Put in an Impossible Position, Subway Is Navigating It as Well as Possible, Experts Say

Brand is distancing itself from Jared Fogle without placing blame

If your well-known spokesman ends up being convicted of a crime, the solution is easy: Fire him, and condemn his actions. But what's a brand to do when its best-known customer is tangled up in a child-porn investigation in which he hasn't been charged and could be anything from a suspect to an unwitting bystander?

Actually, crisis PR experts say, a brand should do exactly what Subway has done in the wake of an FBI search yesterday of Jared Fogle's home and computers.

The search of Fogle's home outside Indianapolis began at 6 a.m. yesterday morning. By noon, Subway—for whom Fogle has appeared in more than 300 television commercials since losing more than 200 pounds on an all-Subway diet as a college freshman in 1998—issued a statement expressing shock. "We are very concerned and will be monitoring the situation closely," the brand said through a spokesman.

By 5:30 p.m., the sandwich chain issued a new statement: "Subway and Jared Fogle have mutually agreed to suspend their relationship due to the current investigation. Jared continues to cooperate with authorities and he expects no actions to be forthcoming. Both Jared and Subway agree that this was the appropriate step to take."

"They are doing the right thing," crisis PR expect Eric Dezenhall told Adweek today. Dezenhall is the the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Dezenhall Resources and the author of Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal. "Remember, there are legal issues here. Firing somebody and implying you have embraced their guilt has contractual and defamation implications."

However, Dezenhall said, Subway had no choice but to act.

"You don't have to be guilty to lose everything; you just have to be in the same hemisphere as guilt," he said. "Companies are simply not set up to weather these types of scandals, so they immediately sever ties with a radioactive personality, and they have to. Subway has branched out since the original Jared campaigns, which will serve them well going forward."

Speaking to Adweek yesterday, before Subway's announcement that it was suspending its relationship with its spokesman of 15 years, Ernest DelBuono, svp at the PR firm Levick and chairman of its crisis practice, suggested what the chain's next step should be.

"Subway can't be silent in the near term, whether Jared is guilty or not," DelBuono said. "They need to put out a statement as soon as possible to make sure the public knows they are aware of the situation and keeping apprised of any further developments. They also have to deal with the fact that Jared has been a big part of Subway's growth and transformation into one of the biggest fast-casual restaurant chains in the United States."

But he also counseled against a rush to judgment. "Until all of the facts come out, they shouldn't show too much support and presume innocence or cut all ties and throw him under the bus by presuming his guilt," he said. "The reality right now is that we know very little about the details of the case at this point, so Subway has to walk a pretty tight rope. [They need to] acknowledge the situation without confirming or implying any management decisions that will paint the company into a corner later on."

Risa Heller, a New York crisis and political PR specialist who runs Risa Heller Communications, said that the sandwich chain was making the only moves it can.

"Subway has no choice here," she said. "Jared is a big part of their brand, and it would be nearly impossible for any company to stomach the fallout during this investigation." But she also noted that Subway "went out of their way to say that they 'mutually separated.'" 

"They seem to be leaving the door open to reconnect with him if it comes out that he had no role," she said."

Dezenhall stressed the importance of leaving that door open.

"We had a situation like this a few years ago where our client simply said, 'We support so-and-so's decision to take time off,'" he said. "That way, they didn't embrace the celebrity, nor did they disparage him. Of course, there will always be critics who say a company needs to do more, but they haven't lived in the crisis world I've lived in for 30-some years."