PR Gaffes and Lessons Learnt from 2017

It seems that some companies never learn. They seem to keep creating situations that become public relations disasters. Just think how many times Uber has been in the press for all the wrong reasons.

While no company is perfect, the trick is to learn from the mistakes of others to avoid making a PR snafu yourself. Here are a few avoidable PR gaffes from last year, along with some words of wisdom, to keep your company out of trouble in 2018:

1. Pepsi

In April 2017, soft drink behemoth Pepsi ran an ad campaign featuring model Kendall Jenner. In the ad, Jenner was seen posing in a blonde wig at a photo shoot, while a peace protest marched by. On spotting it, she ditched the wig, grabbed a can of Pepsi and joined the protest. On reaching the front of the crowd, she handed the can to a police officer, who took a sip as the crowd cheered. The tagline at the end read, ‘Live Bolder, Live Stronger, Live for Now.’ The whole thing was set against the politically-charged song ‘Lions’ by Skip Marley.

The advert caused widespread offence. It was criticised for trivialising demonstrations aimed at tackling social justice causes, and making light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In response, Pepsi pulled the ad off the air and issued an apology to Jenner. However, the company didn’t apologise to the protesters or those offended by the ad, which led to further criticism. It made Pepsi appear out of touch and insensitive.

It’s astonishing that the ad was made at all, considering how many layers of authority it must have had to go through.

The lesson: Consider all angles before running a campaign around a politically sensitive issue. If you’re at all unsure about the implications, change tactic or get input from an external PR team.

2. United Airlines

Last year, United Airlines overbooked a flight, but needed to seat some crew members on the plane, so staff asked passengers to volunteer to take another flight. After getting no volunteers, United chose one passenger at random and asked him to leave the plane. When he refused, he was physically dragged off by security. Video of the incident went viral on social media and the backlash was severe. There were threats of boycotts, United’s reputation dropped to a 10-year low, and its stock nosedived.

It was only at this point that United issued a half-hearted apology, referring to the incident as a ‘re-accommodation’ of customers.

Airline bosses should have immediately expressed concern for the man and promised to investigate. Instead, United chief executive Oscar Munoz made several grudging statements, only fully apologising when the share price fell.

The lesson: You only get one shot at apologising. If you leave it too late, anything after that doesn’t matter.

3. Cosmopolitan magazine

British fashion magazine Cosmopolitan printed a headline in May that read, ‘how this woman lost 44 pounds without any exercise.’ However, the woman in question lost the weight due to a rare form of cancer.

Readers were horrified and complained en masse, leading the magazine to change the headline to ‘A Serious Health Scare Helped Me Love My Body More than Ever.’

Cosmo readers expected an apology to be published to the lady in question, but none was forthcoming. As a result, the reputation of the magazine and its publishing company, Hearst, took a massive hit.

The lesson: Never lie, exaggerate, or be insensitive in print, on the air, or in speeches. It will always come back to bite you, and your brand image might not recover.

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