Mistakes happen all of the time. And in the world of public relations, the ever-evolving digital media landscape magnifies errors made by companies across industry sectors. From misguided campaigns and jokes made in poor taste to downright incompetence, PR fails can significantly damage any company’s reputation, and the ensuing public outrage can impact your organization’s bottom line.
While the impact of a PR disaster varies, every organization is at risk because anyone can make a headline-grabbing mistake. With 2018 in the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look at a few of the biggest PR blunders of last year.
H&M: Coolest Monkey in the Jungle Sweatshirt Controversy
In January, Swedish clothing retailer H&M came under fire for an offensive ad that featured a black child wearing a sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed across the front of the garment. Due to its tone-deafness and racist implication, the insensitive ad received a significant amount of public backlash on social media as Twitter users were quick to slam the ad, and musicians The Weeknd and G-Eazy each canceled partnerships with the company.
According to PR Week, “(t)he backlash was exacerbated by the retailer’s use of only white boys to model the range’s other sweatshirts with the words ‘Mangrove jungle survival expert’ and images of animals.” In the days and weeks following the scandal, H&M took several actions, including hiring a diversity leader and issuing a public apology that was featured at the top of its website.
Following the incident, H&M said its “routines have not been followed properly,” and the company will “thoroughly investigate” the cause of this to prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future. This gaffe not only generated outrage and disbelief among consumers and partners, it also points to an ongoing lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity among decision-makers at H&M. And for a company that’s battled similar issues in years past (in South Africa in 2015 and in Canada in 2013), the company’s reaction to the sweatshirt controversy left quite a bit to be desired.
United Airlines: Dead Puppy Disaster
Fresh off of one of the most outrageous corporate PR disasters in recent memory (Who can forget that 2017 video of a battered passenger being forcefully dragged off of a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat so late-arriving flight attendants could get to their next assignment?), United was at it again in March.
In 2018, the airline was lambasted for the death of a passenger’s French bulldog after a flight attendant instructed the passenger to put her puppy into the overhead bin for the 3 1/2 hour flight from Houston to New York. According to People, the flight attendant told the passenger that her bag was blocking part of the aisle. The owner adamantly refused, noting that her dog was in the bag.
Upon landing, the dog’s owner opened the overhead bin and realized that her pet had died during the flight. To their credit, the United Airlines crew, including the flight attendant who instructed the passenger to stow her dog, responded immediately to the woman’s distress. But at that point, the damage had already been done and passengers were taking to social media, tweeting about the incident. United apologized, then suspended its policy on the types of animals eligible to fly in its cargo hold before revamping the policy altogether. As a result, the airline suffered its second PR black eye in as many years and hired former White House press secretary Josh Earnest to fill its top communications role.
Facebook: A Year of Scandals
2018 was a rough year for the folks at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant suffered a number of PR setbacks, resulting in a growing loss of trust and a 25 percent decrease in stock price. In March, the company admitted that it had known about political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessing the data of more than 50 million users for more than three years before disclosure.
Shortly thereafter, a #DeleteFacebook protest took hold as Facebook scrambled to downplay the extent of the breach. In April, Facebook revealed that 87 million people had their personal information accessed — nearly twice as many as had previously been disclosed. Also in April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before senators and Congress, facing questions about the company’s business practices and its approach to collecting and handling personal data, but he failed to answer many queries and often told the legislators he’d get back to them later.
June and July saw multiple bugs in the platform that affected users’ privacy settings, resulting in more bad press for the tech giant. And in October, the company witnessed yet another breach as 30 million users had their personal information pilfered by hackers. The New York Times reported about the private and public actions Facebook took in the wake of ongoing crises at the company. According to the report, Facebook hired an opposition research firm to smear and discredit critics, alleging they were on the payroll of controversial billionaire George Soros, who has been the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
With more than 2.25 billion users worldwide, Facebook appears to be acting as if it is too big to fail. Unless the social network improves the way it handles scandals in 2019, we may soon find out whether the company is, indeed, too big to fail.
What Can We Learn?
As the above examples illustrate, there are a number of ways companies can respond to PR crises. From pulling controversial ads and apologizing for missteps to sticking your head in the sand and hoping the crisis goes away, keeping cool with the media when crisis strikes is important. While mistakes happen and it’s impossible to prepare for every potential scenario, a sound crisis strategy can mitigate the impact of negative stories in addition to educating your audience and retaining brand trust.
As the saying goes, “no press is bad press,” but you and your company should strive to avoid appearing in this kind of post in 2019. Take some time to review your existing crisis comms and data privacy policies to know where you stand. Be authentic. Schedule a media training/policy refresher for employees and key contacts. Proactively practice the art of not being racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-shaming or otherwise prejudicial. And finally, build your community and search for opportunities to increase the amount of high-quality positive coverage you receive.