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Here's What's up With Olive Garden Flip-Flopping About Whether It Pulled Ads From 'Letterman' Over the Palin Flap TVWeek

By Chuck Ross

What a day.

 Here’s how it went: First, Politico.com reported that the Olive Garden restaurant chain pulled its ads from “Late Show With David Letterman” in response to Letterman’s jokes about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her family.

Politico.com quoted an email sent from Sherri Bruen, Olive Garden’s guest relations manager, to an unnamed individual saying that “there will be no more Olive Garden ads scheduled for ‘The Late Show’ with David Letterman in this year’s broadcast schedule.” Politico.com wrote that the email cited as a reason Letterman’s “inappropriate comments.”

Furthermore, according to Politico.com, Bruen wrote, “We apologize that Mr. Letterman’s mistake, which was not consistent with our standards and values, left you with a bad impression of Olive Garden.”

Politico.com says that Bruen went on to explain, in her email to the individual who complained, that Olive Garden “screens network television programs wherever possible,” but that “telecasts, such as ‘The Late Show’ with David Letterman, are taped on a daily basis, preventing advertisers from reviewing the content prior to airing.”

Well, that seems plain enough. The reporter on the story for Politico—Andy Barr—then followed standard journalism operating procedure and called Olive Garden to verify the authenticity of the emails Politico.com had in its possession.

He reported in the piece that he spoke to Olive Garden’s manager of media relations, who asked not to be quoted on the record. This person, Barr reports, both confirmed the Bruen emails and “confirmed that the company would be pulling its remaining television spots on the program for the rest of the year when asked that question.”

OK. Again, all of this seems pretty straightforward. And though Barr honored his source's desire to remain anonymous, a quick check of the Olive Garden Web site lists Mara Frazier as Olive Garden's manager of media relations. A phone call to her connected us to her voicemail, which said she would not return until Monday, June 22, and if members of the press had questions about anything they should contact Rich Jeffers, who, it turns out, is her boss.

Here’s where things take a turn.

Soon after the story appeared on Politico.com, Jeffers issued the following statement:
“Information reported today by Andy Barr of Politico regarding Olive Garden’s advertising on the Late Show with David Letterman was erroneous. No authorized spokesperson for the company confirmed the information in his report.

The Olive Garden media schedule is planned months in advance. The schedule for the Late Show with David Letterman was completed earlier this month. We take all guest concerns seriously. And, as always, we will factor those concerns in as we plan our advertising schedule in the future.”

In a follow-up story, Barr reported that he asked about the earlier confirmation he had received from the Olive Garden’s manager of media relations. Barr wrote that Jeffers replied with this email:

“The so called ‘confirmation’ didn’t come from an authorized spokesperson for the company. The guest email you received did not say the ads were pulled. And as our statement says, the schedule—which is set months in advance—was completed earlier this month.”

Hold on a minute. What the hell’s going on here? The “so-called” confirmation? The manager of media relations, whose job it is to speak to the press, all of a sudden is not authorized to speak for the company?

Having been around as a reporter almost as long as that 11th century village in Tuscany where the Olive Garden (circa 1982) has its Culinary Institute, I think I have a pretty good guess as to what happened.

The company that owns Olive Garden is Darden Restaurants. According to its Web site, it’s the “largest full-service restaurant company in the world.” Besides Olive Garden it owns Red Lobster and The Capital Grille, among others. Darden has more than 1,700 restaurants, posts about $7 billion in annual sales and employs 180,000 workers.

 Like most big companies, it abhors controversy. Controversy is not a win-win. Much better is keeping as many people happy with your product and/or services as possible, so they will keep buying them.

Palin/Letterman is a genuine controversy. It’s not an issue with which the vast majority of marketers want to take sides. And if Letterman’s apology was good enough for Palin, most marketers feel that should be the end of it.

So here’s what we know about Olive Garden in this instance. We know that it had a commercial appear during the June 8 Letterman show. That's the program during which Letterman first made his Palin jokes.

We know that in response to a complaint about Olive Garden advertising on that program that Sherri Bruen, Olive Garden’s guest relations manager, wrote the emails cited in the Politico.com story.

We also know that Barr, the Politico.com reporter, did exactly what he was supposed to do, and contacted the manager of media relations at Olive Garden, who we assume was Mara Frazier.

 As has happened for time immemorial between reporters and their contacts/sources, she confirmed certain facts to Barr, but asked that he not quote her. Since she works at Darden’s corporate headquarters, and holds the title of manager of media relations, it was fair for Barr to believe that he was speaking to someone who had knowledge of the situation.

Furthermore, it seems clear that she didn’t tell Barr, “No, I don’t know that information,” and that he just made up the confirmation, because Jeffers later says in his statement only that the person Barr spoke with was not an “authorized spokesperson for the company.”

Clearly, after the Politico.com story hit the Internet and started to be picked up by various media outlets—including TVWeek.com—Darden found itself embroiled in a controversy. And that’s not a good thing.

 How convenient, then, to come back and say that the person whose job it is to speak to the media isn’t really supposed to speak to the media, and that the commercial schedule on Letterman was previously scheduled to end on June 8. I’m not saying it’s not true. All I’m pointing out is how convenient it is.

In other words, folks, Olive Garden is saying, poor us, we had the bad luck of advertising on the show when Letterman made some very insensitive jokes, and it was just a coincidence and you can’t blame us for that and listen, whether you love Dave or hate him, and whether you love Palin or hate her, can you please pass the Lasagna Rollatini with Sausage and do you want that with the bottle of Kendall Jackson or Sutter Home?

 Of course Jeffers statement begs the question of how Olive Garden/Darden really feels about the Letterman/Palin issue.

So TVWeek.com got Jeffers on the phone and asked him point blank, “If your ad schedule didn’t happen to end on June 8, would the company have pulled its ads from Letterman's show for a certain length of time?”

To which Jeffers replied, “That’s a hypothetical, and we don’t answer hypotheticals.”#

Soon after the story appeared on Politico.com, Jeffers issued the following statement:
“Information reported today by Andy Barr of Politico regarding Olive Garden’s advertising on the Late Show with David Letterman was erroneous. No authorized spokesperson for the company confirmed the information in his report.

The Olive Garden media schedule is planned months in advance. The schedule for the Late Show with David Letterman was completed earlier this month. We take all guest concerns seriously. And, as always, we will factor those concerns in as we plan our advertising schedule in the future.”

In a follow-up story, Barr reported that he asked about the earlier confirmation he had received from the Olive Garden’s manager of media relations. Barr wrote that Jeffers replied with this email:

“The so called ‘confirmation’ didn’t come from an authorized spokesperson for the company. The guest email you received did not say the ads were pulled. And as our statement says, the schedule—which is set months in advance—was completed earlier this month.”

Hold on a minute. What the hell’s going on here? The “so-called” confirmation? The manager of media relations, whose job it is to speak to the press, all of a sudden is not authorized to speak for the company?

Having been around as a reporter almost as long as that 11th century village in Tuscany where the Olive Garden (circa 1982) has its Culinary Institute, I think I have a pretty good guess as to what happened.

The company that owns Olive Garden is Darden Restaurants. According to its Web site, it’s the “largest full-service restaurant company in the world.” Besides Olive Garden it owns Red Lobster and The Capital Grille, among others. Darden has more than 1,700 restaurants, posts about $7 billion in annual sales and employs 180,000 workers.

 Like most big companies, it abhors controversy. Controversy is not a win-win. Much better is keeping as many people happy with your product and/or services as possible, so they will keep buying them.

Palin/Letterman is a genuine controversy. It’s not an issue with which the vast majority of marketers want to take sides. And if Letterman’s apology was good enough for Palin, most marketers feel that should be the end of it.

So here’s what we know about Olive Garden in this instance. We know that it had a commercial appear during the June 8 Letterman show. That's the program during which Letterman first made his Palin jokes.

We know that in response to a complaint about Olive Garden advertising on that program that Sherri Bruen, Olive Garden’s guest relations manager, wrote the emails cited in the Politico.com story.

We also know that Barr, the Politico.com reporter, did exactly what he was supposed to do, and contacted the manager of media relations at Olive Garden, who we assume was Mara Frazier.

 As has happened for time immemorial between reporters and their contacts/sources, she confirmed certain facts to Barr, but asked that he not quote her. Since she works at Darden’s corporate headquarters, and holds the title of manager of media relations, it was fair for Barr to believe that he was speaking to someone who had knowledge of the situation.

Furthermore, it seems clear that she didn’t tell Barr, “No, I don’t know that information,” and that he just made up the confirmation, because Jeffers later says in his statement only that the person Barr spoke with was not an “authorized spokesperson for the company.”

Clearly, after the Politico.com story hit the Internet and started to be picked up by various media outlets—including TVWeek.com—Darden found itself embroiled in a controversy. And that’s not a good thing.

 How convenient, then, to come back and say that the person whose job it is to speak to the media isn’t really supposed to speak to the media, and that the commercial schedule on Letterman was previously scheduled to end on June 8. I’m not saying it’s not true. All I’m pointing out is how convenient it is.

In other words, folks, Olive Garden is saying, poor us, we had the bad luck of advertising on the show when Letterman made some very insensitive jokes, and it was just a coincidence and you can’t blame us for that and listen, whether you love Dave or hate him, and whether you love Palin or hate her, can you please pass the Lasagna Rollatini with Sausage and do you want that with the bottle of Kendall Jackson or Sutter Home?

 Of course Jeffers statement begs the question of how Olive Garden/Darden really feels about the Letterman/Palin issue.

So TVWeek.com got Jeffers on the phone and asked him point blank, “If your ad schedule didn’t happen to end on June 8, would the company have pulled its ads from Letterman's show for a certain length of time?”

To which Jeffers replied, “That’s a hypothetical, and we don’t answer hypotheticals.”#