Pepsi, United Airlines & Spicer: PR Blunders and How to Fix Them

32621967922_66615f256c_bUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you may have noticed the amount of PR blunders being committed in the news this past week. We as the public have been shocked, embarrassed and enraged by some of the statements made by United Airlines, Pepsi and Sean Spicer. Well if you ever get yourself in the pickle these folks have gotten themselves in, lets look at how we can fix them.

Let’s start with Pepsi. Having made a commercial meant to unify and make a bold statement about the current landscape of the US, Pepsi managed to alienate and offend its target audience. Interestingly enough, my 14 year old daughter found nothing wrong with the commercial but thats another story.

The use of protesters in a commercial centred around a young, white reality television star and model Kendall Jenner being mesmerised by a large group of ethnically diverse people marching down a street holding signs that said, “Join the Conversation”–is a testament to show how disjointed the Pepsi internal ad agency was. What could this young model possibly know about the Black Lives Movement and the Women’s March? Not to mention the pivotal moment when she chucks her blond wig at the seemingly subservient black woman waiting in the wings.

Needless to say, she made a bad choice. But the real issue here is Pepsi. What were they thinking? That a can of Pepsi could unite the police and protestors across many different platforms?

Things got worse when they made their statement,

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Firstly, they should have apologised to their key audience: people who adore the brand. As a Pepsi drinker, I was offended that my name wasn’t called. Yet they made the effort to call Kendall Jenner’s name? She got paid anyway didn’t she? What does putting her name in the statement do? This was their way of attempting to save face for Kendall Jenner’s reputation.

Unless You’re Political, Stay out of it

The bottom line is, if you’re not a politically charged brand, stay out of politics. I would recommend them doing some market research to see where Pepsi is and stick with lighthearted, non-political statements from now on. Will it affect the brand too much?  I doubt it. Pepsi is a corporate giant that can weather a storm such as this one. We will soon forget.

Let’s move on to United Airlines. What didn’t they do wrong? First of all randomly selecting a passenger and hauling them off an overbooked flight although legal (minus the assault) doesn’t mean its right. They could have offered an incentive. Although I read somewhere where they did offer the passengers $US900 to change flights.

The real issue here is how they handled it, the first statement they released,

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accomodate 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 him to further address and resolve this situation.” – Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

 

Re-accomodate is the key word here. It implies that moving the customers is an inconvenience to United. They may not have known the details of what had happened but they didn’t address the issue head on which is the assault of the victim.

Admit You’re Wrong

They tried to redeem themselves by issuing another statement more fitting to the circumstances,

“Dear Team,

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.

Sincerely,

Oscar”

This statement although more informal, really gives you a sense that they are admitting that there is a serious problem and that they are trying to fix it. Its good to face things head on. Although nearly $1bn of the company’s value was erased in trading on Tuesday, they will bounce back from this.

At last but not least Spicer.  Spicer’s job as Press Secretary for the White House is to handle possible PR issues day in and day out but he himself could not avoid getting into trouble. On Tuesday, he made a statement that not even Hitler used chemical weapons in World War II.

Now, he was trying to make a comparison that Syrian President Bashar Assad is worse than Hitler because he used chemical warfare on his own people in the attack in Syria. But no one knows for sure that Assad was responsible for the attacks and lets not forget the Holocaust! Nazis may not have used the chemical warfare that Assad allegedly used but they definitely used cyanide-based Zyklon B and other types of poison to kill Jews in gas chambers at concentration camps.

Think Before you Speak

Spicer should going forward, should really be prepared before making any blank statements or comparisons about Hitler or anyone else. Seems he may need some media training himself. There really is no hope for him at this point and he might be quite possibly out of a job as his sole purpose is to handle difficult media situations with poise and ease.

 

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5 thoughts on “Pepsi, United Airlines & Spicer: PR Blunders and How to Fix Them

  1. I really liked this article, well thought out and written! I really like that you end it with Think before you speak – havent we all grown up with that phrase, its a nice little reminder for adults

  2. Very good assessment. I entirely agree with you on the Pepsi issue (and the others). Customers like you (not me, I hate Pepsi!) were I think especially annoyed that they apologised publicly to Kendall Jenner! I wonder if she insisted that they should do that? Anyway, that made it worse. But the fundamental problem was: How could they have put this out in the first place? Did they do the focus groups – one presumes it was aimed at millennials? Ugh. They simply didn’t do their homework. Yes, avoid politics – and don’t conflate Black Lives Matter with a whole lot of other causes, trivialising them all in the process!
    The United situation was much worse, however – and hard to laugh it off in the way we could the Pepsi ad. We saw the poor man with blood on his face. “Upsetting” is not a strong enough word and almost sounded as if only United was upset. They didn’t apologise to the horrified passengers on the plane, who were freaking out and will never fly United again, most likely! They handled it incredibly badly. Even the 2nd apology, which was really to United employees, missed the mark. My question is: how come they couldn’t deal with the overbooked situation at the gate? If no one volunteered as requested, then randomly pick a passenger, not wait until they had all boarded! But don’t overbook in the first place – they are opening themselves up to all sorts of potential customer relations problems! Treat your passengers with kid gloves (if they are like me, I hate airports and flying and would already be stressed out!) This has done them lasting damage and the “damage control” actually made things worse.
    As for Spicer, he needs his own PR person – or someone to at least police him. He behaves like someone who is taking too many “speed” pills, or something. Almost out of control, mispronounced Bashar al Assad several times, he seems to say the first thing that occurs to him. There is no pause for thought. How could it have been OK to mention Hitler in ANY context? Did he even realise (or know) that this was Passover? No sensitivity, and I’m afraid not a smart man. He should take a long pause before he says anything – I agree! Or step down…

  3. Great article Kesi!

    A few notes:

    Pepsi, as Mark Chisolm would say “should stop using focus groups and FOCUS on the groups. Had they known how their consumers think, speak and interact, this would have never been given the green light, let alone be aired – all they needed was ONE black person on that panel to say ‘this is SHIT’ and it would have caused them LESS stress – though they have the money to do their own PR, and crisis comms, this is a drop in the bucket.

    United, if they’re not careful will sink like Port Royal. I’ve seen it happen to MANY companies that are ONLY focused on policies and not the simple fact that they SERVE people. They first need communications, customer service, and marketing personnel in place, or at best, re-evaluate who fills these positions currently as this is a cluster fuck. The fact that they keep using the narrative of being ‘overbooked’ highlights a fundamental problem that they believe they are actually right – they were not ‘overbooked’ they simply were FULL and needed to seat four of their employees; overbooked alludes to them needing to seat more paying customers. The next thing is that WHEN they are sued (best believe, he will make MONEY from this) is that they should shuddup and keep it safe – look at how Samsung has bounced back from the Note 7 fracas! Keep their narrative that safety and convenience are the order of the day, highlight changes being made, DROP THEIR PRICES or at least offer sales promotions because they need to do WHATEVER it takes to save this sinking shit ship ablaze with wildfire. They also need to REPOSITION themselves as putting their customers FIRST and fuck off with their stupid policies, teach and empower their people how to THINK if they were, none of this would have happened and finally, they really need to lay low for a while and connect with their team. This company seems like a plantation and any place where PROFITS and more important that PEOPLE, shit will happen. It’s a balancing act.

    As for Sniper, he keeps shooting himself in the foot – all.the.time. – he needs to go do a course in PR or public speech. We can’t have this many fools in the White House. Fix it, pronto.

  4. Thanks for this recap. I don’t really follow this type of news but everyone has been talking about this stuff so it’s good to get a better idea of what’s going on.

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