The worst (and best) handled crises of 2017

For every Uber, Equifax and United Airlines dumpster fire, there was a ray of PR sunshine from the likes of Chobani, Tiki Brand and Dippin’ Dots.

What a tumultuous year it has been.

If you have survived 2017 with your reputation and dignity intact, congratulations are in order. Many were not so fortunate.

Here are the worst- and best-handled crises of the past year, based on analysis of more than 12,000 public statements made by individuals, companies and other organizations. Let’s begin with the worst:

The worst

1. Harvey Weinstein
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein‘s statement in response to allegations of sexual harassment and assault has to be one of the worst ever. Weinstein laid out a bizarre defense that he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s,” and then he tried to change the subject by invoking political causes he wanted to pursue. Then we learned of efforts by Weinstein, his company and lawyers to kill off the offending stories.

The proper response (for the company at least) would have been to fire Weinstein quickly—quicker than it did. Of course, après Weinstein, le deluge, in which dozens of other men have been accused of sex harassment and issued (for the most part) equally bad responses. Weinstein, however, deserves this every bit of this shameful No. 1 ranking.

2. United Airlines
United’s abysmal handling of the April 9 incident in which a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was dragged off a flight will go down as one of the most notorious corporate crises of all time. The company wavered on the tone and content of its messages, going from defensive to prostrate (after its stock started getting pummeled).

United’s early missteps, including apologizing merely for the “overbook situation,” contributed to the crisis’ severity. It took three public statements and one internal one until United got it right. In a recent study, 30 percent of respondents said they were still unwilling to fly with United—seven months after the incident. The smartest thing the airline did was settle with Dao in less than three weeks.

3. Equifax
Equifax was rightly flogged for its terrible handling of the communications around its hacking incident, which was said to have exposed the personal data of as many as 143 million Americans. The credit-scoring company’s first messages made clear it didn’t think the situation was a big deal. Consumers disagreed.

CEO Rick Smith looked positively bored in a video message. The company didn’t announce the breach until Sept. 7, six weeks after its discovery. Massive complaints rolled in about the website it had set up. Equifax didn’t have a team to return reporters’ calls in a timely fashion. The only positive: It fired CEO Smith just weeks after the breach announcement.

4. Uber
It seemed this year that Uber’s very existence was a crisis. The ride-hailing company has suffered a string of ugly reports about its toxic culture and its embattled CEO, Travis Kalanick.

After former Uber software engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post describing a culture of rampant sexual harassment, the company was suddenly scared straight. Alas, at the all-hands meeting to announce the adoption of independent recommendations for change, a director told a sexist joke. (He soon resigned over it.) Kalanick resigned in June, but the hits just keep coming.

5. Facebook
Facebook’s response to its Russian ad scandal has been the typical “drip, drip, drip” crisis, as in: “Here’s a little information … please just go away … OK, we’ll tell you more.”

After the 2016 election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was “a crazy idea” to suggest that Facebook might have influenced it. In July, the social networking giant said it had “seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.” In September, however, it admitted it found 470 profiles linked to Russian agents who bought about 3,000 such political ads before Election Day last year. Facebook responded the way it often does when faced with a problem: It said it would hire people to monitor the spots. Zuckerberg walked back his previous comments. All in all, not an impressive effort.

Dishonorable mentions

Dishonorable mentions go to:

  • The Fyre Festival organizers for a communications response almost as disastrous as the failed event itself.
  • The Walt Disney Co. for barring the Los Angeles Times from movie screenings because of a negative series of articles on the company.
  • Arkema Group for its overly scientific and impersonal communications concerning its flooded plant in Texas during Hurricane Harvey.

The best-handled crises of 2017

1. Corporate America
Corporate America was impressively united and strong in its denunciation of President Donald Trump’s January executive order curbing travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. Tempting a Trump Twitter reaction, scores of high-profile companies emphasized in statements the importance of immigration to the country’s history and to their corporate missions.

Responses were especially strong in the technology sector. “We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said.

Reed Hastings of Netflix was more forceful: “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world and are so un-American it pains us all.”

2. PwC
PwC, the U.S. affiliate of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been counting the Oscar votes for more than 80 years. So when, for the first time, it made a mistake—its partner handed the presenter the wrong card for the Best Picture award—it was seen as a major blunder. PwC took the situation seriously. Instead of attending post-award parties, it hunkered down to figure out what went wrong and apologized. The day after the Feb. 26 ceremony, U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan gave several apologetic interviews with media outlets, and that night the company put out another statement with more detail. “Last night we failed the academy,” it said.

The firm took the blame without excuses. It eventually announced that the two partners who had been working the awards (one of whom may have caused the problem by distractedly tweeting backstage) would no longer do so.

3. Nordstrom
On Feb. 2, Bloomberg reported that Nordstrom was dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line due to poor sales. That news came after calls for a boycott of the Trump merchandise, but the real reason was that the retailer has a policy of nixing its worst-performing brands each year. That didn’t satisfy Donald Trump. He lashed out at the company in a tweet, complaining that it treated his daughter “so unfairly.”

Yet, the company’s stock price actually rose. Controversy continued, and on Feb. 8, Nordstrom said it had told Ivanka’s company about its decision in early January and reiterated that it wasn’t personal, simply business. Two weeks after the flap, Nordstrom’s overall favorable rating remained at 46 percent, according to one study, though dissatisfaction doubled among the president’s supporters. “The uproar seemed to dissipate quickly,” Bloomberg wrote.

4. Tiki Brand
After white supremacists carried Tiki Brand torches during their August demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, the company vehemently rejected any association with their hateful cause. According to Vox, the company had monitored social media, saw the negative reaction to its connection to the marches and knew it had to respond. It did so by posting a simple, 60-word message on Facebook. It disassociated itself from the protesters and said it was “saddened and disappointed.”

“Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard,” the company said.

Facebook users shared the message more than 10,000 times. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with some commenters noting that the company took a harder stance against racism than the White House did.

5. Chobani
In April, shock-jock conspiracy theorist Alex Jones accused yogurt maker Chobani of bringing crime and disease to Twin Falls, Idaho, where the company has a plant. Far-right characters had long targeted Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya for hiring refugees and for promoting refugee rights. The articles on Jones’ Infowars site gave rise to a boycott of the yogurt maker. Ulukaya responded by suing Jones and Infowars. The lawsuit garnered plenty of media coverage, and Jones vowed to fight back, but less than a month after Chobani sued, he retracted the stories and apologized. “I regret that we mischaracterized Chobani, its employees, and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did,” he said.

Honorable mentions

Honorable mentions go to:

  • General Motors for its calm, factual response to Trump’s Jan. 3 tweet that demanded it make its Chevy Cruze cars in the United States. (It does.)
  • Dippin’ Dots for its riposte to then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s criticisms of the ice cream snacks.
  • Denver Public Schools for its handling of video that showed cheerleaders being forced to do painful splits.

Thom Weidlich is chief content officer for CrisisResponsePro. A version of this post first appeared on the CrisisResponsePro blog. You can access a more in-depth version of this post here.

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