Top 5 PR Disasters for 2017

Top 5 PR Disasters for 2017

Schneider Associate’s CEO Joan Schneider explains the biggest PR disasters of 2017’s and how they could have either been prevented or handled differently.

United Airlines: Company had a paying passenger, David Dao, dragged off the plane because his seat was needed for another United crew member. The video of the bloodied and screaming doctor went viral and gave United a big black eye. The apology from CEO Oscar Munoz was bungled after he said incident occurred after the airline had to “re-accommodate” passengers. Things only got worse when an internal memo written by Munoz described the displaced doctor as “disruptive and belligerent.” The Twitterverse had a field day with this. A week later United changes its overbooking policy.

How could this have been handled differently?

The crew should have realized when Dao made his principled stand and wasn’t going to leave the plane willingly, that this was going to end ugly and in the age of everyone taking video with their phones, this ugly ending was going to get posted somewhere and go viral. They should have realized this was a David vs. Goliath and in the court of public opinion, United wasn’t going to win. Corporate behemoths rarely do.

What can we learn?

  • Create policies that enhance customer service, not antagonize customers
  • Show empathy for your customers
  • Give a meaningful apology
  • Own what your employees did
  • Promise swift action to make sure this never happens again.
  • If you do the above, this becomes a 1-2-day story (which is the goal), not one that lasts nearly a week like this one did.

 

Harvey Weinstein – enough said. It exposed an ugly culture of Hollywood looking the other way for far too long. Rape, sexual harassment, payoffs, criminal cases being investigated in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, and being fired from your own company while labeled a pariah in movie-making circles and nearly everywhere else. It doesn’t get much worse.

How could this have been handled differently?

Own up to what you did and take responsibility. Despite more than 50 women coming forward and alleging sexual assault and questionable behavior, Weinstein’s spokeswoman denied all “allegations of non-consensual sex,” yet Weinstein checked himself into rehab. If the blanket denials are necessary because not all statute of limitations have expired, fine. Then say something like, “I’m not proud of my behavior and I know there are significant issues that I need to get help for, and that’s what I’m going to do – get treatment. To anyone I’ve hurt, I don’t expect you to forgive me, but please know I’m truly sorry for my actions.” Not an admission of any specific act, but an acknowledgement of the obvious, and compassion for the victims that helps lessen the monstrous image of a sexual predator.

What can we learn?

You cannot deny the undeniable. PR folks who issue denials like this give all of us a bad name. Be honest, manage the message where you can, and get your client to get help. Even the best PR person cannot defend against allegations that are proven true.

 

NFL & National Anthem – You can argue the merits of the players’ actions, but the NFL fumbled in its handling of those who took a knee during the national anthem. For starters, it did not create a policy when Colin Kaepernick took his first knee. Even now, there still is not a clear policy on how players should address the anthem. Given the procedural vacuum, players are doing what they want, and corporate America is watching as several major sponsors have told the NFL they are concerned about the political turmoil and the drop-in TV ratings.

How could this have been handled differently?

When Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee by himself last year, the NFL could have issued a policy that would have prevented others from following suit. The NFL did not anticipate President Trump getting involved and once he made “taking a knee a cause celeb”—it was a little late to create new league rules. Yes, everyone has the First Amendment, but when you’re wearing a league uniform and affecting the league brand by your actions, there is only a certain amount of latitude.

What can we learn?

Act early, act swiftly, take a stand and stick to it. You may not make a popular decision, but at least it’s a decision.  Look at the NBA; even before the season began, Commissioner Adam Silver told the players only standing during the anthem was permissible. Have you seen the NBA dragged into this political argument? I didn’t think so. But with the horses already out of the NFL barn and running all over the field, it’s too late. The league and its sponsors will have to weather the storm for the rest of the season and address it after the Super Bowl.

 

Equifax: Not only was the sensitive data of 143-million customers breached, but there are investigations by the SEC and multiple states along with hundreds of lawsuits on the way. Making matters worse is the fact Equifax sat on the news for six weeks, while four members of the top brass sold off $1.8 million in stock well before the news became public. Once it did disclose the breach, Equifax tried to charge compromised customer a fee for the privilege of protecting themselves and freezing their credit (it later waived the fees after public outrage). If that’s not bad enough, Equifax has yet to tell anyone how the hackers got in or how the company is preventing it from happening again.

How could this have been handled differently?

  • Earlier transparency – Equifax knew for almost a month and a half about this breach.
  • More empathy – The CEO said, “This is clearly a disappointing event for our company…” What about for the customers? Equifax never seemed to say anything that indicated it knew the anxiousness of customers whose Social Security Numbers may have been compromised.
  • A promise of decisive action – Critical components of Crisis Management 101 involve taking ownership, apologizing, finding the cause, and taking quick action to root out the problem. We still don’t know the cause or what’s being done to prevent this from happening again. Additionally, those trying to freeze their credit with Experian ran into roadblocks, delays, and communication issues, further adding to their anxiety and frustration. Clearly, customers are upset. Make it easy for them to understand if they’ve been compromised and fix it.

What can we learn?

  • Disclose a problem sooner than later, else you risk the perception of hiding something – or not being transparent.
  • Put customers first – absorb any necessary costs to make them whole. It was your screw-up after all.
  • Find the cause, promise corrective action, then take that corrective action.

We haven’t heard much from Equifax about what it’s doing, making many wonder – are they doing anything on this? Not the place you want to be.

 

Dove Soap– produced a Facebook GIF showing an African American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a Caucasian woman. The message implied dark skin was dirty, and would be cleaned after using Dove soap. Social Media had a field day with this, calling it racist and insensitive. Realizing the error of its ways, Dove pulled the ad, then issued an apology for “missing the mark.”

How could this have been handled differently?

When dealing with race, be sensitive and not tone deaf. To its credit, Dove took the ad down, apologized and promised to add more layers of oversight going forward.

What can we learn?

Diversity is a good thing, but being racially tone deaf is not. Make sure you have enough diversity. Appoint an internal review board with people of various ethnicities and skin color to ensure you’re getting multiple viewpoints.

Joan Schneider
The CEO of Schneider Associates, Joan now celebrates more than 30 years of representing a wide range of education, consumer, corporate, public affairs and real estate clients. As one of the lead strategists for many of Schneider Associates’ top clients, Joan is responsible for providing strategic and creative direction and will oversee delivery of the work. Joan’s client roster for launch spans diverse industries and includes Fortune 500 as well as emerging companies and brands. A self-professed media junkie, Joan reads more than five newspapers per day and always knows what’s happening in the consumer products, professional services, education, financial and real estate realms.