Pity the beleaguered Crock-Pot: First it gets its lunch eaten by the upstart InstantPot. Then it murders a beloved character on a popular TV show.

The slow cooker that had toiled unobtrusively for years on kitchen counters around the world, silently stewing your Swedish meatballs, suddenly found itself last week thrust into the social media spotlight.

Prior to last week, the brand wasn't even on Twitter—because, honestly, who wants to talk to Crock-Pot?

Yet, a week later, the hastily assembled @CrockPotCares Twitter feed is still defending itself from attacks caused by the unlikeliest of sources.

What Happened?

Last Tuesday, NBC's "This Is Us" episode fingered the family slow cooker in the long-awaited explanation of the death of family patriarch Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). The exact circumstances of his death had been a mystery for the past two seasons; that a faulty switch on a used slow cooker ignited the fire that engulfed the family's Pittsburgh home was a big reveal.

In case you weren't part of the record-breaking audience for that episode, here's the scene:

In that moment last week, Crock-Pot found itself blindsided—thrust into the middle of a Clue game. (It was Mr. Crock-Pot in the Kitchen with Flame from a Faulty Switch!)

Did you notice that the pot wasn't even branded a Crock-Pot? Apparently, that doesn't matter in this post-truth world. (Also, who gets as excited as those characters were about a used slow cooker? But now I'm just being cynical...)

Anyway, fans took to Facebook and Twitter to harass Crock-Pot. Some said they planned to toss out their Crock-Pots—in protest, in fear, or both. Some vowed to never use it again.

Others—including NBC—rallied around the brand.

It wasn't just social media that... uh... ignited. The "killer Crock-Pot" made it into Stephen Colbert's monologue. Marketplace covered it. Popular Science and Self Magazine ran features on Crock-Pot safety.

Later last week, on Thursday, Crock-Pot parent company Newell Brand's stock dropped 21%, although that was apparently unrelated to the Crock-Pot Crisis. (The drop occurred after Newell said it planned to explore selling 10 or so of its brands—not including Crock-Pot.)

In some ways, all this seems crazy: a brand needing to defend itself for causing a fictional character's death in an invented scenario that doesn't even mention its brand.

But, a week later, people are still talking about it: The Self magazine piece published this week asked, "Can your Crock-Pot actually kill you?"

Meanwhile, on Twitter:

Welcome to the new world of social media, which adds people-powered petrol to non-issues.

Crisis Management

It's crazy but it's not, says Melissa Agnes, a crisis management consultant and author of a new book, Crisis Ready, out next month.

The reason this fake issue went viral, Melissa said, is because the core of it is real: It's relatable. We can all relate to life changing in an instant, especially at the hand of something so seemingly innocuous. "It plays to our fears," she said.

Crock-Pot's response to the TV tragedy was spot-on. (You can read the response here.)

And the issue carries broader lessons for any brand. Because crisis can materialize out of literally anywhere.

Four Lessons

Brands can protect themselves from igniting the flames higher by being ready to do these four things:

  1. Set up a system and process for identifying when something is an actual crisis and when it's just an "issue." Crock-Pot might not have had a social media presence prior to the current episode, but it was able to mobile swiftly—immediately. It therefore seemed (and was) prepared to act when it needed to, Melissa said.

    Takeaway: Create a plan to react in either scenario, with a response (and speed of response) that matches the need.
  2. Lead with empathy, and use the right tone of voice. Crock-Pot responded in all the right ways, Melissa said, by first addressing people's emotional concerns: not with "this would never happen," but with "we're heartbroken, too." Crock-Pots tone of voice was relatable and human, not corporate and stiff. (Broken-heart emojis FTW.)

    Takeaway: You can't address an emotional issue with rational argument.
  3. Empower people (employees) to know what to do (see #1). Also empower them to respond accordingly.

    Takeaway: Don't wait for a crisis to hit before you develop an action plan that both trains and empowers your people.
  4. Approach any crisis with humility. It's OK to express vulnerability. (Crock-Pot admitted, "Yeah we were surprised, too.")

    And by engaging directly and honestly, it strengthened relationships and built goodwill with fans and customers. The company and its reps let themselves have some fun (Crock-Pot also gently poked fun at the absurdness of the fictional situation, using the hashtag #crockpotisinnocent). And shared facts (citing its rigorous testing program).

Crock-Pot could also launch a trade-in program for Crock-Pots that are as old at the one in the show. If handled correctly, a program could create further goodwill.

A Final Thought

The content marketer in me wants to see Crock-Pot embrace this opportunity more fully at some point.

Maybe Milo Ventimiglia figures in a Crock-Pot Cooking show?

Or maybe it does a Facebook Live of a slow-cooked stew that runs for 10 hours straight, demonstrating by the utter lack of drama how boringly safe a product the Crock-Pot is?

But that's probably down the road. It's a dicey proposition to do any marketing effort around a death—even a fictional one.

Update, February 3, 2018

"This Is US" responds:

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If It Can Happen to Crock-Pot, It Can Happen to You: Four Steps to Make Your Brand Crisis-Ready

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image of Ann Handley

Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author who recently published Everybody Writes 2. She speaks worldwide about how businesses can escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. IBM named her one of the 7 people shaping modern marketing. Ann is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a LinkedIn Influencer, a keynote speaker, mom, dog person, and writer.