The first week in April was a great one for observing companies suffer from foolish public relations disasters. Unless you work for Pepsi, United Airlines, or Wells Fargo, however, it’s possible to look at the fiascoes from a safe distance and learn from them.
Tom Sullivan, CEO of the marketing firm Princeton Partners, offers some advice on avoiding the kind of mistake that might send your company’s stock plunging. Sullivan, who has been doing business in Princeton since 1989, writes that the problems encountered by United and other brands were made worse by the decision making that came afterward:
There has been a plethora of examples of brands suffering from self-inflicting wounds, especially in recent weeks. It seems brands are finding themselves in hot water with increasing frequency, likely because of the speed with which news can now be shared. However, while the technology has changed, the fundamentals of public relations and brand protection have not. It seems companies may need a refresher on these important ground rules in an age where the stakes are higher.
United Airlines: The airline is making headlines due to the forced removal of a doctor after the flight was over-booked. The aggressive removal was caught on camera by at least two other passengers and posted to Twitter. The video went viral and the “apology” by the CEO only poured fuel on the fire. The CEO blamed the policies, which are under review, but did not immediately take responsibility for the poor treatment of the customer. Hundreds of millions of people have been horrified by the incident and the nation of China is publicizing the story for both commercial and political purposes.
What is the missed fundamental? Human interest is the priority. It is a simple fact that companies and brands will have missteps and mistakes, no matter the scale of the business. However, human dignity must always be honored above commercial self-interest. People are intuitive. Audiences know when a brand is putting the bottom line before the customer.
Pepsi: By now you’ve likely seen the video, although Pepsi pulled it off the internet shortly after its release due to a social media frenzy. In a transparent attempt to appeal to the millennial generation, Pepsi released a video advertisement depicting their product in a contrived role in a generic protest march. The 21-year-old reality television star and supermodel Kendall Jenner was a key feature in the spot that was accused of “co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial gain.” Millions of dollars were spent on the ad. Pepsi apologized right away for “missing the mark” and pulled the spots.
What is the missed fundamental? Research. Do your ad-concept research before you spend millions in production and media. Something as easy and inexpensive as a focus group could have given Pepsi insight into the reaction that the public ultimately had to this thinly veiled appeal to a younger demographic. Ad-concept testing is not out of reach for agencies, no matter their size. Pepsi could have avoided spending millions on a spot that has hurt them in the long-term.
Wells Fargo: Almost a year after the massive scandal that clenched the banking giant, Wells Fargo is making headlines again for a move to rectify the situation. They are causing a stir as they claw back over $75 million in compensation from top executives who profited from the aggressive sales culture and incentives that led employees to create over 2 million fake accounts.
What is the missed fundamental? When your organization is in a crisis, it’s wise to bear the brunt of responsibility and consequence immediately. Had the Wells Fargo CEO resigned immediately last fall and the executive compensation been returned upon the discovery of the scandal, Wells Fargo would be having an easier time moving on from this. Unfortunately for the bank and its employees, regaining the trust of the public will be a long progression.
Princeton Partners Inc., 205 Rockingham Way, Princeton 08540. 609-452-8500. Thomas M. Sullivan, CEO and owner. www.princetonpartners.com.