Who Were The PR Winners And Losers of 2017?

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.

The Winners

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.

The Losers

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.

United Airlines
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.

American Airlines Soars Through A Potential Crisis

At least one company learned something about PR and reputation from the United Airlines fiasco earlier this month. Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook lit up with smartphone videos of a fresh instance of passenger distress on an airplane. This time it was a scuffle between an American Airlines flight attendant and a passenger who had tried to put a stroller in the overhead compartment. Apparently the attendant pulled the stroller from the woman’s grasp, striking her and narrowly missing her child.

The videos of the American flight captured only the aftermath of stroller-gate, and they didn’t match the disturbing pictures of Dr. David Dao being pulled screaming from his seat. But most of the images, which quickly went viral, showed a deeply distressed mother of twin toddlers, sobbing openly, as the flight attendant shouts down another passenger who comes to her aid. It’s not a good look for American, yet the outcome in this case was very different from that of the United incident.

American avoids the worst with a fast and sincere apology

And here’s why: American posted a statement on its website within hours of the altercation. Although it notes that it is investigating the situation, the statement conveys empathy for the female passenger and reports that preliminary steps have already been taken.

“The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.”

The statement also includes a carefully crafted and sincere-sounding apology to the woman affected. Unlike the mealy-mouthed mea culpas that often result from such incidents (for fear of litigation), it emphasizes that the passenger was wronged, and that some kind of rectification has already been attempted. We learn that the woman and her family had been put on another flight to their destination and upgraded for their trouble.

The message here is clear – despite the fact that the airline’s rules state that only collapsible strollers can go on their planes and that they must be checked at the gate, American doesn’t try to hide behind a legalistic response. It knows that it doesn’t matter if the passenger was technically in the wrong; what matters is that a mother of small children is sobbing because of the actions of an airline employee, who is recorded shouting at another passenger.

Unlike the initial response from United to its crisis, the communications team at American shows awareness that public sympathy would naturally be with the passenger, and that a quick, clear, and apologetic response to the situation was essential to controlling the social and traditional media coverage. And of course American had the advantage of learning from the United fiasco. Other companies, both within and outside of the airline industry, should take note. This is how it’s done.

United Flies Into A PR Storm

The public relations team at United had probably just started to breathe easy after the “leggings” mini-crisis when a second PR disaster hit. And this one’s a doozy.

Late Sunday, a United passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight was forcibly removed from the plane by police, to the horror of other passengers. Many captured the scene on their smartphones, and the video was more shocking than the headline; the man is screaming as he is wrenched from his window seat and dragged down the aisle, his face bleeding after apparently hitting an armrest. It’s the kind of treatment you can only imagine if he were a physical threat or a terror suspect, not an ordinary passenger.

The video, which went viral by Monday morning after being posted on Facebook by another passenger, is very disturbing. But for public relations and crisis experts, United’s immediate response was also troubling. As of midday Monday, the airline had issued the following statement.

“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

A poor response compounded by a second

You don’t need to be a PR professional to think this is a pretty poor response. There’s no apology for the passenger’s humiliation, inconvenience, and injury. There’s no explanation for the use of force, and in fact the statement omits the bit about dragging a screaming, bleeding man from his seat. United uses the word “voluntarily” in an interesting way (if you don’t want to volunteer, we’ll make you!) and then passes the buck to unnamed “authorities” who were clearly acting at its behest.

The first rule of a case like this is to take responsibility. The initial response amounts to an utter abdication of that. And it clearly could have been handled more skillfully. According to other passengers on the flight, the airline said it needed four seats to fly its own employees to Louisville. It offered as much as $800 and a hotel stay to anyone who would volunteer to take a later flight, but it had no takers. Technically, United was within its rights to remove passengers; nearly every ticket we buy contains small print about the risk of being bumped. But airlines typically negotiate for volunteers before the flight is boarded, not after they’re seated on the plane. More importantly, there would seem to be better ways of persuading a reluctant “volunteer” than by force.

A second statement released by United CEO Oscar Munoz on Monday wasn’t much of an improvement on the first.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

“Re-accommodate”? Really? The statement here is vaguely worded; United seems to be apologizing to its own crew, or possibly to passengers who witnessed the incident. Its use of “re-accommodate” is positively Orwellian. It still doesn’t take any responsibility for the decision to use force or the chaos and injury that ensued. What’s more, comments by United spokesperson Charles Hobart in a New York Times interview seem to blame the passenger for refusing to leave after being asked repeatedly and – as Hobart takes pains to emphasize – politely. “We explained the scenario to the customer,” Mr. Hobart said. “That customer chose not to get out of his seat.”  United is blameless, he seems to say.

If you’re responsible, say so

Blaming others – even when it reflects the reality of a situation – is nearly always a losing proposition in a public apology. Again, the airline is technically within its rights, but it’s shocking to me that, as the video continues to be shared by social and traditional media, United has not admitted that it badly mistreated a paying passenger and mishandled a common enough situation that could have been defused with far less effort and expense. Nor has it announced that it will try to limit overbooking, or pledge to handle it differently in the future. The non-apology apologies are only fueling anger and ridicule on social media.

The airline offered up to $800 for anyone willing to give up his seat and fly later. What if it had offered more – $1000 or even $5000? If that seems expensive, look at the video, think about the outrage, and consider the reputation damage involved. And what if the airline had taken a page from Pepsi, which suffered through a different, but embarrassing and expensive mistake last week, yet handled it deftly and gracefully?

It’s hard to put a price tag on reputation. But this latest incident should make the airline and its peers straighten up and fly right, at least on the communications front. Because the harm to the United brand will far outweigh the cost of doing the right thing.

Note: After posting I read this excellent article about the power of the airline industry post-consolidation, which states that an airline can only legally compensate bumped passengers up to $1350. Even so, United should and could have handled this very differently.

Can United Fix Its Broken Reputation?

After musician Dave Carroll’s pricey guitar was damaged following a United Airlines trip to Nebraska back in 2008, the guitar wasn’t the only thing that that took a beating. Now, United is grappling with a battered reputation, and Carroll has become a poster child for frustrated consumers.

If you somehow missed the story, here’s the summary. After nine months of failed appeals through United’s customer service channels, Carroll used his musical talents, with a little help from social media, to send a powerful message about corporate indifference.  His music video, “United Breaks Guitars” has received over 3 million downloads on YouTube and been covered by CNN, Fox, USA Today, and major consumer sites all over the Web.

But, here’s the thing. Technically, United’s not wrong. Their website makes it clear they’re not liable for fragile items, and they warn against checking musical instruments, advising that passengers call the airline first. More importantly, Carroll says he was alerted by a fellow passenger who could see the ground workers seriously manhandling his guitar. But, he didn’t open the case to check on it when he retrieved it from baggage claim. It was only later, he says, that he opened the case, discovered the damage, and complained.

Given those facts, it’s a little more understandable that United wasn’t particularly impressed with Carroll’s claim.

Social media is a powerful platform

But no matter, because the damage is done.  After the first few hundred thousand video downloads, the airline woke up and publicly changed its tune.  United spokesperson Robin Urbanski gamely admitted the video “struck a chord” at the airline, calling it “a unique learning opportunity.” She asked permission to use it for United’s customer service training. Later, United announced via Twitter that it had made a $3,000 donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, as requested by Carroll. (In a brilliant follow, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars appeared in a video just days later plugging the Taylor website and suggesting ways to prevent damage to guitars when traveling.)

The challenge United faces is that Carroll’s video really did strike a chord – among most of us watching. The match-to-kerosene aspect of its viral explosion is the nearly universal resentment of the airline industry, and the deterioration of of quality, customer service, and reputation as many airlines have struggled against heavy economic weather.  While many of the businesses we love to hate have used social media to enhance their customer service (i.e., Comcast) most airlines, with the exception of the socially savvy JetBlue, are behind the curve. Complain, and you meet a brick wall of indifference.

At this point, United must take some pretty bold steps to drive down Carroll’s video in Web searches.  It needs to show sincerity, empathy, and a real desire to do better in the future. (It might even consider a musical video response of its own….. Brian Adams’ “Please Forgive Me” and Brenda Lee’s classic “I’m Sorry” come to mind.)

The point is that United’s probably not even at fault here. But the situation shows again that the best reputation PR plan is a preemptive one – one designed to fix it before it breaks. Years of poor customer service, haphazard communications, and inattention to corporate reputation have taken their toll and will make the job harder.