by Samantha Leggat

PR nightmares that were disasters waiting to happen

Apr 19, 2017
GovernmentInternetIT Leadership

The issue is not that companies have communications disasters to deal with -- it's that they have a moral bankruptcy that led to the gaffes, and it could have been avoided: It's called human decency.

This week’s PR disasters have certainly been covered ad nauseam, I realize that. But I want to make a point I haven’t yet seen made in other posts or stories: The real root cause. Let’s start by taking a look at what the week dealt us.

First there was Pepsi with its ad depicting a model at a protest, handing a police officer a Pepsi, missing the mark entirely and called on cashing in on demonstrations. It wasn’t even an original idea — it’s been done before and really well, in my opinion. Anybody remember when that kid gave Joe Green the Coke? Maybe Pepsi was trying to give a nod to its competition with the sincerest form of flattery? Fail.

There was the ghastly situation with United Airlines having a passenger violently dragged out of his seat in order to free it up for an employee. Passengers videotaped the situation (it’s baffling that people reflexively push “record” when they could stand up to make a difference) and put it out over social media.

Then there’s O’Reilly on Fox, a host on one of the network’s most profitable shows, facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and costing Fox millions in settlements and lost advertisers (more than 50 at last count). In related PR blunder news, Angie’s List did not drop its ads from the network’s show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” and even issued a statement that it was going to stand by the creep host. In part, the statement said that it trusted its customers “to make their own media consumption decision,” a stance it has since reversed, pulling its ads (only after users threatened to cancel their subscriptions). Let’s face it, that reasoning doesn’t hold water – while people choose what they watch, keeping their ads going (as originally planned) was really an endorsement of O’Reilly and his actions (okay, alleged actions…to be PC about it).

There was the Facebook incident with a man posting a recorded video of him shooting and killing another man. This isn’t a new issue; there are many horrible things posted to Facebook Live that I hope I never see (murder, suicide, rape). According to Variety, “Such incidents are increasingly a business challenge for Facebook as it seeks to become a more attractive platform for blue-chip advertisers and as a distributor of high-end video content from top producers. The difficulty of policing violent and otherwise disturbing posts stands in direct conflict with the ethos of Facebook as a platform for unfiltered conversations and commentary…” Business challenge? More attractive to advertisers? Direct conflict with Facebook as an unfiltered platform? Where does doing the right thing fall on the priorities list?

And last but certainly not least, there was the White House press secretary’s ridiculously idiotic and thoughtless comment on the poison gas attack in Syria, saying about Bashar al-Assad, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” On the first day of Passover, no less. Oh, and he called concentration camps “Holocaust Centers.” It didn’t stop there.

It’s been a great week for SNL, late night comics, internet meme-makers and anybody looking to debate these gaffes over social media. (Where do people find the time for  back-and-forth lengthy comments?) As a PR person, I give thanks that I have nothing to do with any of these brands or organizations. I am thankful not to be associated for the sheer fact that these companies are missing or working with a terribly malfunctioning moral compass. I don’t mean to suggest I live in an alternate universe where everything goes right. To the contrary, I’ve had clients with a fair share of PR crises but they have been much less explosive, manifesting themselves as unfortunate and unexpected occurrences (a bad product review here, a confusing statement there, a poorly received giveaway). 

But for these organizations to even allow such crises to happen is bewildering. The common thread uncovered in the incidents at Pepsi, United, the White House, Facebook and Fox is an unimaginably embarrassing and deplorable attitude. Are you telling me that there was not:

  • One person on the creative team who knew the Pepsi ad was tasteless before it aired?
  • Anybody within United who questioned the strategy of relying on an organization that would use such brute force on its paying customers rather than upping the ante on rewards for people to forfeit a seat? Or that there was not one person – United employee or not – on the plane with the willingness to step in and help protect the passenger and calm the situation?
  • One person at Fox who would look past advertising dollars and stand up to demand O’Reilly’s firing?
  • An individual at Angie’s List to advise management to just say nothing when they decided to continue supporting misogyny?
  • Someone at Facebook to suggest that Facebook Live was a bad idea? It’s becoming painfully obvious that people will socialize even the most disturbing activities. Or is it only Germany that has this kind of sense, with its plans to fine Facebook for every fake news story? Or the NFL, with the Steelers fining a player for posting far less disturbing content to Facebook Live?
  • A wise member of the White House administration who thought to pick up crisis communications after the very first ignorant remark from Spicer? How about the second one?… The third?

My point? While these crises have been nightmares, they’re not a PR problem as much as they are decency deficiency issues. They’re about entire organizations lacking even one person with a backbone. They’re about morals running amok. And they’re about carelessness, ignorance and looking out for number one.

Sadly, these are not the beginning or the end of PR gaffes. You can Google “PR disasters” and you’ll get more than 1.6 million hits, including roundup stories that walk you down memory lane, past the BP CEO Tony Hayward callously saying “I’d like my life back” after the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s not new, but it is disturbing.

The need for a moral compass adjustment

A moral compass adjustment would improve things for all these organizations. And we could all do well to get off our phones, stop taking selfies and videos, and pay attention to what’s going on around us, standing up for decency, fairness, acceptance and empathy.