Often times, the public sees public relations professionals as story spinners twisting information to accommodate an organization’s crisis communications missteps. This false perception is easily understood when you take into account the tactless attempts to repair public opinion listed in the Forbes article titled “The Biggest PR Crises of 2017.” The majority of professionals, however, maintain the highest level of integrity by adhering to the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics. In short, this code emphasizes that public relations professionals should represent the industry through advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. Through responsible and informed advocation for companies we represent, PR professionals fulfill their “obligation to serve the public interest.”
Corporate Crisis Communication Mishaps
In April 2017, Pepsi released an advertisement with Kendall Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join protestors and ultimately establishing peace by handing an officer a can of Pepsi. Uproar ensued as the public scrutinized the commercial for belittling the many social struggles fought at the time. Pepsi attempted to defend its actions by insisting that the message promoted unity and peace, but the company eventually pulled the ad and apologized to the public. Unfortunately, their original defensive prolonged Pepsi’s public relations crisis.
Pepsi isn’t the only company to take such missteps. United Airlines received significant backlash after forcefully removing a passenger from an overbooked flight. The incident, according to CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Emanuella Grinberg, “created a publicity nightmare for United.” Forbes contributor Ronn Torossian agreed writing, “After intense backlash and boycott threats, United took full responsibility and made the apology that it should have made immediately after the incident: ‘We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.’”
Cosmopolitan also landed on Forbes list of The Biggest PR Crises of 2017 with its article about a woman with rare cancer titled “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds without *ANY* Exercise.” Torossian explains that while Cosmopolitan eventually changed the headline, they never issued an apology or acknowledged the public outcry. Displaying such a lack of remorse shines a negative sentiment on the public relations industry. As public relations professionals, we must serve in the public’s best interest while staying loyal to those we represent.
Those Who Got It Right
There is an abundant number of ways to create meaningful connections, especially in this modern age. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which the company launched in 2004, provides us with an incredibly positive example. For over a decade, the company produced advertisements that embraced all sizes, glorified natural aging, and challenged society’s idea of pretty. One video advertisement, in particular, utilized a sketch artist to show the difference between how people are viewed by others vs. how they perceive themselves. This video immediately went viral with over 29.4 million views within the first ten days, according to AdAge.
Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” helped create a movement that boosted women’s self-esteem around the world. In turn, they gained a loyal customer base and were rewarded financially. Yet for everything Dove did right, one misstep threatened to take it all away.
In 2017, Dove released a video advertisement of a black woman turning into a white woman after removing her shirt. Public outrage ensued. Unlike United Airlines and Pepsi, however, Dove responded appropriately. According to AdAge, Dove quickly removed the ad and issued an immediate apology. They took full responsibility for their poor judgment and, in turn, came out of the media firestorm relatively intact.
Starbucks provides us with a more recent example with its decision to close down all stores nationwide to conduct racial-bias education on May 29, 2018. CNN reported that police wrongly arrested two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks for trespassing after responding to a manager’s call claiming that the men used the bathroom but did not place an order. The company, while not directly responsible for the manager’s actions, chose to take responsibility and set an example of how to respond appropriately.
Crisis Communications Lessons Learned
Building one’s brand takes time and a lot of effort. Crises on any level can set a company back or completely destroy its brand overnight. As such, it is extremely important for a company to have a public relations expert familiar with the company’s brand on its marketing team to readily manage public opinion, share key facts, and immediately correct inaccurate information when a crisis occurs. With the right marketing team in place, many common public relations crises may be avoided entirely.