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P-Arrrrrgh: Kellogg's Flakes Out on Media Messaging

A few months ago I had dinner with someone who immediately said, "Oh, you look tired. Are you tired?" as she sat down in the restaurant banquette.

My thoughts were immediately taken over by an internal monologue-cum-debate about whether this connection was showing genuine concern for me, or sharing an unintentionally insulting observation. "Is she being nice? Or did she say the quiet part out loud??"

And it was true. I was, indeed, running on fewer hours of sleep than I prefer to enjoy. But the unvarnished comment seemed to be less about concern for my well-being and more about my shortcomings du jour.

It seems Kellogg's CEO has a similar level of tact when talking about his company's customers.

Multimillionaire executive Gary Pilnick was recently on CNBC's Squawk on the Street when he suggested that families dealing with economic hardship could make ends meet by eating "cereal for dinner."

Now, I enjoy breakfast for dinner as much as the next guy (this shakshuka recipe is a current fave), but there's something about this PR messaging that just feels funny. And other critics agree.

Mr. Pilnick's interview was supposed to be a hot take on how rising grocery prices are shocking families' budgets across the country, and ways that food producers like Kellogg's could address the sticker shock.

Good PR is never insulting; it can educate, inspire, and show compassion, but this message of promoting cereal for dinner for cash-strapped consumers falls short in so many ways.

First: The guy delivering the message is a multimillionaire. It's safe to say he and his family are not intimately familiar with how inflation and high grocery prices are affecting American families. The CEO delivering the message does not come across as credible, but instead as an opportunist looking to boost already healthy profits.

Second: While cereal is fine and good for folks looking for a good source of fiber and cost-per-calorie nourishment, it is in no way a perfect solution for families struggling to put a balanced meal on the table at dinner time.

Third: This PR message falls flat on showing compassion for families and the economic challenges they're experiencing. Was Pilnick being nice and showing genuine concern for his customers? Or was he just being woefully inept when promoting the products made by his company?

If you skimmed the above and are just looking for the TL:DR tips:

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Really think about their challenges. Does your corporate message educate, inspire, or show empathy? Let that goal be your touchstone as you develop messaging.

  2. Who is the right person to deliver the message? I'm not completely taking issue with Kellogg's message - but their CEO was not the best person to get in front of these talking points. One of Kellogg's home economist experts or someone from marketing & communications should have delivered the cereal-for-dinner message (along with additional expert advice that isn't laden with self-promotion). Let the CEO talk about what the company is doing to provide new, affordable options for families or how it's addressing hunger (i.e.: establish a partnership with a national foodbank or other charitable organization).

  3. Is there even a whiff of insult? Does the message come across as oblivious or callous? Test the message with a variety of parties internally or externally. If your internal gut check reveals even a hint of weakness, go back to the drawing board and reframe your messaging.

PR is the art of marrying facts and emotion. The facts around inflation and consumers' financial hardship are undeniable. But a little sensitivity would go a long way when talking to and about families looking for ways to put food on the table.


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