Pepsi’s Smart Response To Its PR Controversy

Brand Pepsi fell flat this week with its bafflingly tone-deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner, but in the wake of a public relations backlash, the brand did at least one thing right. After Twitter lit up with nasty tweets and late-night comics poured on scorn, Pepsi reacted quickly. Its response was so simple, sensible, and honest that it makes you wonder why more companies can’t seem to do the same.

It admitted the that the spot fizzled, apologized, and promptly pulled it. What might have been a lengthier drip, drip of social media mockery ended with the ad. Sure, there are the PR post-mortems and the ad agency schadenfreude disguised as “learnings” (the ad was created in-house), but for Pepsi’s brand reputation, the worst is over.

What was the brand thinking in creating the spot? That’s harder to figure, but we have to take them at their word, which was that they were going for a “global message of unity, peace and understanding” in an environment that is by any account difficult and divisive. That part they got right. And in some ways, the brand did accomplish that mission. As Stephen Colbert put it, “We have a deeply divided nation. But today it seems like everyone has come together to join the protest against the new protest ad from Pepsi.”

Not that Pepsi’s off the hook entirely. The commercial’s utter genericism and soft-focus take on social justice made it look deeply inauthentic. Because the “protest” featured was so bland (the signs read, “Join the Conversation”) and the impeccably styled crowd looked fresh from a fashion casting call, it lacked the edginess that might have made it controversial, but valuable. Instead, it seemed to trivialize real political and social activism. To add insult to injury, the final frame, in which Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a (subtly hot)  young police officer, seemed to parallel the very real incident captured in an iconic photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. The image, taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, depicts protester Ieshia Evans, standing tall and dignified in a flowing, feminine skirt as she was arrested by police in full riot gear. Any comparison between the two photos, to say the least, was not flattering to Pepsi.
Anatomy of An Iconic Image: How this photograph of a protester in Baton Rouge could come to symbolize a movement
But the brand’s fast reaction was a timely reminder of the value of a sincere public apology. Companies shouldn’t need to be reminded, but the authentic mea culpa is rare lately. Pepsi’s statement struck the right notes.

It acted quickly

Given the ad’s obvious cost, it must have been tempting to delay action in the hope that the furor might subside. Killing your darlings is hard. But an hour is like a week in today’s news cycle. A slower decision would only have prolonged the pain, and Pepsi was smart to recognize that fact.

It accepted responsibility

At no point did the brand challenge those who criticized, suggest they might be overreacting, or point fingers at anyone but their own team. The statement even included an apology to Kendall Jenner, which was unnecessary, but a classy touch.

It admitted the mistake

Pepsi listened to its customers, as well as its loudest critics, and didn’t try to salvage the ad or fight for it. It agreed that it “missed the mark.” Other than the explanation about global unity, it simply confessed the error and pledged to do better. In most cases, that’s all people need to hear in order to cut you some slack.

It “fixed” the situation

One rule of good reputation management is to fix or solve a potentially damaging problem, or pledge to do so as quickly as possible. Often this is the toughest part, because under some circumstances it could involve a product recall, reformulation, or termination of a key executive. In this case the fix was expensive, but highly doable. No more ad.
The ad’s final chiron slogan includes the line, “Live Bolder.” But the best, and maybe boldest, thing Pepsi did was making the decision to pull its multimillion-dollar commercial, cutting its losses but preserving the credibility to try again in the future.

Tap Into These Influencer Trends For Better PR Results

Recently, Jennifer Lopez found herself in some public relations hot water when she reportedly neglected social media duties on behalf of a hoverboard company. With brands inking five and six-figure deals with mega-celebrities for a single tweet or post that may fall short of its goals, it’s no wonder that PR people look at different influencer strategies to move the needle socially.

It’s no longer a given that the most successful influencer campaigns rely on big names with big price tags to promote brands. We’re seeing new trends in social influence that offer new opportunities for PR and marketing campaigns.

The first step is to know your influencer categories. Today’s marketers need to be familiar with the entire influencer spectrum. There are celebrities, defined as having millions of followers or subscribers. Katy Perry, Justin Beiber and Barack Obama reign here with followers nearing 100 million.

Next are the macro-influencers, who typically have around a million followers or less; these include known fashion, lifestyle, beauty and makeup bloggers like Julia Engel, who has relationships with brands like Old Navy and The Gap or top gamer PewDiepie.

Then there are middle-influencers. These might have around 100,000 followers, rising stars on the cusp of name recognition who are eager to work with brands, like the folks behind weworewhat.com.   Finally, there are the micro-influencers, those with under 10,000 followers, mostly unknown names, but authentic believers with very loyal fans.

Big PR Results Start Small, Scale with Technology

Micro-influencers are growing

Micro-influencers, as defined above, track between 500 and 10,000 social media followers. They run the gamut from YouTubers, industry experts, and enthusiasts to advocates and activists and tend to have a highly personal relationship with their followers. Although their follower numbers are small, the response they generate is strong. According to MediaKix, Instagram influencers with fewer than 100,000 followers tend to have the highest rates of engagement. Working with micro-influencers is also more cost-effective. With a traditional influencer, a budget of $10,000 can net a brand one influencer and perhaps one outreach. With the micro-influencer model, that same $10,000 can go to ten different influencers, letting the brand test effectiveness without blowing their entire budget on one partnership.

A great example of a micro-influencer campaign is from natural product brand Tom’s of Maine, which has engaged micro-influencers in passionate conversations about earth-friendly products. Tom’s pays its network of personalities, of course, but it has also explored ways for influencers to unlock additional rewards. The takeaway for PR is twofold. As companies look for more cost-effective ways to stretch a PR budget, micro-influencers are a good fit. As well, the smart PR team can leverage the social relationship for other opportunities like special events, curated content and interviews.

Technology scales influencer efforts

The next big trend in social influence is less about who’s being brought on and more about automation of the process to drive scale. It’s inspired by programmatic advertising, which is based on data-driven decision-making by means of automation. Marketers use data to inform their creative campaigns, and digital ads are bought without any communication between agency and media company. Programmatic can do the same for influencer marketing, orchestrating targeted, timely and cost-effective placements in a highly efficient, automated manner. Programmatic technology is great for optimal distribution, as it allows access to massive scale, data targeting, retargeting and dynamic optimization. But PR teams need to remember that all the automation in the world can’t rescue a social campaign that’s poorly designed in the first place, or that lacks the relationship factor that only a human can bring. Robots won’t be replacing that anytime soon.

The influencer function goes in-house

The argument for an influencer division is a strong one for many PR agencies. A recent survey by eMarketer found that 84% of marketers planned to launch an influencer campaign within 12 months. But who will these marketers turn to for a well-managed campaign? Increasingly the answer is a PR team. An agency set up to run full-service influencer campaigns is well equipped to include the key components from ongoing PR work. As agencies are more frequently called on to recommend an influencer strategy, it pays to consider appointing an in-house influence team, or hire up, if the role is growing. The in-house team manages “all-under-one-roof” consulting, from identifying and retaining the influencers; creating campaigns, approving posts and managing the influencer relationships. Agency teams also track campaign performance, measuring ROI and presenting analytics. When an in-house team is responsible for a multi-element campaign – earned media, thought leadership and influencer outreach –  there is one tight, strategic through line that elevates the level of message delivery in a consistent way.

Creative freedom for influencers

The days when the client spent a week vetting and pre-approving canned tweets or photos from a celebrity are gone. Today’s most successful influencer campaigns feature content that’s freely posted by personalities guided by instincts honed over years of engaging with fans. They’re trusted by the brands who are their clients because they know what they’re doing and the brands value authenticity. Letting your influencers do what they know best, and without restrictions other than reasonable rules about explicitly sexual or vulgar content has opened a new world of spontaneity and truth in the resulting content, which elevates the relationship and takes the commercial edge off a campaign.

Greater use of influencer videos

Talk about a marriage made in heaven. With digital video more popular than primetime TV, PR firms are increasingly finding ways to incorporate video into campaigns. At the same time, most social influencers star in their own short Snap stories or YouTube how-tos as a standard part of their offering. The question is, can we get more out of influencer videos? The answer seems to be yes. Fashion brand Zara partnered with an influencer community to create i am denim, an innovative and collaborative video design project that netted over 350,000 views for a single collaboration.

Creative PR teams look at video like this and see several possible extensions. Take the video to fashion writers and bloggers to create a robust story pitch. Or, turn the success of the video into a case history that quietly promotes the label’s social smarts. Best of all, it can translate to a social presence in other popular communities where a head-turning short film will extend the campaign. And, increasingly, live videos seen on platforms like Instagram Live, Snap, and Facebook Live, add an extra element of electricity and engagement that you just can’t get in ordinary videos.