April 2017 saw significant (and avoidable) PR crises for two major brands in the span of one week—United Airlines’ violent passenger removal incident and Pepsi’s “protester” ad featuring Kendall Jenner and its ensuing backlash.
With Pepsi, the brand admitted it had “missed the mark” in their internally-created ad where celebrity Kendall Jenner mitigates tensions at a racially-diverse peace demonstration by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi. The ad brought in nearly 1.6 million views on YouTube within 48 hours, earned five times as many downvotes as upvotes, and attracted criticism from people such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, who took to Twitter to mock the ad.
With the bad press for Pepsi still flowing, United Airlines staked its own claim for the worst PR disaster of the month when news emerged that a paying passenger had been dragged bloodied and screaming off a flight due to an overbooking debacle that other travelers caught on video and quickly uploaded online.
So when bad press emerges about a company, how should brands approach the crisis, how can they mitigate the damage and what can we learn from their mistakes?
The faster you react and respond, the greater the chance you have of being able to control the message instead of allowing the media to form their own stories about it. Speed is critical in these situations and by letting the crisis build up before addressing it, you’re inviting unpredictable media consequences instead of maintaining a controlled, manageable new cycle for your company.
Taking responsibility or ownership of the crises, putting your spokesperson out in public and being approachable about the situation gives you the opportunity to say how you’ll prevent the problem from happening again. By being upfront and owning the message, you obstruct the blame cycle and prevent others from assigning blame. The more effective you are in applying these crisis communications methods the faster you can control the damage.
Have a “holding statement”
Along with the speed with which you address the crisis, having a prepared holding statement that lays out the basic facts regarding the incident while laying out how you are actively dealing with it demonstrates recognition, ownership and professionalism while leaving time to formalize a more thorough response.
Your company’s communications staff should frequently draft and evaluate holding statements for several potential crises situations and revisit them regularly to decide if adjustments are necessary.
Make the apology right
Finally, when making the formal apology on behalf of your brand, try sincerely to express emotion and be empathetic to the experiences of those affected by the situation—and above all—get it right the first time. United’s CEO was widely mocked for using airline jargon in the first apology, expressing regret for needing to “reaccommodate customers”. The next day he attempted a more authentic apology, saying he “deeply apologize[s] to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard.”
When you find yourself addressing a crisis for your company, be up front with your customers and those affected, accept responsibility and be transparent about your course corrections and you will be able to manage the situation much more easily.