At the start of every new year, there’s always that same question: How can we make this year better than the last? 2017 gave us several PR disasters. From viral videos of passengers being dragged off airplanes or denied baby strollers to un-tasteful product placements at the hands of certain famous people and certain brands of soda, 2017 taught us just how quickly a faux pas can become a public disaster.
As PR professionals, we’re constantly observing these incidents as they’re occurring, and thinking about the various implications for those involved – and watching closely as companies and/or individuals try to navigate and rectify them. In some cases, the responses alleviate the public outcry and serve to fix the mistake. In many others, however, the damage done never quite goes away.
Following are some key 2017 PR blunders, and some lessons learned moving forward into 2018.
It will be a very long time before United Airlines travellers utilize the airline without thinking of April’s incident involving passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged from his flight after refusing to give up his seat for an airline employee.
The video spread quickly across all social media platforms, causing a PR nightmare for the airline. Calls for a boycott of United Airlines over the incident spread just as quickly.
Many felt the airline’s response, specifically referring to the incident as the “re-accommodation” of the passenger, was totally inadequate. Further, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz’s interview supporting his airline’s handling of the situation only led to further outrage – particularly online.
While most understand and appreciate that anyone with a smartphone can now record anything they please in real time and immediately share with the world, companies and their employees were behind the ball. 2017 ushered in a new era of understanding and appreciation for the power of social media, which can only escalate this year.
In this case, like many others, social media forced United into a position where they had to take accountability for their employees’ actions, and their biggest mistake from a PR perspective was not adequately doing so. With video evidence spread across the internet, there was no possibility of denying what had happened, or even downplaying its severity like they tried to do.
Moving into 2018, big companies like United must be aware of this, but also accept that issuing a genuinely apology isn’t the end of the world. United received as much negative press for their response as they did for the initial incident. A small amount of openness and honesty can go a long way in situations like this one.
PepsiCo. also found themselves on the receiving end of much negative press in April, when they released an advertisement in which Kendall Jenner eased the tension of a protest march by simply handing a police officer a can of Pepsi.
The ad was accused of being “tone-deaf” and trivializing the dangers protestors face while at the same time appropriating imagery from a very serious issue to sell their product.
People wasted no time on social media, not only slamming the soda giant for its insensitivity, but further mocking the ad – producing all kinds of variations that made it virtually impossible for anyone with a phone and Internet connection not to notice.
As with United, the power of social media was made immediately apparent. Anyone with access to Twitter could absorb smiling protestors celebrating the joy of Pepsi with heavily armed police officers – which was clearly judged and convicted by the court of public opinion almost immediately.
What PepsiCo. called an attempt at promoting a message of peace and unity clearly fell flat. As with other modern-day PR blunders, it’s more important than ever to know and respect your audience. But perhaps even more important is to own up to it when a mistake is made. Unlike United, who attempted to use PR jargon to downplay the severity of the situation, Pepsi acknowledged the mistake they had made, and made a concerted effort to rectify it. While it’s fair to say the public didn’t necessarily forgive them, because of their response the negative headlines did not last as long for them as they did for United.
In 2018, the public will be looking for more companies to take accountability for their actions more like PepsiCo., and less like United.
If there is one news story that dominated the headlines in 2017, it is the story of Harvey Weinstein, and the tidal wave of sexual assault allegations against him and several other prominent figureheads.
In October, the New York Times released an article detailing decades of assault accusations against Weinstein, with actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd being the first to come forward. Mass amounts of support for the actors and condemnations against Weinstein came quickly via Twitter in the form of the #MeToo movement. Hundreds of thousands of women and men came forward and shared their own personal stories of sexual assaults, supporting other women who had been assaulted, and condemning those who had assaulted them and other individuals.
With social media functioning as it does today, it is nearly impossible for corporations to keep scandals like this one contained. Damaging information is always going to find its way into the public sphere. If there is a PR lesson to be learned at all from the Harvey Weinstein experience, it is first to behave properly, but also to be accountable for it. In Weinstein’s and others’ cases, the companies behind them did the right thing: they fired those responsible for such reprehensible behaviour. The question, of course, is why none of these companies did anything sooner.
Social Media and People in Power
Beyond these PR blunders, we have also seen a trend that we can’t help but acknowledge – a much more liberal use of social media from people in positions of power.
In the past, there were certain guidelines and expectations that came along with roles such as president or prince, and though there have been those in the past that may not have followed those guidelines as closely, social media was not there to document – and comment on - their every move.
The “Twitter Era” has been around to cover two presidents: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. While this is a small sample pool, the use of social media between these two presidents could not be more different. Where Obama’s posts were thoughtful, calculated, and in most cases restrained, Trump’s have been erratic, reactive, and largely inflammatory.
The difference in coverage of their social media use is noticeable as well. A Donald Trump tweet is now headline news, especially when he uses it to directly confront another world leader. In fairness, Trump’s no holds barred method of tweeting has received some praise for being honest and unfiltered. That said, his social media activity has received increasingly negative responses.
While it seems unlikely that Trump will learn his lesson and be more careful about his social media use in 2018, the rest of the world can watch and learn from those mistakes.
All told, 2017 was yet another year of exciting events and trends. If anything can be taken away, it should be that the world is constantly watching – and judging. In 2018, more than ever, companies and individuals need to be careful of what they do on social media and/or how they treat customers or others they interact with.
Looking into 2018, companies are likely to find themselves frequently being held accountable via social media. Platforms like Twitter offer a limitless world of listeners to anyone who wants them. Accepting and understanding this can really help companies avoid finding themselves in situations like United or Pepsi did. Going one step further by embracing social media, and actively seeking opportunities to use it to their advantage in 2018, will help them expand their customer base or audience in a positive way.
Here’s a final key thought to consider in 2018: people have long memories, and the internet’s is even longer. As content gets digitized more and more, it will only become harder to keep a handle over its spread. Pulling content is no longer an option.
‘Big brother’ is not only now always watching, he is instantly and collectively interpreting, judging, praising or condemning.