to assist in the public relations crisis and defend its good reputation.
Soon, PR crisis management escalated: vaping stories were a daily occurrence and led the news broadcasts in American media, many showing very ill teenagers. The illness got its own acronym: EVALI, or e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury.
In Canada, as of December 27, 2019, 14 cases of vaping-associated lung illness have been reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada from British Columbia (3), New Brunswick (2), Ontario (4), and Quebec (5).
In the U.S., the numbers were much higher: more than 2,500 people in all 50 states became ill from EVALI, with 54 deaths as of December 17, 2019.
Our PR crisis management client, DashVapes, knew that it had to defend its good reputation as well as protect its business interests, and correct media misinformation. The president and CEO, Shai Bekman, had started DashVapes in 2013 as a smoking cessation tool. For 13 years, he smoked between one and two packs of cigarettes per day and had no luck quitting until he discovered nicotine-based vaping.
DashVapes is the largest Canadian manufacturer of nicotine-based vaping products, with 10 physical stores across Canada and quality-controlled manufacturing facilities in Burnaby, B.C., and Markham, Ontario, as well as a large online store that ships internationally. As the biggest Canadian player not affiliated with Big Tobacco, DashVapes had a lot at stake and needed PR crisis management with deep expertise.
PROBLEMS & CHALLENGES OF PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT:
Initially, the media didn’t understand the concept of vaping. Vaping, or e-cigarettes, is merely a technology. It is what you vape that matters: you can vape nicotine-based e-liquid or THC-based e-liquid (cannabis) in those jurisdictions that have de-criminalized marijuana. Our first task in PR crisis management was to help educate reporters, editors, and produces to explain how nicotine-based vaping was, in fact, very different from THC-based (cannabis) vaping.
The question of jurisdiction is actually an important one in PR crisis management, one that many journalists missed. At the time of the EVALI outbreak, cannabis was only legal in 11 out of 50 U.S. states. If people admit to vaping cannabis in states where it is not legal, it is a misdemeanor (first offence) and then a felony (second and subsequent offences). People who had fallen ill with lung problems didn’t want to admit to American doctors nor American police officers that they bought and ingested an illegal substance.
Similarly in Canada, THC e-liquid had been green-lighted in Canada for sale in provincial cannabis stores on October 17, 2019, but THC e-liquid would not be available to consumers for purchase until late December 2019, pointing to the fact that Canadians were falling ill from vaping not only an illegal product, but also tainted product.
“Scalping”—the process of one media copying another media outlet’s news without doing their own investigation—became problematic in crisis PR management for The Legal A Team and DashVapes. “Scalping” amplified reporting mistakes and misinformation to an even larger audience, causing more worry and fear in PR crisis management.
DashVapes found at least one instance where a major U.S. network had “selectively edited” a story for TV and twisted the words of the patient, to mean that he fell ill “due to vaping.” He actually admitted that he had, in fact, vaped THC e-liquid, during his whole life, to combat PTSD.
Here was another story of a young woman who ended up in hospital “due to vaping,” but had admitted to vaping THC-based e-liquid, not nicotine-based e-liquid.
The speed of the news cycle is always a challenge in PR crisis management. At the end of the day, media go to air (or go to print) with what they believe is the best story to serve the public interest.
The Legal A Team invited a number of journalists to tour DashVapes’ ISO-9001, cGMP, HACCP certified, purpose-built laboratories for the manufacturing of nicotine e-liquid in either Burnaby or Markham; none took us up on our offer.
The media then latched onto nicotine-based fruit and candy flavours as an alleged attempt to hook teens onto vaping, thereby undoing decades of anti-smoking campaigns and government regulation. Some manufacturers had gone this route, selling and promoting their nicotine-based e-liquids in gas stations and convenience stores; DashVapes was not one of them. The debate over flavoured e-liquids was a new twist to PR crisis management.
OUR APPROACH TO PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT:
Prior to September 2019, there had been zero incidents of people falling ill after nearly a decade of nicotine-based vaping. Then, WHAM! something changed. What changed? Finding what changed, Toronto-based law firm marketing and law firm public relations agency The Legal A Team, told DashVapes, was the key to PR crisis management.
Right from the start, The Legal A Team advised DashVapes to be proactive by issuing a series of news releases to lead PR crisis management. These news releases took firm positions on issues that were important to DashVapes, encouraged journalists (who are skeptical by nature) to keep asking questions and to “follow the money,” and also corrected reporting inaccuracies.
September 24, 2019:
Vaping crisis: Journalists encouraged to keep asking tough questions during vaping crisis
October 15, 2019
Provincial Health Ministers need to make sure they aren't being misled about the "vaping crisis"
December 4, 2019
Vape facts are more important than opinion: DashVapes
Fundamentally, in a matter of weeks, a Black Market had popped up in both THC vaping and nicotine-based vaping, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were several steps behind the counterfeiters. That turned out to be the heart of PR crisis management for DashVapes—proving the existence of bad product caused by bad actors.
In early December, DashVapes launched VapeFacts.ca, a website to correct information wrongly reported in mainstream media.
It took the CDC from early September 2019 to late December 2019, to conclusively state that the outbreak of the lung-related illnesses was caused by vitamin E-acetate which was added to THC e-liquid as a filler, by Black Marketers to make more profits.
While navigating PR crisis management, we also found a variety of pesticides in Black Market cannabis e-liquid, in addition to vitamin E-acetate.
KEY MESSAGES OF PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT:
The key to effective PR crisis management is consistent and simple messaging. Throughout the PR crisis, DashVapes did not waver in what it said publicly about the public relations crisis to the media, to government regulators, to its customers, and to its suppliers:
There is a Black Market in both THC-based and nicotine-based e-liquids. On Amazon and Alibaba, as well as other websites, empty glass vials for vaping e-liquid as well as sophisticated looking packaging that looks like it comes from a reputable manufacturer are available for purchase. Who is buying these empty vials? Who is filling these empty vials? What are they filling these vials with?
The Black Market is real; Canadians who vape should not put their health at risk by buying their e-liquid from untrusted sources.
DashVapes continues to produce high quality e-liquids for those Canadians who want to quit smoking. This has always been DashVapes’ target market and the reason the company went into business.
DashVapes does not target teens in its advertising, promotion, nor social media.
DashVapes verifies the age of each purchaser both in stores, and online through cross referencing a purchaser's age through Equifax.
DashVapes is in favour of capping the amount of nicotine in each e-cartridge to 20mg; DashVapes makes a variety of nicotine-based e-liquids with decreasing levels of nicotine, so people can finally quit vaping.
Flavoured nicotine-based e-liquids, including fruit, dessert, and candy flavours are important tools for smokers who want to quit. DashVapes analyzed its sales data as part of crisis PR management. With regard to flavours, more than 90% of vapers in all age groups enjoy flavours. Ask any smoker who is trying to quit and they will tell you that they don’t want the taste of tobacco in their mouth. (Would you insist that alcoholics drink scotch-, bourbon-, or gin-flavoured water while they are trying to quit drinking? Probably not.)
The Legal A Team arranged for DashVapes president and CEO, Shai Bekman, to be interviewed on BNN Bloomberg two times as part of PR crisis management:
September 26, 2019
Dash Vapes CEO: CDC discovery on vitamin E can't be traditionally vaped
BNN Bloomberg, Host Catherine Murray
October 8, 2019
Dash Vapes CEO pens open letter to health officials to stop vaping 'fear-mongering'
BNN Bloomberg, Host Greg Bonnell
The Legal A Team also arranged an interview for Shai Bekman on CBC News on September 28, 2019.
Shai Bekman was interviewed by Global News on October 7, 2019, about licensing for Toronto vaping retailers (Bekman is in favour of it).
On December 24, 2019, neurosurgeon and medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN did a 5-minute TV segment titled “The vaping black market is hiding in plain sight.” CNN visited an illegal vaping store in California that looked legitimate, making the point that it is very hard to tell Black Market stores from legitimate ones.
The Ontario government banned e-cigarette advertising in gas stations and convenience stores, in an effort to curb teen vaping. The advertising ban came into effect in Ontario on January 1, 2020.
British Columbia enacted a similar advertising ban, plus additional vaping restrictions, on November 14, 2019, which DashVapes supports.
Through effective PR crisis management, DashVapes is defending its good reputation. And by getting key messages out early as a Board member of the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA), Shai Bekman was also an unofficial spokesperson. DashVapes has also used the public relations crisis to stand out from its competitors.
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