2017 Crisis Management That (Mostly) Worked

Armchair PR experts get lots of mileage from critiquing crisis management by major brands and businesses this time of year. But what about the crisis situations that are handled well? Those instances are less clear, presumably because we don’t hear about the bad news that never hit the press. But in the spirit of fair play, here are some examples of reputation management that succeeded in 2017.

Pepsi’s graceful mea culpa

Remember the short-lived Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner? It seems almost quaint now, given the explosion of reputation-killing headlines that have followed the brand “scandal.” Yet Pepsi’s fast action helped stanch the outpouring of criticism that the commercial was tone-deaf and trivialized true social activism. The ad itself fizzled, but Pepsi’s apology was a win. It was well-crafted, on-target, and even included Jenner in the mea culpa. Most importantly, the brand took full responsibility for the misfire and backed up its words by pulling the ad. It will be remembered primarily by marketing and PR professionals. Well handled.

Southwest Airlines’ soft landing

Everyone recalls the PR fiasco United Airlines experienced when footage of a dazed and bloodied passenger being dragged from his seat went viral. But consider how Southwest Airlines handled a tricky passenger situation in September. A woman who noticed two dogs on her flight claimed to have a life-threatening pet allergy, yet wouldn’t leave the plane. Police were called, and when she couldn’t produce necessary medical documentation for her claim, the airline had her taken off the flight. Her exit was captured on other passengers’ cell phones and enjoyed a brief viral moment on social media. Even though it was within its rights to deny boarding to a passenger who couldn’t travel safely with animals, Southwest acted swiftly to contain the damage. It issued a formal apology to the passenger the very next day and reached out to her directly to make things right. Fast action and a sincere statement of regret helped resolve a situation that could have grounded its reputation.

NBC’s live Lauer reckoning

The speed whereby the #metoo movement has toppled boldface names in journalism, politics, and entertainment is breathtaking, and major media companies have not been spared. In the wake of Matt Lauer’s firing for sexual misconduct, NBC will be scrutinized for what it knew and when, but it’s hard to fault the network’s handling of the announcement itself. Lauer’s visibly shaken co-hosts Samantha Guthrie and Hoda Kotb faced a live television audience within hours of learning about Lauer’s ouster.  Guthrie eloquently conveyed her conflicting personal emotions while being respectful to those who had come forward to end her colleague’s career. The “Today” Show’s ratings are up sharply since Lauer’s departure, ironically. The sincerity and honesty of the on-air disclosure may be why; it humanized the network talent and drew viewers into their experience in real time.

SoFi is spared major scandal

One company that may have escaped the brunt of the cultural shift on workplace harassment – at least for now – is online lending startup Social Finance, or SoFi.  A fintech darling, SoFi has grown rapidly, exceeding $4 billion in student loan and mortgage refinancing and building a reputation among millennials by hosting local-market social events for customers. So when a wrongful dismissal suit brought to light allegations of sexual harassment and faulty loan application cancellations, SoFi faced a dangerous situation. It responded aggressively to the allegations, pointing to an internal investigation that cleared the company on its loan cancellation policies. Yet as the drip-drip-drip about sexual misconduct by founder Mike Cagney grew, the board pressed Cagney to resign, and he ultimately did. SoFi may have gotten lucky with the timing of its crisis, and its troubles could have been overshadowed by those at better-known companies like Uber. But Cagney’s resignation removed a lightning rod from a situation that could have been far worse.

Uber’s reputation work gains speed….then stalls again

And then there’s Uber. It was beset with not one, but many reputation scandals this year, and the crisis isn’t over. But like SoFi, Uber accomplished one important thing during 2017; it replaced controversial founder and CEO Travis Kalanick with respected technology executive Dara Khosrowshahi. With Kalanick’s exit, some of Uber’s negative baggage departed also. But unfortunately the new CEO was immediately confronted with a fresh crisis – the disclosure of a 2016 security breach resulting in the theft of data from 57 million customers. What’s more, Uber covered up the breach after paying a six-figure ransom to the hackers to delete the stolen data and disguised the payout as a “bug bounty” for testing software. Khosrowshahi’s blog post detailing the situation and the planned fixes represents a good first step in managing the situation. But there’s no doubt about it; he has a long way to go before full confidence in the Uber brand will be restored.

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.

Super Bowl Advertisers Score PR Points By Getting “Banned”

Someone blogged recently that the Super Bowl’s like “American Idol” for advertisers…with a little football thrown in.

They called it right. And this year, with social media kicking in like never before, the Super Bowl is still a winning PR strategy for the brands that pay to play. Most are looking to extend their investment through the social Web. In fact, there are so many ads previewed before the Bowl that the event itself might be an anti-climax.

But, with so much noise out there, how do smaller brands get attention? Some are trying to pull an end-run before game day. If you’re not Pepsi, which scored PR points by sitting out the Super Bowl, or Focus on the Family, which will air the much-discussed-but-as-yet-unseen pro-life ad with college football player Tim Tebow, your best Super Bowl strategy may be to get thrown out of the game.

That’s what happened to gay dating site ManCrunch when it submitted its Super Bowl spot. CBS rejected the ManCrunch overture, questioned its creditworthiness, and basically called its ad a cheap PR ploy. Now, I’ve no idea if ManCrunch is actually good for the $2-3 million that it costs for 30 seconds on the Super Bowl. But, whatever its intentions, the controversy lit up the blogosphere, and the ManCrunch spot has racked up nearly half a million views on YouTube. Cost to ManCrunch? Zero.

But, most benched spots are from actual Super Bowl advertisers. GoDaddy, the grandfather of game-day ad controversy, is again out-of-bounds with one of its commercials. The spot, “Lola,” about a lingerie-designing football player, was deemed “inappropriate” for the telecast. Naturally, GoDaddy has put the ad on YouTube and is inviting viewers to catch it on its website.
But my favorite “banned” spot this year was created by kgb, a company that answers trivia questions by text message. It features two women whose golfer husbands are discussing global warming and don’t know what they’re talking about. The wives complain that the men have their heads up their…um, backsides, and that’s exactly what they look like. kgb’s Bruce Stewart claims they had no idea that the ad, which naturally is posted on YouTube, would be tossed.

Some say that, given the network’s extra-stringent decency standards for the Super Bowl, the kgb marketing people are probably talking out of their – well, you know. And, they’ll be running other commercials that have been deemed more acceptable – although having viewed the “banned” spots, I find the standards pretty mystifying.

Critics complain that the ejected spots don’t exactly raise the bar for creativity and originality, and it’s true that they’re less than, um, sophisticated. But, you can’t blame the advertisers for wanting a pre-Bowl PR warm-up, and I think the kgb spot is hilarious. The faux controversy is stretching those multimillion-dollar budgets and generating some buzz around both rookie and veteran brands. The ads may not be televised, but they will be in the game.

Pepsi Super Bowl Snub Scores PR Points, Changes Marketing Game

In recent years, the Super Bowl has become as much a brand PR vehicle as an advertising showcase. Companies can score big by announcing their participation in the adfest, and if they hit, their commercial will be replayed and discussed by pundits like Barbara Lippert and Donnie Deutsch throughout the post–game news cycle.

That’s why it’s ironic that Pepsi’s recent announcement that it won’t advertise in the 2010 Super Bowl has generated so much coverage. The reason is not only because the brand is breaking a  23-year marketing tradition. It’s also because Pepsi has said it will instead pour its budget into an ambitious campaign called Project Refresh that will be promoted through social media.

Project Refresh seems to blend philanthropy, community relations, and crowdsourcing, not to mention canny timing. Pepsi will invite the public to submit ideas on how it should spend a cool $20 million to “refresh” local communities. Starting February 1, people can vote for the projects they favor, and the ones that garner the most votes will be funded.

The brand’s decision to take a pass on the Super Bowl this year may not be as unexpected as it seems, however. With “Project Refresh” already in the works, they may have felt a big buy would send a mixed signal. It’s tough to talk philanthropy on the one hand, then get into the commercial huddle at a time when CBS is asking $2.5 or $3 million for a single spot. Maybe Pepsi’s marketers thought it wiser to let its other brands, like Gatorade, carry the ball when it comes to splashy ads.

But, Pepsi’s move is a game-changer when it comes to TV advertising. As a marketing leader, it’s a model for other advertisers. When a brand that’s spent $142 million over the decade changes direction, it’s a clear sign that the old rules are history.

Did Amp Turn Up The Volume With #pepsifail?

As I’ve noted previously, good public relations sometimes means having to say you’re sorry. “Apology communications” is a PR buzzword these days. But, when is an apology something else altogether? (Hint: When it involves 18-year-old dudes, maybe?)

What got me wondering was the backlash to the Amp energy drink campaign. Of course, I’m talking about the now-infamous iPhone app created for the drink’s young, male customers. Amp Up Before You Score packs some punchy pickup lines for guys who want to “get lucky” with different female “types,” from “military chick” to “married.” You have to admire the breadth…and the artwork. All told, it pulls background and, um, date suggestions for 24 different types of women. If you’ve got a “treehugger” in your sights, for example, it offers a carbon footprint calculation and serves up vegan restaurant recommendations.

Kind of clever, but in this case, crude sexual references and sexist stereotypes unleashed a torrent of outrage. After Twitter users and others poured on the protest, an apology was posted on the brand’s account at @AMPwhatsnext. It read, “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback. #pepsifail

I’m not actually offended by – or even terribly interested in – the app itself. Tasteless? Sure. Sophomoric? Yep. But, that’s the Amp demographic. Not exactly the Junior League. The hair-trigger brand response is something else, though. It seems to have added fuel to the online firestorm, for a few reasons.

First of all, the apologetic tweet is pretty tepid. Also, it’s odd that Amp’s Facebook feed actually defends the app. Where’s the consistency here? And since there’s been no offer to pull “Amp Up,” the mea culpa seems inauthentic, or at least half-hearted. As a mashable.com commenter put it, “It’s not a full apology when you use the word “if,” blame the offended for being offended, and continue the activity for which you are apologizing.”

She has a point. What’s harder to swallow is how and why the brand seemed to invite negative feedback. Presumably the #pepsifail hashtag enabled Amp to monitor the Twitter users most engaged in the debate. But, using it was like injecting a double shot of caffeine (or guarana?) into the comment stream. And why did the company choose to throw brand Pepsi under the social media bus? Why not try to use #ampfail? Given the size of the Pepsi portfolio, do they really want to drag in the mass-market mother ship?

Beyond the blurring of brands, I can’t tell if the communications staff at Pepsi are over-identifying with their Amp demographic…or if they’re truly ambivalent about the situation. Or – and this actually seems the most likely to me – maybe they’re interested in amping up the volume, even if it’s negative to us non-hipsters. My take on the apology strategy is that it just may be true to the drink’s cool-hunting, hypersocialized brand character. After all, the reactions of people like me (a 40+ professional mom) or an indignant female blogosphere don’t affect sales in the least. In fact, they just might help promote an edgy, in-your-face sensibility. And ignoring a flood of outrage among marketing types is in itself a kind of anti-marketing position.

I could be overthinking this, but there’s no question that Amp has caught a tremendous buzz from the social media fireworks. In a crowded, buzz-driven category, a shot of energy isn’t a bad thing. And considering the prize here – the ever-elusive young male – the online equivalent of a slapdash, muttered, self-contradictory apology just might be the most authentic piece of all.

Update: On Oct. 22, Pepsi announced it would discontinue the “Amp Up” app. Here’s the story.

Cola Rivals Engage…With Each Other

It took me a while to get the Coke-Pepsi social media handshake thing.

I’m referring to that moment of Twitter diplomacy a couple of weeks ago.  The brand rivals agreed to make nice and follow one another, through a notably civil but tepid public exchange of  updates.  The detente was a response to a challenge by Australian marketing firm Amnesia Razorfish. It was a brilliant PR stunt on their part.

@CocaCola was the first to answer the call, tweeting a “gracious (but competitive) hello.”  Later @Pepsi responded with the slightly Zen-like musing, “Can followers and tweeps co-exist? We’re willing to find out.:)”

And that was that.  No swipes, insults, or even tortured cola puns.  No one was bubbling over, foaming at the mouth, or icy cold.  The exchange itself was sweet, cautious and a little, well, flat.
But, here’s the interesting part.  This “new” cola challenge was fueled by a cascade of retweets by Twitter users urging the brands to make nice.  And, the result was an outpouring of attention, including an AdAge profile, a Reuters piece, a hilarious Jimmy Fallon blog spoof, and countless other blog mentions.

Not exactly marketing history, and I doubt any soda was sold. But, it’s interesting from a brand engagement perspective.  And, it spurred me to look back at the heritage of the battle between the two soft drinks. Only two such iconic brands with such a legendary marketing rivalry could have the social world watching its Twitter moment. To look back over the history of the Coke-Pepsi marketing wars is to marvel at the moves and counter-moves that shaped each brand’s image over decades.  Things first heated up in the 1940s, when then-President Walter Mack made history by marketing Pepsi to African-Americans….this, while Jim Crow laws still stood.  It’s a remarkable, iconic rivalry that is precedent-setting to this day.

So, what’s next…McD’s and Burger King? Can world peace be far behind?