crisis pr

Looking Back at 3 Serious PR Miscues in 2018

As 2018 comes to a close it’s time to reflect on some of the PR lessons we have watched in real time over the past year. There have been a few wins and a few good crisis responses, and there have also been a handful of PR disasters. Some of these scenarios were disasters right out of the chute, and others grew worse based on the response.

Apple Catches Heat for “Throttling”

The year started off with a fizzle for iPhone maker Apple, when it was announced that the company had been “throttling” iPhones – slowing their performance – for older phones. Customers had suspected this for years, but to find out it was actually happening upset a lot of consumers.

Then came Apple’s reasoning: “We’re doing it all for you.” According to Apple, the reason for the slow-down was to “preserve battery life” in order to keep the phones working longer. That message did not sit well with iPhone customers, who felt slighted and manipulated into buying newer models.

In response, Apple apologized and initiated a more cost-effective battery replacement program for customers with older phones. That blunted the trauma somewhat, but in the end, this was an avoidable PR misstep. If the company had been proactive, customers would have known all their options and felt more of a connection with the brand.

Roseanne Crashes and Burns

2018 could have – and should have-been the Year of Roseanne. The noted comedian had returned to form, riding a successful reboot of her family sitcom to huge ratings and a major win for the Roseanne brand. At the time, nearly every news outlet was singing her praises, touting the new show as a great addition to what has been ranked as one of the best American sitcoms in generations. Then came the meltdown.

Roseanne, who is no stranger to stirring up controversy on social media, decided to go on Twitter and torpedo her resurgent career by tweeting out comments many considered to be overtly racist. ABC responded by immediately canceling Roseanne. Then, pouring salt in the wound, the network announced it would be re-making the show without its star and namesake.

If there was a highlight of the whole debacle, it came via Sanofi, maker of the sleep aid, Ambien. Roseanne, in her apology for the tweet, blamed Ambien for her errant posting. Sanofi responded with this: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Southwest Airlines Makes Bad Worse

Of all the airlines to be in the news in a bad way, most people would not necessarily guess Southwest. So when the company had a major issue this past spring, some people registered surprise. During a flight, one of the engines exploded, killing a passenger. Reports from the scene were graphic and scary, and Southwest was left answering very uncomfortable questions.

That alone may have qualified for a PR crisis, but when reports came out alleging the company was promoting timeliness over customer safety and mechanical operations, that hit the bottom line hard. Bookings dropped immediately, and Southwest was left to do some very public soul searching.

How Social Media Manipulates Our Self Image

Social media is a complicated thing. As a platform, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter started as a way to help people stay connected in an increasingly globalized world. With social media, it’s possible for individuals to connect with people they know across the globe, without wasting huge amounts of cash on things like texts and phone calls.

At the same time, some social channels also give people a way to make new connections. For instance, LinkedIn is a place where professionals can find potential mentors, peers, and individuals to help them reach their professional goals. However, as powerful as it is, social media isn’t always a good thing. The social world has prompted is to start marking comparisons between our own lives, and the often-unrealistic representations of other people’s lives that we see online.

Social Media and Social Comparison Theory

The biggest problem with social media comes from the issue of “social comparison theory.” Social comparison theory is a psychological concept that suggests that people will generally compare themselves to the people around them, even if they don’t know much about those people beyond what they share online.

People on social media frequently compare themselves to the people that they see on their news feeds – without considering the fact that people will generally only share positive things about their life on social media. Social channels provide individuals with a space where they can create an image of themselves that ignores the crucial details that would be required to make an accurate comparison.

Everyone on social media gets to see the fun days out that their friends spend with their loved ones, or the relaxing weekends on the beach – but no-one gets to see the difficult days, the arguments with friends and so on. While comparing ourselves to others is a common way to measure how we’re making progress in our lives, this practice becomes problematic when we only compare ourselves to the perfectly designed versions of others.

Why Do We Keep Using Social Media?

Although we know that using social media makes us feel depressed and anxious at times, many people still stay connected to their news feeds at all hours of the day. People are constantly checking to see whether their friends have hit the crucial milestones that they hope to hit. However, while many people feel better when they leave social media behind the “fear of missing out” or not being able to partake in important social conversations keeps us going back for more.

Ultimately, if people are going to continue using social media, then they need to learn how to use it in a healthier way. To some extent, this means changing the way that we compare ourselves to others. The first step towards healthy comparison is identifying the right peer group by looking at people that are more like ourselves. Comparing ourselves to successful stars and influencers on social media increases the problem with social comparison theory because it pushes us to set unrealistic goals.

Once people have found the right peer group, they also remember that the things they see on social media aren’t necessarily the whole story.

Three Ways Charities can Improve Social Media

In terms of developing a strong and cohesive social media strategy, charities usually come across more hurdles due to the limitations in funding. However, the accessibility and ease of the internet has resulted in most charities utilizing social media to raise awareness, drive traffic to their websites, and promote events and publications.

Here are some practical tips for charities to improve visibility, engagement and fundraising efforts:

Know your audience inside out

Get to know every detail about the community you’re addressing – from demographics to hobbies to habits. Profiling is a crucial aspect of a tailoring content when it comes to formulating a strong communication strategy. What is their age group? Where do they live? How do they spend their weekends?

WWF, or the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, was able to use profiling to its advantage. The nonprofit wanted to engage and educate the younger generation on wildlife and environmental concerns. After understanding their audiences habits and preferred social platforms, WWF used SnapChat as the means to distribute their message about how the urgency of protecting endangered species.

Make friends within the industry

Build a strong network of friends within the industry to create mutually beneficial relationships. Reach out to journalists, bloggers, and influencers with a similar audience and work with them to spread your message.

Getting celebrities to use their far-reaching voice can be a great way to get some publicity. The animal right organizations PETA has done this quite effectively by featuring the likes of Naomi Campbell and Alexandra Burke in their birthdays suits saying “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.”

The rise of Corporate Social Responsibility has led to more corporations seeking to give back to society, often through charitable partnerships. This creates a win-win situation, where charities can benefit from the influence and access to funds. The most important thing to keep in mind when engaging in a strategic partnership is to make sure that the values of the company, individual or celebrity are aligned with your brand.

Create a buzz

Creating a buzz around campaigns doesn’t always require fat wallet. You can build a lot of momentum in your campaign by thinking outside the box with unique, creative and unconventional ideas -think of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Messaging that is humorous or has shock value to it is often shared at a much higher rate than messages that incite emotional reactions from the audience.

In 2013, UNICEF Sweden’s campaign was successful in creating a shockwave through its ‘Likes Do Not Save Lives’ campaign, which highlighted the need for the audience to go beyond social media to create a difference. This campaign highlighted the need for explicit calls to action.

There are various things to take into account if you want to make a splash with your campaign. For instance, it’s important to target various platforms to create a larger buzz. Using videos can also be beneficial in reaching and engaging an audience. YouTube is your best friend when it comes to storytelling.

soup

Campbell Soup Executive Apologizes for Conspiracy Comments

Kelly Johnston has been VP of Government Affairs for the Campbell Soup Company since 2002, but the former secretary of the Senate got himself in trouble recently for spreading a widely-discredited conspiracy story about a recent mass migrant caravan.

Speaking out on Twitter, Johnston condemned the caravan as having been “planned and executed” by Open Society, a charity group funded by billionaire political activist George Soros.

According to media reports, here’s what the tweet said said: “See those vans on the right? What you don’t see are the troop carriers and the rail cars taking them north. OpenSociety planned and is executing this, including where they defecate. And they have an army of American immigration lawyers waiting at the border…”

As it turns out, those rumors were “baseless” according to the media and other officials, a fact that has embarrassed Johnston and, by extension, Campbell Soup. The company immediately went on the offense to distance itself from Johnston and any potential PR fallout. In a statement, Campbell said: “the opinions Mr. Johnston expresses on Twitter are his individual views and do not represent the position of Campbell Soup Company…”

Despite this distancing language, guilt by association is not easily avoided. While it isn’t known what was said behind closed doors, it is clear Johnston took measures to try to put this behind him. Both the tweet and his Twitter account are gone, deleted from the social media platform. That was, of course, after a reporter captured the comments and shared them on his own social media account.

Worse, the issue has an unmistakable political connection. Soros is a well-known liberal activist and donor, as well as a frequent target of right-wing disparagement. By casting unfounded aspersions with political intent, the executive drew his company into an unwanted political PR situation.

In a further attempt to stave off this kind of connection to his brand, which does not wish to alienate any consumers, Campbell interim president and CEO, Keith McLoughlin, said,  “Johnston’s comments are inconsistent with how Campbell approaches public debate.” He added that Johnston would be leaving the company soon, and stressed that this decision has been made prior to the tweet.

Once again, we have an imminent negative PR scenario that could have been avoided entirely if the person had been more judicious in their use of social media. While, in most cases, even spirited debate on social media isn’t taboo, openly spreading false and/or specific kinds of opinions can, and often do, come back around on people. It’s better to remember that, while Twitter and other social media platforms feel private, they are megaphones to a very large public audience, whether that’s intended or not.

coffee marketing

Advertising Authority Slams Costa Coffee: Don’t Bring Home the Bacon

The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned a radio ad for Costa Coffee after it was ruled the ad discouraged the consumption of avocados as a breakfast choice- instead boosting the profile of the humble bacon sandwich.

The Costa ad, produced by BBH London, featured a voice-over which asserted: “Oh, there’s a great deal on ripen at home avocados. Sure, they’ll be hard as rock for the first 18 days, three hours and 20 minutes, then they’ll be ready to eat, for about 10 minutes, then they’ll go off. For a better deal head to Costa Coffee and grab a delicious, piping hot bacon roll or egg muffin for just £2 when you buy any medio or massimo hot drink or flat white before 11am.”

According to Costa Coffee, the ad was a harmless gag, focusing on the “frustration and unpredictability of the avocado.” The brand said the script was drawn from comical anecdotes based on widespread consumers’ experiences, and the frustration of trying to predict when an avocado ripened after purchasing. It was not, as the ASA alleged, “suggesting to listeners to make a definitive choice over two breakfast items.”

Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio and the gatekeeper for broadcast advertising, backed Costa’s claims. Consumers would see the comparison as a “light-hearted remark about the common experience of buying inedible avocados when compared to buying an instant hot coffee and bacon roll or egg muffin,” the body said.

Still, the ASA did not agree, with the watchdog adamant that “consumers would interpret the ad as a comparison between the experience of eating an avocado and a bacon roll or egg muffin.” It noted the UK’s BCAP Code, a guideline for advertisers, stated that brands must not discourage the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“Although the ad was light-hearted,” the ASA went on to rule, “it nevertheless suggested avocados were a poor breakfast choice, and that a bacon roll or egg muffin would be a better alternative.” The ad is not to be broadcast again, and future Costa marketing efforts must not “condone or encourage poor nutritional habits and not disparage good dietary practice.”

The ASA has recently also cracked down on advertising by Kinder, KFC and Kelloggs in a bid to tackle the UK’s national obesity crisis, tackling advertisers that market salty, sugary and fatty foods.

NFL Ratings Are up, but Does that Mean All is Forgiven?

There’s really no two ways about it, the past few years have not been good for the NFL. Sure, the league made money, but a longstanding PR crisis never quite seemed to go away. Just when the league thought they put it all behind them, it would flare up again. Suddenly, fans were burning jerseys instead of buying tickets. Interest fell. Viewership fell. Merchandise sales fell.

And the worst news, all that was happening for the second year in a row. Coming into this season, things did not look like they had improved. An agreement between the teams and the league stalled, and ostracized players filed lawsuits. Fans were still hotly divided, and both TV pundits and politicians never missed a chance to weigh in and build up base support.

The outlook was understandably shaky going into this season, but league officials kept their fingers crossed, even as they failed to advance any real solutions, either to the protest issue or their PR crisis. But, a bit surprisingly, there’s some light at the end of this very long tunnel. So far this season, ratings are up. They’re only up 2 percent, but that’s a lot better than continuing to fall.

So, how did the league manage to pull out a win even while the issue that created the PR mess continues to simmer behind the scenes? They stopped trying to “figure out” the protest debacle, and, instead, they figured out a way to make the games more exciting.

Over the past few years, NFL excitement has waned. With injuries to players with top star power, even teams in big markets were not showing very much on the field. Since pro sports thrives as much on drama and story as it does on scores and highlights, when the story lagged, so did fan interest.

Cue Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia vs. New England. The Patriots were coming off one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in Super Bowl history. They had a guy who is arguably the best QB ever leading the team, and a head coach that seemed invincible. Philly had a good defense and a Cinderella backup QB who was due to be brought back down to earth. Instead, the Eagles won in what ended up being one of the most entertaining Super Bowls in recent memory. Fans were cheering again… and they weren’t talking about kneeling or anthems.

That trend of entertaining football continued into this season. The league changed some rules ostensibly to protect QBs and other offensive players, but what they really wanted was more scoring. They got it. Scoring has been electric this year, with many games coming right down to the last second, and more than a few being decided in overtime. Fans are flocking back to experience what they loved about football… the drama and the story that had been drowned out by yelling about protests.

So, while it’s a small margin, ratings are up, and they show signs of continuing to improve as the season continues. Does that mean all is forgiven? For some fans, no. But the longer the league can keep touchdowns – and not kneel downs – in the headlines, the better their prospects will be.

Why Can’t Wells Fargo Get Out of its own Way?

Quick, can you tell me how many years it’s been since Wells Fargo was one of the most trusted and appreciated brands in the financial sector? Don’t worry, most people can’t. In fact, Wells Fargo, as a brand, seems to have given up trying to answer that question. The company’s most recent ad campaigns are going almost all the way back to the beginning, talking about events – whether true or apocryphal – that transpired a century ago or more.

But, even as the ads are taking viewers all the way back, the brand itself seems to keep ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This continued habit of taking bad and making it worse, has a lot of people wondering why Wells Fargo can’t seem to get out of its own way. If the company could stop long enough to focus on a single PR crisis, they may make some headway in brand confidence, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

That lack of ability to get past one crisis before another negative headline drops has some in the PR business blaming not just a few bad apples but a “faulty culture” for the continued woes. Instead of arguing that Wells Fargo was just too big and too desperate to play it straight, some are saying the company simply lost its way, slipping further into a morass that festered for years, creating a series of interwoven issues up and down the leadership chain.

The result? A culture that allowed the company to miss it when thousands of employees created millions of fake credit accounts, many in the names of very real customers. Thousands of employees were fired, and that could have been that. Wells Fargo should have been able to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get moving again.

Unfortunately, those in charge didn’t look at thousands of bad actors and see a cultural issue. They said everything was fine now that those folks were gone. Turns out, almost no one, including elected officials and federal regulators, agreed with that assessment. Soon, the CEO was sent packing. A new leader, Timothy Sloan, was brought in and given the task of giving Wells Fargo a fresh start.

But the optics were terrible. Sloan, after all, was a longtime Wells Fargo guy, and those who saw institutional corruption didn’t see renewal coming from within. Worse than the optics, though, was the messaging. While Wells Fargo promised to do better, their campaigns failed to take responsibility, and the problems were rarely, if ever, addressed.

Then came more horrendous headlines. Charging customers for insurance they didn’t want and never asked for. Hitting mortgage customers with incorrect fees. And the insult to injury, a “computer glitch” that accidentally foreclosed on hundreds of properties. Fines were levied and headlines were merciless. Wells Fargo could not seem to stop driving into the proverbial ditch.

And, speaking of poor optics, in response to the flurry of negative headlines, Wells Fargo CFO John Shrewsbury went after the media, accusing the news of over-emphasizing and over-dramatizing Wells Fargo’s missteps. While he may have a point, it certainly was not one that millions of jaded customers was in any mood to hear.

And that, in a nutshell, may signal why the company can’t seem to get back in the good graces of their customers. Instead of changing in the present they are offering visions of the past and complaints of unfair treatment.

StarKist Caught in Bad PR Net

If you had to guess which popular food brand found itself in the PR hot seat last week, you probably wouldn’t have guessed StarKist Tuna, and yet, that’s exactly what happened. The brand was obliged to plead guilty to a price fixing allegation that could wind up costing the company $100 million, as well as a loss of face in the consumer market.

While most shoppers don’t worry too much when a brand changes a logo or tries to get an edge in the marketplace, when that company is accused of price fixing, people stop and pay attention. According to prosecutors, StarKist “colluded” with two other major brands to keep their prices “artificially inflated.”

Now, the company has been caught, publicly outed, and forced to admit culpability. What remained to be seen is if they would accept responsibility. To date, StarKist has taken a step in that direction. CEO Andrew Choe said, “We have cooperated with the DOJ during the course of its investigation and accept responsibility… We will continue to conduct our business with the utmost transparency and integrity.”

Those who have been following the case say it was just StarKist’s turn. After all, its co-conspirators have already been pushed out into the harsh spotlight of negative media attention.

Back in 2015, Chicken of the Sea attempted to buy Bumble Bee, but that attempt failed to be realized. At that point, Chicken of the Sea executives went to federal authorities and admitted to a conspiracy to inflate prices that involved them, Bumble Bee and StarKist. Subsequently, Bumble Bee paid a $25 million fine, which was more than $100 million lower than prosecutors had asked for. Given that information, it was only a matter of time before StarKist faced the music.

So, what does this mean for all three companies? Well, each has a black eye from all the proceedings. StarKist has yet to hear its penalty, and Bumble Bee, which is still struggling financially, now has to be a fine over the next five years.

But what does that mean for their brand bottom line? Hard to say, but it’s not helping when the Assistant Attorney General is pointing out that “the conspiracy to fix prices on these household staples had direct effects on the pocketbooks of American consumers…”

If that narrative takes hold, the fines may be the least of these tuna companies’ worries. No grocery brand wants to be on the bad side of cost-conscious American shoppers, especially when there are easy alternatives to choose.