Yes, 2017 feels like a lifetime ago, given our breakneck news cycle, but there were plenty of public relations lessons over the year for big brands and business categories. Here’s a look at those who came out on top, and others who took a reputation beating last year.
2017 was like a charmed year for the digital commerce giant. Digital assistant Alexa won pop-culture status, its Prime expansion was successful, and it made a splashy bet on physical supermarkets. But the real PR coup was the reality-show-like sweepstakes to find a second headquarters. The HQ2 search generated a frenzy of positive media coverage as well as 238 proposals from individual North American cities, and it helped cement Amazon’s status as a desired corporate neighbor and employer.
After “Today” show star Matt Lauer was abruptly fired following allegations of sexual misconduct, it seemed that NBC would take a terrible blow to its reputation. But its swift action and skillful handling of the situation by the remaining on-air talent helped turn things around. Savannah Guthrie and Hota Kotb announced Lauer’s sudden departure with grace and poignancy – in real time, on live television. That’s harder than it looked, and it was a solid win for the network and its flagship show, whose ratings are up significantly since the change.
For the mainstream media, 2017 was a year of ups and downs. The MSM has been aggressively criticized by the president, and public trust in the press hovers at 41%, according to Gallup. Yet most national outlets posted gains in the ways that matter – ratings and readers. What’s more, trust in journalism has actually increased over 2016. After the election, most news organizations got busy reminding us why they’re needed with a renewed commitment to quality reporting. Cable news – which logically should have experienced a downturn after an election year – reported a huge boost in viewership. Ditto the national newspapers; both The Washington Post and The New York Times broke subscription records. Best of all, journalism organizations like ProPublica and The Center For Public Integrity are enjoying unprecedented support.
Cryptocurrency had a great year in 2017, breaking through the $10,000 price barrier and throwing off some of its shady reputation. Bitcoin in particular attracted the kind of media coverage that only enhanced its appeal, even when the coverage was skeptical, thanks to the sheer power of blockchain technology. Without a core of innovation, the bitcoin story would be just another fad. But blockchain is seen as “having the potential to reshape the global financial system and possibly other industries,” according to Bloomberg. Despite naysayers, it offered journalists and bloggers the perfect recipe of high-tech and high-risk.
Who could have predicted the speed and ruthlessness of the #metoo movement? There’s a reason why Time magazine gained currency for itself and the movement by naming “the silence-breakers” as its Person of the Year. It swept the country like a virus, and, despite valid concerns about a backlash, the impact is far-reaching.
2017 also brought a reckoning of sorts for Facebook. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg was asked about reports that Russia had peddled “fake news” on its platform to influence the election? He called it a ”pretty crazy” idea. Within weeks, however, Facebook would own up to the fact that it sold more than $100,000 in ads to Russian accounts, and that foreign actors used its feed to spread false and divisive stories about candidates and issues. It’s not alone among social media companies, but the brand has suffered from its casual and misleading response to the situation. As The Verge put it, “Facebook’s inconsistent statements, its history of errors in reporting on its own ad platform, and its reluctance to share relevant data about Russian hacking have added to its credibility gap.”
Tired of hearing about Uber? That’s because 2017 brought a pile-up of hits to its reputation. In the first quarter alone it was accused of crossing a picket line after the first travel ban, mistreating drivers, and using a secret app to evade regulators. But the real wreck came when engineer Susan Fowler penned a scathing account of her year working there. Fowler wrote about a toxic culture riven by infighting, gender bias and relentless sexual harassment. Like a lit fuse, her post burned through the tech community and exploded into public consciousness. Yet as often happens, the crisis gave Uber the chance to turn the corner on its troubles by replacing founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was quickly beset with a fresh crisis, though, when news came out that Uber covered up a 2016 hack. Khosrowshahi’s blog post about the situation is a respectable first step in showing transparency, but he has a long way to go. Here’s hoping for smoother road in 2018.
As the world knows, UA hit turbulence with its disastrous handling of a passenger situation that was caught on video. As images of the bloodied man being dragged from his seat by airport police went viral, the airline made things worse with a series of legalistic and tone-deaf public responses. The cultural impact was huge, yet the United crisis also shows business resilience. Its stock price took a hit, and CEO Oscar Munoz was denied a promised promotion to Chairman. But as the outcry grew, United changed its tack. It launched a more authentic apology tour, quietly reached a settlement with the injured passenger, and pledged that nothing similar would ever happen on its planes. The stock price bounced back in short order. In fact, the more lasting impact will be felt in the form of greater customer-service consciousness across the major industry players.
Unlike United’s experience, the reputation damage from Equifax’s massive privacy breach will haunt it for years. Not only was it negligent in maintaining security, but it waited months before telling customers that their information might be compromised. Although CEO Richard Smith eventually rose to the occasion with a well-crafted apology, it was too little, too late, and he was voted out by the Equifax board. Its stock price plunged 15% after the breach was announced, and the damage was compounded by the news that Equifax insiders sold shares before it was known. Equifax now faces greater regulatory scrutiny, more Congressional hearings, and a class-action suit by shareholders.
The irony of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace is that it was so long in coming, yet the collapse was breathtakingly swift. As the dominoes fell in entertainment, journalism, and politics, each company and industry had to grapple with who knew what, and when. The results were often ugly. But the good news is that the awareness of systemic sexual harassment and misbehavior has reached a tipping point, and the cultural and business changes will be profound and in many cases, permanent.