So, Nabisco just got publicly shamed by a bunch of high schoolers. Dan Anderson, a consumer math teacher in upstate New York, was trying to help his students get a better grasp of the subject with a hands-on experiment: determining whether or not Double Stuf Oreos really contain double the “stuf” regular Oreos do.

OREOS, people. OREOS. Someone needs to give this guy a medal. When I was in school, we  dissected cow brains… which our teacher then fried up for us as a “treat.” I’ll take Oreos over cow brains any day.

These intrepid math students weighed cookies with and without their chocolatey wafers, determined averages, and determined that Double Stuf Oreos only contain 1.86 times the filling that normal Oreos do. And “Mega” Oreos – supposedly containing three times more filling than normal Oreos – only contain 2.68 times the filling. You can see all of their work in the Huffington Post article here.

It was an awesome experiment, and got picked up by a few news outlets.  It was a perfect opportunity for Nabisco to build rapport with the public and show good humor.

Instead, their spokesperson said this:

While I’m not familiar with what was done in the classroom setting, I can confirm for you that our recipe for the Oreo Double Stuf Cookie has double the Stuf, or creme filling, when compared with our base, or original Oreo cookie.

Um……….. I guess that settles it.
In a not-at-all kind of way.
That statement doesn’t exactly inspire trust and certainly, does it? It really boils down to “I know those kids used math and everything, and I’m not going to give you any details, but they’re wrong and I’m right and you should trust us with no other information.”
 I always think of these statements as the PR equivalent of Obi Wan Kenobi waving his hand and saying “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” 
 Listen up, folks – unless you can also use the Force and have a real lightsaber on hand, you’re not a Jedi and this strategy won’t win you any brownie points with the public. It’s much more likely to torque them off and send hundreds of them out to buy Oreos and kitchen scales, and then post their results on Twitter and YouTube.  Nabisco’s statement comes off as overly defensive because it projects absolute certainty without providing any real information. And the skeptical public is wired to respond to excessively defensive explanations with even more skepticism. 
In short, Nabisco’s statement makes the public think they’ve got something to hide.
For all I know, they’re totally right and there really is twice the “stuf” in their Double Stuf Oreos. It’s possible. Maybe Nabisco calculates “double” by volume and not weight. Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. It’s just that their statement doesn’t do anything to convince the audience that they’re not trying to pull a fast one. 
They’ve actually triggered a crisis far worse than a few high schoolers claiming Nabisco is skimping on the white stuf. The new crisis is that Nabisco appears to be scared of  – or at least unsettled by – those high schoolers’ claims. 
How could Nabisco have handled it instead?
If I were Nabisco, I’d have responded with a statement along the lines of “What an awesome experiment! We don’t know the details, but their measurements don’t match our quality control department’s results. We’re excited to contact the school and learn more about the experiment.” And then I’d contact the principal and Mr. Anderson immediately, and congratulate them on doing a great job teaching the next generation to be responsible consumers. And then I’d do one of two things: 

I’d offer to fund a field trip for the students to come to an Oreo production facility, talk with the production experts, learn how Oreos are made, and discuss their experiment with Nabisco’s Quality Control experts. 

or

I’d offer to send Nabisco’s Quality Control experts to the school to discuss the process with the students and compare their experiment to Nabisco’s measurements.  And I’d probably throw in a pizza party and a bunch of free Oreos for everyone at lunch.

And then I’d make a nice donation to the school’s math department. 
If Nabisco really does put “Double the Stuf” in their cookies, they’d show the world that they’re open and honest. If they don’t, they’d convince the public they’re willing to listen and not intentionally trying to trick consumers. 
Responding effectively to these situations depends on building trust. Saying “I don’t know anything about their experiment, but they’re wrong” is never going to convince the public that you should be trusted. If someone counters your claims with specific data and you respond by downplaying their results and fail to provide an alternative explanation, the public is going to assume the worst about you. This is especially true if the challenge comes from someone in the general public and went viral. 
If this happens to you, remember these four key steps for responding to data-based criticism:
1. Welcome the challenge or criticism.
2. Express your willingness to partner with the person or people offering the challenge. 
3. Lay out a plan for that partnership to resolve the question.
4. Follow through, making gestures of goodwill that can be publicly documented.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.