Our Take on the Latest PR Crises

Throughout the past month, the executives at 5W have repeatedly been approached by the media for our opinions on the major missteps made by a variety of widely recognized brands.  Here’s a quick debriefing on the latest big brand scandals, and our take on each.

Pepsi initially defended the “global message of unity, peace and understanding” that it meant to portray with its advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner portraying a model who leaves a photo shoot and joins a protest. Pepsi defended itself against widespread criticism from viewers who believed the ad trivialized recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.  Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., poked fun at the ad, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.”  Eventually, Pepsi did the right things by pulling the ad and admitting it missed the mark; however, its misplaced apology was directed towards Kendall rather than the protesters, the movement, and any viewers who were offended by the video – and ultimately, it was too late.

United Airlines’ stock plummeted after videos of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked plane circulated the internet. At first, United stood by the forceful removal of the passenger; then, it issued a cold apology.  Finally, after intense backlash and boycott threats, it took full responsibility and made the apology that it should have made immediately after the incident.  Again, it was too late.

Cosmopolitan’s recent PR crisis revolved around a Tweet and article headline: “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds without *ANY* Exercise.” This woman was able to lose the pounds thanks to a side effect of a rare cancer. Readers were extremely disturbed and attacked Cosmo, which eventually changed the headline to “A Serious Health Scare Helped Me Love My Body More than Ever.”  Neither Cosmopolitan nor Hearst have owned up to this tactless mistake.  Cosmo needed to issue an apology for its insensitivity, and the public will remember that it didn’t.

Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite Connecticut boarding school, went under fire for hushing up sexual abuse problems that occurred at the school. Choate had handled instances of adult sexual misconduct internally rather than report them to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. In 2016, The Boston Globe published an article referencing sexual abuse at the school and this April, the school’s report to its Board of Trustees documented decades of sexual abuse.  In response, the chair of Choate’s Board of Trustees and the school’s headmaster sent a letter of apology to the community.  It’s clear that the school handled the allegations wrongly, but it was right to apologize now that the truth has been uncovered.  In a crisis, taking responsibility is one of the most important things you can do.

Adidas made a tone-deaf move by sending out emails to Boston Marathon participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” The backlash was immediate, and Adidas spokeswoman Maria Culp quickly issued a public apology via Business Insider, saying, “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.” Clearly, Adidas’ email marketing team made a mistake.  But Adidas’ immediate, heartfelt public apology was the right move.

Fox’s firing of Bill O’Reilly was bold – O’Reilly was one of the channel’s top hosts. The New York Times reported that O’Reilly had sexually harassed a number of female guests and employees of the show, and that five women had been paid a total of $13 million in settlements for it.  In the wake of the recent similar Roger Ailes scandal and more than 50 advertisers dropping out of O’Reilly’s show following the allegations, it was clear that Fox needed to make the move quickly to avoid further tarnishing its reputation and to protect itself moving forward.

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States.

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