Looking back at the most significant public relations crises of 2017 can help us learn how better to handle decision-making and communications in PR crises.
Product recalls, sexual harassment accusations, and Twitter attacks by President Trump all caused PR crises. Some brands drew criticisms due to their advertisements. Pepsi got into hot water for its ad that featured Kendall Jenner at a protest. Dove was attacked for its Facebook ad that appeared to show a black woman turning white. In both cases, the companies quickly pulled the ads, saying they had “missed the mark.”
These four crises created more serious problems.
Equifax Gets No Credit for Crisis Response
The Equifax data breach was one of the largest ever. Personal data of 143 million customers were potentially hacked.
PR crisis management experts and other pundits roundly criticized the Equifax crisis management. Proper crisis management calls for quickly and transparently admitting the error, taking responsibility, apologizing, and explaining how the problem will be investigated or resolved and making amends. Equifax completed none of those steps. The company never seemed to take the incident seriously.
The company delayed releasing news of the breach for months. Its top executives were uninformed. Its apology, filled with corporate jargon on passive sentences, was opaque. Its online tool meant to help customers suffered technical problems.
Equifax created a website meant to help consumers learn if their information was compromised. All they had to do was enter part of their Social Security number. In other words, the company that lost sensitive information asked customers to provide sensitive information.
Three high-level executives sold company stock three days after the company discovered the breach. They said they were unaware of the breach at the time. Even if true, the sales created at least an appearance of questionable activity.
The lesson: Failure to follow the standard PR crisis playbook and energetically address public relations issues leads to severe reputational damage. Failure to implement solutions rapidly causes loss of trust.
United Airlines Crash Lands
Videos of a passenger being forcibly dragged from a United Airlines flight sent the public’s faith in the airline into a nosedive. The airline CEO’s apology statement lacked substance and sincerity and failed to address underlying issues of bumping passengers off flights. Some PR experts said the airline decided not to offer an apology due to fears of a potential lawsuit – a mistaken strategy.
Compounding the problem, CEO Oscar Munoz described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” in a message to employees. He also said employees “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Assuming that the internal letter would remain private was another mistake.
According to a survey of 500 consumers, 68 percent of survey participants said they would buy tickets from United before the incident. The percentage dropped to 42 percent immediately after the crisis, then rebounded to 52 percent seven months later. Almost a third said they lost a sense of safety and trust in United Airlines immediately after its PR crisis.
The lesson: Poorly conceived and implemented apologies can cause additional reputational damage and may be even worse than no apology.
Poor Corporate Culture Drives Crises for Uber
Uber suffered a different type of crisis. Single incidents generally cause PR crises. The provider of a ride-sourcing app suffered ongoing problems, including sexual assaults by Uber drivers, departures of high-level executives, software that defrauded drivers and customers, and reports of transportation and safety issues. CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned after continual negative news coverage.
Uber followed the standard playbook following each unfavorable news report. However, the root of its problems is a corporate culture that drives constant PR problems. Experts say the company must overhaul that culture to avoid more image-damaging incidents.
Uber — and Silicon Valley tech firms in general — must clean up their act and embrace professionalism, maturity and corporate social responsibility, argues Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, in LinkedIn Pulse. Specifically, Uber can adopt procedures like blind résumé reviews, interview at least one woman and one minority candidate for each open position, limit alcohol at work events and in the office, and ban employee–manager relationships.
“Uber fostered an internal culture of aggressive ambition. That strategy may have worked well in establishing jovial drive and fun, but a company’s unique culture can only extend until the point it crosses the threshold of being disrespectful,” writes Mike Valdes-Fauli, president and CEO of marketing agency Pinta.
The lesson: Corporate leaders can help their organizations avoid PR crises by fostering an ethical culture, setting a proper example and considering all stakeholders — not just investors but also employees, contractors, watchdog groups, bloggers and the media.
PwC Reps off in La La Land
The Oscar mistake by PwC, also called PricewaterhouseCoopers, did not endanger health or safety of customers, but it was a remarkably high-profile blunder. A PwC partner handed presenter Warren Beatty the wrong envelope at the awards ceremony. That caused fellow presenter Faye Dunaway to announce that Moonlight won the award for best picture. The real winner was La La Land.
PwC representatives said they immediately notified Oscar officials of the mistake. Yet La La Land producers had already delivered acceptance speeches before they learned they were not the real winners. Media outlets reported that the PwC partner was tweeting photos of award winners backstage during the show – potentially distracted and possibly violating the Academy’s policy.
“They had a pretty simple job to do and messed it up spectacularly,” Nigel Currie, an independent London-based branding specialist, told The Hollywood Reporter.
PwC’s statement helped ameliorate the issue. It apologized profusely, took responsibility for the mistake, and vowed to investigate. “For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy,” it stated.
PwC’s statement was short, acknowledged who was hurt, explained what happened and what would happen next. In one shortcoming, it uses the passive voice: “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope.” Better wording would have been: “PwC representatives mistakenly gave the presenters the wrong envelope.”
Although observers predicted PwC might lose its contract with the Academy, the company retained its contract. The two PwC representatives will no longer work with the Academy.
The lesson: A well-crafted statement can be instrumental in recovering from a high-profile mistake. Brands can rebound from a single incident that’s attributed to human error more easily than from issues related to ingrained corporate culture.
Bottom Line: PR professionals can learn lessons from the major PR crises of 2017. Some companies responded poorly to negative news reports; others responded much better. By analyzing their reactions, PR teams can better implement crisis decisions and communications responses for their own organizations.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.