by Felix Lehane
In business things don’t always go perfectly, and when a mistake goes viral companies can find themselves with a sudden PR disaster on their hands. Here are a few of the most recent PR disasters to have hit the news, and how we can learn from them.
eMoov mapping nuclear fallout
Against the mounting tension between Trump and Kim Jong Un over their respective nuclear capacities, online estate agent eMoov received widespread backlash after producing a map of the possible blast radii if major cities in the UK were hit by a nuclear attack, and advertising the prices of properties outside the fallout zone. It was received as a joke in poor taste at the prospect of millions of deaths. Russel Quirk from eMoov apologised, but defended the release as “tongue-in-cheek”.
Pepsi’s protest advert
In April, Pepsi released a television advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner. In the midst of a modelling shoot, Jenner catches sight of a large, happy-looking protest marching through the streets and, taken up by the powerful atmosphere, abandons the shoot to join. The advert ends with the protesters facing a line of intimidating armed police. Jenner approaches a policeman and offers him a can of Pepsi, which he drinks, and the crowd cheers as the tense standoff is diffused. The ad received a huge backlash because of its perceived belittling tone towards popular protest movements like Black Lives Matter, and ignorance of recent police violence in the country.
Pepsi was, unfortunately, slow to cover for its mistake. In a press release, after at first defending its “global message of unity, peace and understanding”, it apologised for any harm caused, and pulled the ad.
United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger
Footage emerged in April of a paying customer being forcibly dragged out of his seat by security guards on a United Airlines flight. The passenger is seen with glasses knocked off his face, pulled down the aisle bleeding by two security officers. Oscar Munoz, the head of United, released an unsympathetic apology which referred to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. After nearly $1 billion was knocked off United’s value, and this response was heavily criticised, he was forced to issue a more sincere apology.
The Google Memo
Earlier this month Google was rocked by the fallout of a leaked memo from an employee who argued that the reason for low numbers of female programmers is that they are less interested in computing, and more adapted to people skills. He also called out an ideological “echo chamber” that allegedly means conservative views cannot be voiced.
Google responded swiftly, firing the engineer once word got out. This did, however, potentially confirm the engineer’s “echo chamber” complaint, and has fired up a freedom of speech debate around the issue. However the company has by-and-large been praised for its decisive handling of the issue.
So what can we learn from these PR disasters? In public communications, it’s best to steer clear of jokes about the potential deaths of thousands of people. Conversely, neither is it advisable to imply your product, amazing as it might be, can bring a peaceful resolution to complex and controversial political situations. Much worse than ignoring or joking about violence of course, is inflicting it upon your customers. We can however learn something more positive from Google’s situation. When a PR disaster does happen, it’s always best to apologise and address the situation as soon as possible.