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Accept. Apologize. Atone. Advance.

By Deborah Weinstein, Co-founder & Partner, Strategic Objectives | Jan 22 2018

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A seasoned vet with too many years’ experience helping brands navigate the rocky shoals of PR crisis management, I can tell you that consumer brand trust and sales, hard-earned and - won over many years, can be lost in a matter of minutes when a bad news video or tweet goes viral.

That’s why it’s so essential for brands to anticipate and prepare for crisis; and to spring into action the minute, the second, crisis hits. Sadly, that’s not always, or even often, the case leaving many of us in the PR world wondering, “What were they thinking?” and “How could they so endanger the brand?” I was therefore pleased and honoured to participate when Clutch, a B2B research firm in Washington, DC, asked me to comment on its latest survey examining how PR crises impacts brand reputation and sales. The Clutch survey measured 500 American consumers’ current willingness to purchase products or services from three companies — United Airlines, Pepsi and Uber — that suffered severe PR crises in 2017. Here are summaries of their bad news stories:

  • United Airlines http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/10/travel/passenger-removed-united-flight-trnd/index.html
  • Pepsi http://time.com/4726500/pepsi-ad-kendall-jenner/ , and
  • Uber https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/uber-travis-kalanick-scandal-pr-disaster-timeline

Going by the numbers the Clutch report shows that consumer willingness to spend money with each of the three brands dropped immediately following negative news coverage of their PR crises, but that Pepsi suffered the least. Here’s why:

Bad News Takes Off

Consumer willingness to fly the friendly skies with United Airlines dropped from 68% to 42% immediately following the release of a video-gone-viral showing the forcible removal of a United passenger (a doctor!!), from one of its flights, for no good reason other than the flight was over-booked. The shocking footage made bad news headlines around the world. Now, seven months later, although 52% of consumers say they would be willing to fly with United, having “moved on” from the crisis, consumer confidence remains shockingly low, with 30% of those polled saying it’s not safe to fly with the airline.

My take on the “why” for this is that United’s manhandling crisis highlighted an issue of public safety — an overbooked flight — something any one of us could experience, which makes the situation universally relatable, and scary. It’s little wonder United’s brand reputation has suffered as a result. The survey shows United’s long-term brand reputation has dropped 16% since its bad news revelations due to ineffective crisis management. Although the airline eventually apologized, it was considered insincere by many consumers, 30% of whom say they no longer trust the United brand.

Make Peace. Drink Pepsi!

Last year, consumer willingness to purchase Pepsi dropped from 58% to 55% (a worrisome 3% drop in a highly competitive category), following public outrage concerning the brand’s insensitive, news-jacking commercial featuring Kendall Jenner serving-up Pepsi to make peace between police and protestors at a potentially confrontational public rally.

Although Pepsi’s consumer perception was negatively impacted following the commercial airing (it was withdrawn almost immediately), the decline in consumer willingness to purchase Pepsi was relatively low, compared to United. This is likely because drinking Pepsi has no real impact on the financial or social well-being of consumers, beyond the usual issues such as sugar overload, obesity, and health.

Pepsi overcame its marketing missteps relatively unscathed because it actively listened; reacted immediately to the negative mainstream, social media and consumer response; apologized; and took down the ad, which must have cost millions, without delay. Seven months later, 56% of consumers polled say they would purchase Pepsi. However, many consumers still remember and revile Pepsi, and its marketers for co-opting (read trivializing) a trending, social responsibility topic/movement like Black Lives Matter to push a commercial message; and many consumers distance themselves from a brand in crisis, simply to be on the ‘correct’ side of a trending issue.

The Pepsi peace movement starring Kendall Jenner still leaves me wondering — from the genesis of the idea, through research, creative, and the multi-levels of approvals this ad must have met on its way to broadcast — “what were they thinking?!”

An UBER Bad Rep

In 2017 consumer willingness to ride with Uber declined from 60% to 47% on the heels of numerous allegations concerning corporate fraud, sexual assault, and general misconduct — a whopping 13% drop.At the time, Uber declined to respond to many of its bad news charges, and it became obvious the brand felt no need to answer, or apologize for its behavior. Naturally, negative media coverage ensued, and continues to this day. This highlights the obvious! The art of the timely, sincere apology is the new imperative in our 24/7 news world. Brands in crisis must prove they’re listening to consumers without hesitation or delay; act; and atone appropriately. Clearly consumers have lost their trust in Uber, with 50% saying they no longer want to ride with the service, fully seven months after its bad news coverage.

Be Prepared: 4 Steps to Effective PR Crisis Management

Reputation management is a key priority when it comes to protecting brand health, and maintaining consumer trust. The Clutch report clearly shows that brands must listen, and be ever-vigilant as to how they’re perceived and portrayed by influencers and consumers in this age of immediate, constant, trending news. Maintaining a positive brand reputation is vital for every thriving, successful business.

Building and sustaining solid consumer trust and support, while staying true to your core values through thick and thin, is essential to the well being of every brand. To maintain and protect brand reputation it’s important to always be prepared for crisis with an immediate, smart, and strategic PR plan, ready to implement, just in case, at any time.

Here are Strategic Objectives’ Four Steps to Effective PR Crisis Management:

  • Accept – listen, review, analyze cause and effect, implement strategic plan;
  • Apologize – sincerely, without sugar-coating or excuses;
  • Atone – change the conversation. Do something relevant and positive for your community;
  • Advance – tune up your empathy, learn your lesson, move on!

Is your brand in PR crisis? Do you want to avoid a PR crisis? Our Strategic Objectives team has hard-won, battle-tested experience managing bad news in sectors ranging from food and hospitality through travel, retail, pharma, financial services, automotive, and many more. Please contact us. We’d be happy to help.

Please join me on Twitter @debweinstein. Here’s my bio.

About Strategic Objectives #wemakenews

Strategic Objectives is Canada’s most award-winning PR agency and a recognized leader in marketing and social public relations.

Headquartered in Toronto with a dedicated Quebec team and associates across Canada, we believe in the awesome power of PR to build, maintain, and protect brands. Every organization benefits from a healthy relationship with the media and influencers. Our mission is to make good news, launch products, connect people, spot and set trends, support causes, create effective social media strategies, and stage memorable events. We create news-making CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs, and are expert crisis managers.

Strategic Objectives has extensive experience in every Canadian sector and industry, develops multi-channel, 360̊ marketing programs, and is expert at fusing public relations with social media engagement.

Our high-performance team is fueled by innovation, strategic collaboration and passion. We are Canada’s only PR agency to be honoured by the United Nations for Outstanding Achievement in Public Relations and to be named IABC Toronto PR Agency of the Year 2017, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, and 2009. Please contact us!

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