Comment: What can be learned from 2019’s worst PR disasters?

No surprise; former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg tops the list with his silence after a 737 crash.

By Kara Alaimo / Bloomberg Opinion

As a public relations professor, I know a few of my fellow professionals can be counted on to do things that keep my students’ jaws dropping in class each week; and, like 2018, this year was no exception. Here are the five decisions that beat out stiff competition to rank as the worst corporate PR moves of 2019:

1. Dennis Muilenburg’s week of silence after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. As crisis guru Helio Fred Garcia once wrote, “incremental delays in showing that an organization cares can lead to greater-than-incremental harm.” Even if Muilenburg, Boeing’s now-former chief executive officer, didn’t initially have all the answers about his company’s role in the disaster, he should have immediately expressed sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, then pledged to provide the public with more information as soon as possible. Every PR executive worth their paycheck knows that, during a crisis, it’s critical to say something during what Garcia calls the “golden hour.” Just as a patient having a heart attack is much more likely to survive if they are brought to the hospital in the first hour, an organization is more likely to survive a crisis with its reputation intact if it immediately speaks for itself rather than allowing others to speculate about its motives and behavior.

2. The Peloton ad depicting a svelte woman making a video to thank her male partner for buying her an exercise bike for Christmas. The ad was widely interpreted as disturbing because the woman appeared to many to be frightened. Some pointed out that the woman was already trim and hardly needed to lose weight; others said the ad reinforced stereotypes of women needing to stay in shape in order to keep their affluent significant others (the bike costs over $2,000, before monthly subscription fees). These reactions were of course eminently predictable. The key lesson for brands? Test audiences’ reaction before going public with new campaigns. The ad could have been an easy win just by, say, showing a woman giving the gift to a man instead.

Peloton Interactive Inc. loses more points for crafting a response as tone-deaf as the ad itself. “We’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial,” the company said. An insincere non-apology is the only thing worse than not apologizing at all.

3. Richard Branson’s tweet launching his Centre for Entrepreneurship in South Africa with a picture of all white people. The need to ensure diversity when doing anything public shouldn’t require further explanation in 2019.

4. Sallie Mae’s decision to fly more than 100 staffers to Hawaii to celebrate a record number of student loans. The (totally foreseeable) NBC News report on this one pretty much summed it up: “As 1 in 5 American adults wonder how to pay off their combined $1.6 trillion in student debt, Sallie Mae executives and sales team members wrestled with a different question: Between meetings, how should they spend their time on their five-day paid trip to the luxury Fairmont resort on Wailea beach in Maui?”

Seriously? In the era of social media outrage, organizations need to work a little harder to make sure their executives don’t appear so deeply out of touch with the publics they serve.

5. Hallmark’s decision to pull — and then reinstate — an ad showing lesbian brides. The only thing less savvy than alienating important audiences is offending everyone. Companies have to decide what they stand for before they’re put on the spot. Another news flash: As we approach the year 2020, homophobia is not a winning strategy.

Dishonorable mentions also go to Facebook Inc. (another organization that should be doing some hard thinking about its values and has managed to offend absolutely everyone) for not vetting for truth in political advertising on its platform and to Australian Kmart for selling child bride costumes. Their executives apparently missed the class on the need to consider the deeper messages their products send.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.

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