Office Max Fails on ‘Daughter Killed in Car Crash’ Story


We know you heard about this corporate comms nightmare: Gawker, BuzzFeed, Forbes and pretty much every other blog ran stories about the fact that Office Max’s sales department sent a solicitation letter/coupon to a man whose daughter was killed in a crash last year with the recipient listed as “daughter killed in car crash.”

This incident was, of course, a mistake (though we have to wonder why anyone would think to enter that text into a contact database).

The real story here is how Office Max screwed up the damage control response by blaming it on “big data.”

Ray Hennessey, the editor-in-chief who will moderate Entrepreneur‘s upcoming PR panel, explains what the company’s team did wrong:

A spokesperson told Forbes:

“The mailing list OfficeMax requested from the third-party provider was for Businesses, Small Offices and Home Offices…we were not seeking personal information and did not ask for it….we have upgraded the filters designed to flag inappropriate information.”

While it’s true that the mistake was almost certainly made by someone at the third-party data provider, the public doesn’t really care: the story went viral and the only brand anyone recognized was Office Max. The big question, then: how was this information relevant to the company, and why was it included in the database?

In fact, we disagree with Hennessey’s assertion that such info “can be relevant and valuable from a marketer’s perspective. Attorneys, for one, would pay well for such knowledge.”

Really? How so? As Forbes notes, the only way it could really be relevant would be as a red flag: don’t call this man, and if you do make sure you’re extra sensitive.

The lesson here: choose your data provider carefully.

Also: while we understand Office Max’s frustration and its desire to shift the blame, that strategy was ultimately not effective—especially amidst the ongoing debate about privacy and consumer data.