There are four months left in 2019, but it already feels like we’ve witnessed a year’s worth of scandal and crisis.
Last year, it was Facebook’s data misuse and Starbucks’ diversity missteps. This year, it’s Boeing’s 737 Max and retailers responding to gun violence in their communities.
For all that has changed about PR in the last several years, a couple of constants have stood out: a skeptical, outrage-prone consumer audience and a social media environment that thrives on online stone-throwing.
The experts’ advice? Be transparent. Be proactive. Have a crisis communications plan. It’s not novel advice—so why is there a new company every year trying to jam a finger into the reputational dike?
Here are the companies that found themselves underwater in 2019:
1. Boeing and the 737 Max crisis
After two tragic crashes and hundreds of lost lives, the truth came out that Boeing hadn’t alerted operators about all the new features on its latest popular airplane. The autopilot system that engaged during takeoff was susceptible to error—and pilots were furious that they hadn’t been warned.
The plane was grounded and has yet to return to the skies. The problem has been amplified for Boeing, because the 737 was one of its most popular models and airlines around the world have been forced to cancel flights and remove destinations from service while they wait for a fix.
However, the crisis takes a special place on our list of 2019 crisis stories because of Boeing’s tone-deaf response to consumer concerns.
Harvard Business Review had this to say:
Boeing CEO [Dennis] Muilenburg is reported to have insisted to the president and others that the aircraft are safe. We heard about the training that is designed to help pilots identify and override the automatic controls on the plane if those controls are mistakenly guiding its nose down. So Muilenburg’s frame appears to be: This is a technical problem that we can correct with pilot training.
…So what could Boeing have said? A better frame would be: This is a technical problem that we do not fully understand. In light of that uncertainty, we recommend grounding the 737 Max 8s and 9s until we can be sure we know what is causing these crashes, and can satisfy ourselves and all of the global regulators that the plane is safe to fly again.
A lack of transparency and a failure to listen doomed Boeing’s early attempts to address public concerns. Now the airline must hope it can regain the trust of aviators and passengers alike—without any dodgy tactics like slapping a new name on an old plane.
2. The U.S. college admissions scandal
It was front page news across the country when it came out that prominent families, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were bribing school officials to get their children into elite universities. Both the academic institutions and the celebrities themselves were forced to address public outcry—but some were less prepared to apologize than others.
Loughlin didn’t strike the right tone for some when she appeared at court and started signing autographs.
“Loughlin’s nonchalant demeanor before the cameras left lawyers, media, lawyers, communications pros and fans scratching their heads,” says Jon Goldberg of Reputation Architects. “She was all smiles as she arrived in court for her first hearing. … If it was an act calculated to signal her confidence in her case, it backfired. At best, it showed just how oblivious she was to the gravity of her situation. At worst, it was an insult to prosecutors, who don’t take kindly to such things, and an affront to the court that will determine her sentence.”
The lessons from the scandal? Take legal proceedings seriously, and carefully control any public appearance around a legal dispute.
Also, don’t rely on third parties for messaging.
“One more thing that didn’t help Loughlin: A bevy of anonymous media sources ‘close to Loughlin’—ostensibly her friends—expressing how seriously she was taking the matter but minimizing her involvement in any wrongdoing,” says Goldberg.
3. Pharma’s opioid problem
Many organizations have been forced to reckon with their connection to—and culpability for—the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives across the U.S. One manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, saw its owners’ reputation tarnished, as museums turned down their donations.
The lesson for PR pros is that no amount of charitable work can make up for an enterprise that ethically falls short for consumers.
After many consumers protested the Sackler family’s involvement with their favorite institutions, those bastions of art and culture, which once might have helped bolster an organization’s reputation, were now closed.
Goldberg says the opioid crisis “underscores the incredible pressure institutions are feeling to more carefully scrutinize the sources of major donations and weigh whether the benefits of a major financial gift outweigh the possible reputational hazards.” This means that those recovering from crisis must rethink trying to use philanthropy as a salve for a blistered reputation.
“The public will be watching for such gifts and quickly call out those that they perceive to be tainted.”
4. Gun violence and the politicization of the marketplace
When a shooter killed 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, many consumers wanted the company to take a stand against firearms and ammunition sales, just as Dick’s Sporting Goods responded after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year.
Walmart dragged its feet, however, at first removing violent video game displays but continuing to sell its firearms offerings.
“Dick’s Chairman and CEO Edward Stack appears primed to take a tough stance on guns but is doing so in a thoughtful way that demonstrates the company’s respect for its customers, shareholders, the communities where it operates and society at large,” says Goldberg.
“Compare Dick’s response to those of Walmart, which in the wake of last month’s tragic shootings in Dayton and El Paso, tried unsuccessfully to divert the media’s attention away from gun sales by raising the bogeyman of video game violence.”
Then Walmart changed its tune, partly in response to vocal employees’ concerns, making adjustments to what it sells and promising to take action both in its stores and in lobbying lawmakers.
Corporations must be prepared to speak out on social and cultural issues that matter to their stakeholders—and this new business reality is a big opportunity for communications pros to take a bigger role in steering their organizations and advising CEOs.
5. International House of…what?
Marketing pros often take risks in the hope of creating a media moment or sparking a national conversation—but IHOP’s campaign early this year might have jumped the shark.
“I think many find IHOP’s brand campaigns fairly annoying and misguided,” says Michelle Garrett, PR consultant and writer with Garrett Public Relations.
“First, it was the IHOb campaign—then this year it announced it was giving the P in its name a new meaning. People immediately started tweeting about what the P could stand for. Vice said in its coverage, “PR, Pandering, Promotions, Pay Attention to Us, and Proof That We Have a Lot of Money In Our Marketing Budget.” And that’s the thing: If they clearly have this enormous marketing budget, wouldn’t it be better spent on something other than frivolous name change campaigns?”
IHOP’s brand activation might not have been as big a gaffe as other brands this year, but the campaign fell short of other campaigns that stoked controversy for a moment in the media spotlight. For example, when McDonald’s turned its iconic arches upside down, it was highlighting women leaders in business.
6. Sean Spicer dancing for ABC
Garrett has another moment to nominate for biggest whiff of 2019: Sean Spicer’s casting on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The former White House spokesperson has been reviled for the lies he told during his tenure in D.C., but some media companies seem ready to let him have a second act. After “Saturday Night Live”—which had repeatedly skewered the president’s mouthpiece—was derided for giving Spicer an appearance on its show, “Dancing with the Stars” thought it, too, could benefit from a little political spiciness.
“To my knowledge (and I did a bit of research), the network has yet to respond to the outcry that followed the announcement that the former White House press secretary would be on the show,” says Garrett. “Many viewers are threatening to boycott this season. Even the host, Tom Bergeron, came out against ABC’s decision.”
The lesson for PR pros? Politics isn’t going through a business-as-usual moment, and communicators and event planners who don’t follow politics closely should be wary of booking political figures—or should be ready to face the music.
7. Gillette’s #MeToo campaign
The razor company thought it had a winner when it launched a commercial extolling men to be “better,” eschew toxic masculinity and treat women with respect. However, the well-meaning ad spot went over like a ton of bricks.
Some say the announcement is at odds with the company’s previous marketing messages, and others assert that a shaving brand shouldn’t be involved with movements such as #MeToo. At time of publishing, Gillette’s video has more than 3 million views and 265,000 “dislikes”—six times more the amount of people who “liked” the video.
The controversy highlights the risk organizations take when including a stance on social or political issues in its marketing messages.
The groundwork hadn’t been laid for Gillette’s ad to work, and consumers felt blindsided by a brand that had never taken such a stance before now offering a razor-sharp point of view.
PR pros and brand managers must make sure that their audiences are ready to listen before taking a stand on a big issue. As an example, Gillette’s next ad featuring a transgender man’s first shave was received with much less fanfare.
8. Nissan’s chairman arrested, CEO resigns
It was international news when Carlos Ghosn was arrested in Japan for tax evasion and making false disclosures to financial authorities. Ghosn, who had been the hero that built an automaker triumvirate from Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, was ousted, and the relationships between car companies and foreign governments were fractured.
The crisis hasn’t abated with Ghosn’s departure either, as CEO Hiroto Saikawa revealed that he had been improperly overpaid. Despite promising to return the money, Saikawa resigned this week.
The incidents remind corporate communicators that chief executives are important visible faces for an organization. If a leader has to be replaced, make sure you have a crisis response plan ready to go and have engaged the necessary stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page.
What have been the biggest PR crises and events for you in 2019? Share your thoughts in the comments.