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5 Great Lessons Brands Can Learn From Recent PR Disasters

Are you a business owner trying to resolve a public relations crisis? Maybe you are a PR expert working in overdrive to restore a client’s tattered reputation online? If so, you are not alone.

Industry reports project worldwide public relations revenue to grow from 14 billion U.S. dollars generated in 2016 to approximately 19.3 billion by 2020.

Another report indicates that 46 per cent of large companies engaged in PR activities in 2017. Among the SMEs in the U.S, 31 per cent invested marketing dollars in public relations.

15 per cent of SMEs stated that PR was the marketing tactic they relied on most to grow their business.

If you have a PR crisis on your hands, there’s no need to panic. However grave your PR problem looks, there are countless past situations you can learn from to make things right.

As George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, aptly put it “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

By looking at past PR disasters reported in the media, you can glean important insight to guide your brand’s PR strategy.

Public Relations and Reputation

A report on Forbes calls PR an image shape and for a good reason. It is all about using all available mediums to tell the correct story about a brand.

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” This gem by Benjamin Franklin is right on point when it comes to public relations. In the modern world state of public relations, the situation is more precarious.

According to a recent Pew Research Survey, about a quarter of U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online. Overall, 77% of Americans go online daily.

As of the first quarter of 2019, Facebook had 2.38 billion monthly active users. If something significant about your brand happens now, this information will be all over the internet in minutes.

Sharing is one of the main activities for internet users. If you are in charge of PR in an organisation, you have to act fast to repair any damage to your brand. These advances in technology warrant a change in the approach to public relations.

The modern-day PR expert has to deal with unique challenges including fake news, data breaches and a highly engaged audience. In light of these emerging challenges, it is important to use every opportunity to learn.

Looking at PR disasters in the recent past is a great way to optimize your brand’s PR strategy. It is important to observe what precipitated such PR disasters and how those involved could have avoided these situations.

From these PR crises, you will also learn invaluable lessons on successfully handling your situation. Most PR disasters are 100% avoidable if you learn from the mistakes of other companies.


Biggest PR Crises in the Recent Past

From social media gaffes, product recalls, racists and sexist adverts, brands across the globe have had their fair share of public relations nightmares.

Some of the most outstanding PR disasters include:

United Airlines Bumping Passenger Off A Flight  (2017)

United Airlines is one of the most recognisable brands in the world. It is a top global airline boasting the world’s most comprehensive global route network including gateways to Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

However, when Dr David Dao boarded a flight from Chicago to Louisville, all this changed. Dr Dao was forcefully dragged from the plane to give room for staff after declining an initial request.

In the process, the passenger suffered injuries to his head and mouth. What followed was a PR disaster that almost crashed the airline.

Customers who were earlier enthusiastic about buying tickets from the airline said they would choose a rival airline even at a higher price. What made the situation ugly was the airline’s reaction to a serious crisis.

The CEO’s apology was insincere having labeled Dr Dao “disruptive and belligerent” in a letter to employees. The CEO went further to defend the employees claiming they followed established procedure.

By the time the company took full responsibility for the mess, it was too late. A report on The New York Times indicated United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low following this incident and the company’ handling of it.

Lesson: From the start, United Airlines didn’t take control of the situation. To make matters worse, the CEO’s half-hearted apology and the letter commending the involved employees betrayed a lack of consistency.

As a PR manager, you have to deliver consistent messages in all situations. You should also be sensitive to the emotions of others. If you have to inconvenience a customer, you must negotiate, and if it fails, remember the mantra “the customer is always right.”

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner’s Inappropriate Advert

Pepsi is one of the most popular global brands. As of 2018, Pepsi enjoyed more advertisement time on TV than any other beverage in the United States. It ranks as one of the largest companies worldwide in terms of market value.

In the U.S., Pepsi is the leading consumer packaged goods company generating sales of nearly 26 billion U.S. dollars in 2017.

When such a powerful brand joins forces with one of the most powerful influencers in the world, everyone expects mercurial results. However, Kendall Jenner’s 2017 advert with Pepsi caused an outcry and condemnation across the globe.

The drinks giant seemed to appropriate a nationwide protest movement following a sensitive period of police shootings in the U.S.  The campaign seemed to make light of a serious issue of race in the country.

One activist told NBC News that the ad trivialized the urgency of the issues and diminished the seriousness and gravity of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Pepsi’s initial reaction in defense of the ad’s global message of unity, peace and understanding caused more uproar. It was another miscalculation, and the brand recognized this when Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the protests against the ad.

The company later pulled the ad, but its apology seemed directed towards Kendall rather than the aggrieved protestors. The backlash prolonged the PR crisis for Pepsi.

Lesson: If Pepsi had admitted their mistake, pulled the ad and offered an apology to the protestors, this would not have become such a big PR disaster.

The Equifax Data Breach Fiasco

2017 wasn’t a good year for Equifax one of the largest credit monitoring companies. While the government and regulatory authorities were urging companies to tighten their online security, Equifax allowed a data breach that affected over 140 million people.

In a world where data breaches are increasingly common, this should not have precipitated a PR crisis, but it did. With data being the greatest asset any organization can hold today, customers have high expectations that service providers have secure data systems.

When Equifax learnt of the data hack, they never took the issue seriously, even though over 140 million people had their personal data in the hands of unscrupulous individuals. The condemnation that followed the organization’s PR crisis management was torrential.

For months, the company had delayed making the data hack public. Their PR team had hoped that this matter would fizzle out. The response after the announcement didn’t correspond with the gravity of the issue. Their online tool was down most of the time, while customers were desperate for information.

The management gave a meaningless statement full of corporate jargon. It was clear Equifax didn’t want to take responsibility for the mess. To make matters worse, they created a website to help customers but required more sensitive data.

Even as the crisis raged on, Equifax tried to charge customers a fee to protect them and freeze their credit. They later waived the fee, but they had already done irreparable damage.

Some Equifax company executives tried jumping ship by offloading their stock after the company discovered the breach. At this time, the management had not yet made this information public.

Amidst this PR disaster, investigators discovered that Equifax had simply failed to update a web application program leading to the data breach.

The consequences were quick and swift, with the company’s stock dropping 35%. The stock’s drop wiped out close to $6 billion of the company’s market value in the process.

Lesson: Transparency is key to public relations. Equifax had all the tools to manage this crisis, but they decided to hoodwink the public and in the process suffered a lot of devastation.

In the words of Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, this was the “single greatest act of online security incompetence in modern American history.”

The PR specialist opined that the board needed to fire the CEO who wasn’t prepared to handle such a crisis.

When a problem arises, it is important to disclose it sooner than later. This averts the perception of deception as happened with Equifax.

The company didn’t offer any respite and was slow in providing updates to its customers. All these are things to avoid for successful PR crisis management.

Bill O’Reilly firing by Fox News

When Fox News decided to fire Bill O’Reilly, this didn’t come as a surprise. There was an earlier report on The New York Times in April 2017 that Bill had sexually harassed female guests and employees.

The network had to act as similar allegations in the industry had created an uproar. What’s more, 50 advertisers had already dropped from the O’Reilly Show after the allegations appeared. Fox had to make a fast move to avoid tarnishing its reputation further.

There was further news that Fox and O’Reilly had reached settlements totaling about $13 million with the affected women. Things seemed to cool down, but when advertisers started pulling out, Fox had to act. It seemed it was all about the money for the news organization.

The delay in firing the popular show host caused a lot of discontent among viewers and the general public. There was a feeling that Fox News would not have fired O’Reilly if the money had continued flowing.

For a start, Fox News didn’t apologize or disassociate itself from the TV host. A leaked memo to employees described O’Reilly as “one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news.”

O’Reilly reciprocated by expressing dismay that he had to part ways with Fox News over unfounded claims. He never apologized and instead hailed Fox News as the dominant news network in television.

Lesson: It is important to make bold moves immediately a problem arises. Fox News came out as insensitive to O’Reilly’s accusers and was only interested in the high ratings of his shows.

For a news outlet ranked among the biggest in the world, it was a miscalculation to ignore sexual harassment claims. Fox News never apologized to the affected women and seemed more intent of appeasing O’Reilly.

To handle PR situations effectively, you have to be cognizant of sensitive issues and make no compromises. You have to take bold moves even when they initially seem to affect your brand. Making the right calls always pays off in the long run.

2017 Oscar Presentation Blunder (PwC)

The Oscars are a highlight in showbiz every year. Blunders at such an event are unacceptable.   32.9 million People watched the 2017 Oscars.

For the first time in Oscars history, a presenter announced the wrong Best Picture winner. Faye Dunaway announced the musical La La Land as the winner and acceptance speeches started.

An embarrassing mix-up had happened, and the real winner Moonlight eventually got the gong.

Warren Beatty the co-presenter explained the envelope debacle, but it was a painful situation to watch. The blame went to the PwC partner who had a simple job to do but messed it up.

PwC immediately took responsibility, apologized profusely and vowed to investigate.

Lesson:  A report on Forbes describes what to do during a PR crisis, and PwC did exactly this. It’s important to take control of the situation quickly and come up with an appropriate response to whatever happened.

By admitting their mistake, the audit firm deterred counter-accusations that would have made the crisis worse.

The company didn’t blame anyone else for the fiasco. This effectively ended the debate that would have done more damage to their reputation.

Final Thoughts

Managing a PR crisis is not easy and requires tact and skills. It calls for fast, bold and painful decisions. These PR crises examples show that you need to think on your feet during a PR crisis.

Failure to admit a mistake only makes things worse. By identifying the problem and apologizing to everyone hurt in the process, you win over the public.  This prevents a long-winded PR disaster that can debilitate your organization.

These lessons will come handy when handling PR issues at your company.

Author: Benjamin Shepardson is the founder of NoStop Content. With an extensive career in digital marketing and web development, Ben’s knowledge of the industry has enabled small businesses to scale and grow through well-crafted content and strategy

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