Evaluating the CEO of JUUL Labs’ response to vaping concerns

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By Abby Clark 

Studies of crisis communication efforts run the gamut of countless unsuccessful approaches. Whether it be a CEO faux-pa, a poorly worded social media post or a negligent lack of response, ineffective crisis communication can cost a company millions of dollars in reparations.

JUUL has faced a great deal of scrutiny in the wake of vaping illnesses, deaths and an epidemic of young e-cigarette use. While the CEO of JUUL Labs, Kevin Burns, has not remained silent on the issue, his responses have left plenty of room for criticism. 

On July 15, Burns issued an apology for parents whose children had been using their product, stating that the product was never intended for such a young demographic. In the wake of what the FDA has deemed an epidemic of teenage vape usage, many criticized this statement for its lack of transparency and action. 

Simply saying sorry, without acknowledging the potential for flavored pods to attract a younger demographic, seems avoidant rather than sincere. However, JUUL has since decided to stop selling a number of its flavored products that do not taste like tobacco, mint or menthol. They have also shut down their social media accounts, which often appeal to younger audiences.

Perhaps a more successful approach at the time would have been to be upfront about the potential for these flavors to attract younger audiences, while also promising steps to study the issue and make changes. 

On Aug. 28 in a CBS This Morning interview, Burns characterized the cases of vaping illness as “worrisome.” During this interview, Burns was also asked why JUUL has not ceased sales of the product until further information is obtained. Burns said he was not sure if the company was at fault for the illnesses.

“I don’t know if it’s tied to vaping or even associated with nicotine products – most of the early reports have indicated it’s related to THC,” he said (People.com). 

The CDC reports the following data: 

“Among 849 patients with information on substances used in e-cigarette or vaping products in the 3 months prior to symptom onset:

  • About 78% reported using THC-containing products; 31% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • About 58% reported using nicotine-containing products; 10% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.”

Burns’ statement contains truth – the majority of these cases are related to THC. However, 10% of patients in this study used nicotine products exclusively. If the CEO of JUUL is not aware that these illnesses have been found, in some cases, to be associated with nicotine products, it suggests he is not fully informed of the issue. 

An alternative response to this question would have been to simply leave out the first part of the sentence. When the CEO of a company under intense scrutiny admits that he is not fully informed about an issue, it sends the message that even injuries and deaths potentially related to his company are not enough to prompt full education on the issue. Focusing on what he does know, rather than speculating and admitting lack of knowledge, would have avoided such a connotation. 

For those in the PR industry, it is important to pay attention to high-salience issues such as these. Watching how these situations pan out and evaluating crisis responses can allow us to acquire valuable knowledge to apply to our own communication efforts.