Dealing with a PR crisis can be one of the trickiest aspects of brand management, affecting everyone in the business from the CEO down. Add to that the fact videos can now go viral on social media in a matter of minutes, with extremely damaging consequences for any brand judged to have got things wrong, and the pressure is heightened.
US airline United Airlines found this out the hard way in April after video footage emerged of security officers dragging a passenger off a flight in Chicago. The passenger in question, Dr David Dao, lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose when he was forcibly removed from the aeroplane after refusing to give up his seat for United staff on the overbooked flight.
Filmed by fellow passengers, the scenes provoked outrage on social media, representing such a stark contrast to the airline’s ‘Fly the friendly skies’ brand value.
Between 9 April and 11 April United Airlines was mentioned more than 2.5 million times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with social mentions rocketing 9,968% in the first 24 hours alone, according to Brandwatch.
United’s social sentiment was 91% positive during the days before the incident, switching to 68.9% negative on the day after the footage emerged.
The #Flight3411 hashtag accrued over 547 million impressions, followed by #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos (294 million impressions) and #FlyFriendlySkies (148 million impressions).
Too little, too late
United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz immediately came under fire for his handling of the situation. Two days later an email sent to United employees was leaked showing Muñoz blaming Dr Dao for being “disruptive and belligerent” and commending employees for following “established procedures”.
The email was met with fierce criticism and within a matter of days Muñoz had taken to TV, appearing on ABC’s flagship show Good Morning America to express his “shame” and to promise the nation it would never happen again.
For many, this was too little, too late. Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson described Muñoz’s response as a “pathetic, confused, morale-shredding, share price-killing approach to leadership”.
“With various tweets and internal emails, Muñoz ran the gamut of modern leadership by making pretty much every single possible decision,” Ritson said.
“This is modern, brand-centric leadership at its worst. More concerned with optics than actuals. More informed by internal PR teams than humanity or strategic responsibility.”
Patrick Barrow, managing director of crisis management agency Reputation Communications, agrees that United’s CEO could not have mishandled the situation more.
“It’s to do with remoteness. The version of events he was given is the one he responded to, rather than finding out what really went on,” says Barrow.
“You’ve got a communication that says ‘Fly the friendly skies’, but the behaviour is ‘if you don’t do what we say the first time, we’ll boot you off the flight and beat you up’. That equation always has to be squared. An expectation is set, but when the behaviour is very different there is a trust breakdown and the moment the trust breaks down you have a reputation crisis.”
This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action.
In a statement sent to Marketing Week, United Airlines expressed its “sincerest apologies” to Dr Dao, adding:
“We cannot stress enough that we remain steadfast in our commitment to make this right. This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
In the statement United Airlines confirmed officers will no longer be allowed to remove passengers from its flights, as well as promising to fully review its training programmes to ensure employees are “prepared and empowered to put customers first”.
In a bid to further rebuild its reputation, the airline announced on 22 April plans to tie executive pay to customer satisfaction levels and cancelled the appointment of Muñoz to chairman of the United Airlines board, which was scheduled to take place in 2018.
Despite the proposed changes, the damage could go deeper than United Airlines would care to admit. Angela Podmore, managing director at PR consultancy Kinetic Communications, describes Muñoz’s response as a knee-jerk reaction that was totally misaligned with how people actually feel.
“In the case of United the evidence was clearly there in the video and it was immediately on the CEO’s desk and it was right that he should respond,” says Podmore.
“But Muñoz should have taken time to assess what happened and judged more carefully as to how to respond. In a crisis situation, the first thing you do is apologise for what has happened.”
Social media backlash
United Airlines is not the only brand to be on the receiving end of a severe customer backlash over the past couple of weeks. On 6 April PepsiCo was forced to pull its new campaign just three days after it debuted amid accusations it had co-opted a global protest movement in order to sell fizzy drinks.
The advert, which shows model Kendall Jenner defusing tension between police and protesters by giving an officer a can of Pepsi, was savaged on social media for belittling the Black Lives Matter movement.
Pepsi’s day-over-day social mentions soared 21,675% between 3 April and 5 April as consumers reacted to the advert, according to Brandwatch figures.
On 4 April alone there were more than 427,000 mentions of Pepsi on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, 53.3% of which were negative. This level increased to 58.6% negative comments on 5 April, according to the data.
One of the top ranked tweets during the conversation came from Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, who openly criticised Pepsi’s co-opting of the civil rights movement. Brandwatch found that second only to Pepsi, Bernice King was the most mentioned Twitter handle in this conversation.
In a statement, PepsiCo admitted while it was trying to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”, it had clearly missed the mark. The fact the advert was created by PepsiCo’s in-house content creation arm left the drinks giant open to accusations of operating in a self-reinforcing environment that failed to truly understand consumers.
Patrick Barrow of Reputation Communications argues that not enough CEOs or boards take the time to think what a campaign will look like from an outsiders’ perspective, meaning a lot of decision making is made in a “self-affirming bubble”.
Kinetic’s Podmore believes the advert debacle shows PepsiCo has lost the essence of what Pepsi is about, aside from making money. This is the reason the team were unable to deliver a credible story for the millennial audience to connect with.
“The advert was facile, vacuous and vapid. I look at that ad and I think what do you mean by this? It just washes over me because I think it’s just constructed, superficial nonsense. It looks staged and unreal, and it is absolutely not what the millennials want. They want real substance and meaning,” she adds.
When a raft of brands and agencies – from Havas, Vodafone and McDonald’s to L’Oreal, Audi and the BBC – pulled spend from YouTube in March over concerns their advertising was appearing next to extremist content, Google needed to react quickly to avoid permanent damage.
Taking to the stage at Advertising Week Europe (20 March), Google EMEA president Matt Brittin publicly apologised to advertisers, committing to accelerate the company’s review into brand safety concerns.
Consumers know what went wrong, and more importantly, they know what we are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Conor Pierce, Samsung
“I want to start by saying sorry. We apologise when anything like that happens and we take responsibility for it,” he said.
“When I’ve had conversations with some of the advertisers, generally I’ve found it’s only a handful of impressions and pennies not pounds. But – however small or big the issue – we need to improve and get better.”
Taking action to quickly address any concerns is crucial in the opinion of Alison Lomax, Google director of brand solutions, who argues that transparency is key to advertiser engagement and something that should be taken seriously.
“It was important that Matt addressed this situation at Ad Week because the issue of brand control had become more of an industry issue.”
While she believes it was right for Brittin to personally address advertisers’ fears, Lomax agrees it is not always appropriate for leaders to speak out.
“If there is an issue with an individual advertiser or agency, it makes more sense for the account manager or industry head to address it and work with the partner to resolve the situation – because they hold the relationship,” she explains.
“It would seem disingenuous if they received a call from the head of the business who might not have intimate knowledge of their account or advertising campaign.”
The very fact that Google publicly discussed the practical steps it was taking to increase brand safety and controls for advertisers has helped the company come out of the situation relatively well, says Podmore.
“Google has stepped up and been guided by it’s vision statement and it’s beliefs, one of which is ‘don’t do evil’. So they’re saying no and putting the resource in place to say it can’t happen again.”
For disruptive brands the pain often hits when they transition into a household name and therefore come under the same scrutiny in the minds of consumers as any multinational corporate.
This was the experience of self-styled punk brewer BrewDog, which in March was accused of acting like “just another multinational corporate machine” after threatening independent pub The Lone Wolf with legal action due to a clash with the name of its new gin brand LoneWolf.
The social media backlash was fierce, labelling BrewDog a hypocrite for putting undue pressure on an independent family business, while at the same time being such a vocal critic of corporate organisations.
Co-founder James Watt took to Twitter, blaming “trigger happy lawyers” and stating the brewer was happy for the pub to keep its name, only after the owners had already rebranded to The Wolf.
BrewDog addressed the criticism via a blog post, which explained the brewer had trademarked the LoneWolf brand in 2015, before the Birmingham bar opened in January 2017. The company was, however, quick to apologise for its reaction.
“Hands up, we made a mistake here in how we acted. Almost all companies always look to enforce trademarks, whereas at BrewDog we should take the view to only enforce if something really detrimental to our business is happening. And here, I do not think that was the case.
“As soon as I found out, I reversed the decision and offered to cover all of the costs of the bar. I also invited them up to Ellon to make their own gin with us. This is a mistake that hurt a lot, but like all mistakes it made us better. This will not happen again. All companies make mistakes, and we fixed this one quickly, openly and honestly.”
Rebounding from a crisis can be a case of cutting through the negative publicity by accepting responsibility and then moving the conversation forward. That was the approach taken by Samsung, which was forced to end production of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone in October after faults caused the devices to explode.
First the South Korean smartphone giant reacted to the scandal by taking out full-page newspaper adverts apologising to users for the Note 7 crisis. Next it launched a series of adverts showing engineers explaining the safety and quality tests smartphones go through before being launched, trailing the debut of its Galaxy S8 and S8+ on 28 April.
As a result Samsung topped the list of TV advertisers in March, according to data science company 4C, racking up 1,964 minutes of airtime across both free and pay-to-view TV. This was a 60% increase in TV spend compared to February, taking Samsung from seventh to first place in the March rankings.
To underline it’s commitment to transparency Samsung also released the results of its investigation into what happened to exploding Note 7 devices and explained its plans to introduce multi-layer safety measures and an eight-point battery safety check to prevent it happening again.
“We understand that we must continue to work hard to earn back consumer trust,” says Conor Pierce, Samsung vice-president, IT & Mobile (UK & Ireland), who states that product quality is the company’s top priority.
“This was obviously a complicated matter, but independent brand and consumer insights demonstrate that we are winning back consumer’s confidence. They know what went wrong, and more importantly, they know what we are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Despite seeing a 7% drop in the number of smartphones it shipped during the fourth quarter of 2016 and a 3% fall in mobile handset sales, Samsung has managed to bounce back. The company brought in the New Year with operating profits of £6.2bn, its highest third quarter since 2013.
Some brands have more credit in the bank, which helps them bounce back quicker, says Barrow. “Samsung went away and in fairly short order did something tangible about it and people were able to see the fruits of that quite quickly.
“That’s what it comes down to. Have you changed and can you demonstrate it. Most reputation in people’s minds is experiential and what they’ve experienced is there was a problem and now it has been solved.”
Taking a leaf out of Samsung’s book, brands can bounce back from disaster by reacting at speed with a practical, authentic and human solutions that show strong leadership with substance.