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What to Do When Bedbugs Bite Brand Reputations

Recent Cases of Insect Infestation Present New PR Challenges for Unlucky Companies

By Published on . 1

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As notoriously difficult as bedbugs are to remove from your bed or closet, the resilient critters may be even trickier to shake from your company's reputation.

A recent rash of bedbug infestations at New York City retail stores, movie theaters and offices (including ad agencies) has left some companies in an awkward PR challenge: convince creeped-out consumers there's no reason to bug, despite the unpleasant realities of infestation.

Easier said than done.

A report from the city's Bedbug Advisory Board flagged a 240% rise in complaints against landlords for cases of bedbug infestation on rented property from 2006-2009, and the Wall Street Journal recently reported a 2,000% increase in overall complaints. Though the BAC says bedbug infestation in public places is still mostly unmeasured, experts assert there's likely been an even sharper increase in that segment.

"[Even] within the past two or three weeks, [bedbug infestations in New York City have] truly reached epidemic proportions," said Glenn Waldorf, director of Bell Environmental Services, Inc., famous in the tri-state area for its mascot, Roscoe the Bed Bug Dog. This is evidenced by almost daily media stories decrying bedbug alerts in public places such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret and AMC Theatres -- and also in the offices of prominent media companies such as Time Warner, Hachette Filipacchi's Elle and even Euro RSCG and Saatchi & Saatchi in the West Village.

Though bedbugs can travel virtually anywhere on clothes and in luggage, their famous resilience in the face of pesticides makes them hard to exterminate from the nooks and crannies of dark clothing racks and desk drawers. Plus, they multiply very quickly; two bugs can become up to 120 in just 30 days, Mr. Waldorf said.

Eric Edge, global chief communications officer for Euro RSCG, said when a company is faced with the reality of infestation, speedy honesty is the only successful policy. "In today's age of social media, if you try to cover anything up, or spin or sugarcoat the situation, the public is going to see through it," Mr. Edge said. His agency closed the office down on a Friday in July to allow exterminators to treat the whole building over the weekend, and alerted all employees and the public about exactly what was happening, despite the "big, bad bedbug stigma."

With the exponential rise in infestations, avoiding an occurrence in places such as stores is next to impossible, said Jeffrey White, a research entomologist at BedBugCentral.com, a website containing information, news advisories and links to bedbug resources. "It's difficult for companies to be proactive because you don't know when a bug will be carried in. It's really not feasible to be treating an entire movie theater every two weeks."

Many companies emphasize the steps they took during bedbug outbreaks when the spotlight turns their way. Ryan Noonan, AMC Theatre social-media manager, released a statement to New York City blog Gothamist explaining the company's response to cases of bedbug infestation in two of its New York cinemas. "At AMC Empire 25 [we] detected bed bugs on two of the 4,700 seats inside the theatre. Those seats were immediately removed and treated that day," Mr. Noonan wrote.

Mr. Edge says this variety of ugly truth-telling is effective, but could be more so with a dose of education. "While tweeting what you're doing to fix a problem, you could tweet facts," Mr. Edge said. "That way you're showing you're educated about this problem and you're working to fix it."

The bedbug outbreak hasn't been bad news for everyone. It prompted Terminix and other exterminators to purchase Google search advertising against bedbug-related phrases, and it has even created a vacuum for new services.

Douglas Stern, managing partner of New Jersey-based Stern Environmental Group, started a new arm of his extermination business six months ago in response to the growing number of infestations; he calls it "bed-bug-prep concierge service," aimed at helping large-scale clients prepare infested furniture, large objects and spaces for extermination. He says he's worked with a number of clients whose high-profile infestations have made the news lately, and even more that haven't. "There's much more than you think," Mr. Stern said. "Just because [companies] haven't been in the news, doesn't mean they don't have a problem."

Mr. Waldorf, too, says the recent rash of infestations have been good for business, and notes that his clients pay for both his services and discretion. "There's a stigma, but there shouldn't be," he said. "It happens everywhere. The stigma should come from companies that do not take proactive action to deal with a situation."

Experts don't see the rise in infestations slowing -- Mr. White says retailers may be forced to adopt new return and shipping policies to address the issue. Still, Mr. Edge says that with the right approach, companies can keep their itchy hands clean. "Consumers have short attention spans," he said. "It may take a while, but if [companies] share their information, there's no reason the consumer won't move past it as well."

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