2017 debunked the myth “all press is good press” as we experienced some of the most gut-wrenching PR disasters that created major setbacks for a handful global corporations. While these major mishaps were difficult to watch, each crisis provided amazing real-life teaching moments for public relations professionals everywhere. As we celebrate the New Year, let’s take a look at some of the companies that are still recuperating from their self-inflicted PR mistakes.

 

UNITED AIRLINES

The Crisis: 2017 unleashed a never-ending cycle of PR disasters for United Airlines. Most notably, the airline took the worst hit in the company’s 90-year history when a passenger was dragged off an overbooked plane, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth in the process. The incident was recorded by onlookers’ camera phones and immediately circulated on social media.

Once notified of the situation, United CEO Oscar Munoz made it even worse by apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers” and then later said in a leaked employee email about the incident that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” This came just one month after he was named 2017 U.S. Communicator of the Year by PR Week.

The company’s poor response to a customer incident caused its stock to drop $1 billion in value and has placed the entire airline industry under the microscope.

The Lesson: If you’d be ashamed for millions of people to see something your company does, don’t do it. Instead, if you need to inconvenience a customer, be willing to negotiate with them and never force it. Furthermore, if a problem does arise, remember that “the customer is always right.” This customer-centric mindset also needs to be evident in your crisis communications plan both internally and externally. In statements, never blame the victim but acknowledge the mistake and offer a heartfelt apology.

 

PAPA JOHN’S PIZZA

The Crisis: As one of the biggest sponsors of the National Football League (NFL), Papa John’s came under fire as CEO John Schnatter attempted to link its declining pizza sales to NFL players’ national anthem protests and that it might cease its sponsorship if the protests continued. Schnatter’s stance earned the support from The Daily Storm, a neo-Nazi newspaper, who even adopted the company as the “official pizza chain for the alt-right.” Schnatter was forced to issue a statement asking the group to stop eating his pizza, hoping to halt the PR disaster, and resigned as CEO.

The Lesson: Any business issues being addressed in a public-facing statement, such as social media, need to be approved by the chain of command listed in a communications plan. Even with the relaxed demeanor of social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, these posts need to be vetted out to determine any repercussions that may arise.

 

EQUIFAX

The Crisis: Equifax experienced one of the largest data breaches ever that affected more than 143 million customers. Not only was it being investigated by the SEC and multiple states along with hundreds of lawsuits, but Equifax also sat on the news for six weeks. To make matters worse, four well-informed company executives sold $1.8 million in stock well before the news became public.

Once the breach was disclosed, Equifax tried to charge comprised customers a fee for the privilege of protecting themselves and freezing their credit. Although it later waived the fee after public outrage, the damage was done. To this day, Equifax has still yet to tell anyone how hackers infiltrated the system or how the company is preventing it from happening again.

The Lesson: Transparency is key. When a problem arises, it needs to be disclosed sooner rather than later or else the perception will be deceiving rather than proactive. A company also needs to focus on promising corrective action and then effectively following through.

 

DOVE SOAP FACEBOOK POST

The Crisis: Dove has always been a huge advocate for inclusivity and diversity. For instance, it’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has celebrated the natural physical variation of women and invoked a new level of self-confidence in females of all ages worldwide. However, the brand experienced major backlash when the company produced a Facebook GIF showing an African American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a Caucasian woman. Social media users called it “racist” and “insensitive,” interpreting it as a message implying the dark skin was dirty and would be cleaned after using Dove soap. Realizing the error, Dove removed the post and issued an apology.

The Lesson: Given how many brands fumble in getting respectful messaging across about race and diversity, it’s vital for all communicators to ensure their brands have an internal review process for all creative content. This helps companies nix off-mark messaging long before it reaches the public. Although it may delay creative processes, gathering multiple viewpoints through audits of inclusion and diversity practices will help brands from “missing the mark” in the future.

 

CHEERIOS

The Crisis: It’s no secret that there is an issue with the world’s declining bee population. Naturally, Cheerios seem like the perfect brand to raise awareness of the honeybee’s critical role as a pollinator of many of the world’s most important crops. So, Cheerios’ parent company General Mills partnered with Canadian company Vesays Seeds Ltd. and distributed 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to customers to help with bee habitat restoration.

However, the promotion turned controversial when it was discovered that the packets sent out included seeds for plants that were invasive in some states and banned in others. In addition, ecologists revealed some of the seeds could pose a significant threat if introduced outside their native range. Cheerios pushed back on the accusations by sharing reactionary statements via social media, but the damage was done.

The Lesson: The public back-and-forth between experts and General Mills caused major confusion among consumers on the authenticity of the campaign. Even if the seeds may not have been invasive, the lack of consumer awareness and education on the ecology industry larger construed whether the campaign was truly good-hearted or just a PR ploy. Instead of shipping a basic mix of seeds that included some that were not native to America, General Mills should have used native flower specific to specific locations and made that evident in campaign content. It may have been more expensive and time-consuming, but the overall message would have been better accepted.

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