When Public Relations goes wrong – 3 cases of bad PR to learn from and what happens next

If you saw my previous posts regarding Public Relations, you already know its concept and what differs it from Marketing, Advertising, and Branding, although they work together in a complementary way with a matching strategy. That being said, I don’t think you will not agree with me that when I correlate PR with persuasion. One of the goals in PR is to persuade people in a certain matter, whether a product, brand or service. Publicists will persuade an audience to support their clients and spread their message in a profitable way.

I don’t know if you ever heard that there is no such thing as a bad PR, but I beg to differ. When PR goes wrong, the damage can be quite expensive – and I am not talking only on financial terms. Bad PR can cause a crisis so severe that it might ruin your reputation in a heart beat. We don’t want that, do we?

What does bad PR mean?

I don’t think we can say we have companies with bad PR, we have companies with the wrong strategies… Or strategists – but I won’t go any further than that. When the communication basis on a product (brands and services are inside this concept for this article) follows an inadequate path, regardless of how good the intention that was set into the story was, the narrative guides the audience through a rough interpretation of it. The connections to the product are turned into negative ways and this outcome can affect the organization with severe consequences.

How to avoid bad PR? You can avoid it, but the perfect strategy to save you from bad PR outcomes doesn’t exist. This is why it’s extremely important that PR works in a team with Marketing, Advertising, and Branding, and vice versa, because this fail of communication is never off the table. In order to communicate and persuade people, you oughta know not only what is it you are going to promote, deeply, but also who would be interested in learning more about it and why. It’s all connected, and you will have better chances of skipping a major crisis if you pay attention to all that. If you misstep, it can go bad. How bad? It depends on the case.

Let’s analyze some cases of wrong PR strategies so you can have a better picture of what I am talking about, shall we?

1 – When bad PR happens because someone went too far

Corporate Social Responsibility plays an important role here. With social media expansions, it’s very common to see brands interacting with the audience in a fun way. They even interact with their competitors sometimes, and although this is not a new thing in 2021, people still get entertained and engaged by this kind of content.

In 2013, fashion brand Kenneth Cole went a little (actually, a lot) far. This case sums up why you should be always aware of what’s going on with the world. By that time, in case you don’t recall, a very serious conflict was happening in Syria and, by the time this mess was made, the United States of America was still considering the possibility of intervention in the civil war. That’s when the fashion designer tweeted, from his own personal account, “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear“. Oh man, why?

To be fair, sometimes people have a staff to take care of social media accounts, even when it was supposed to be a personal account – so we cannot blame Mr. Cole alone for this, but we absolutely cannot withdraw his responsibility from the situation. What happened next was a massive response from the public to the tweet, accusing him of using a bad situation as a civil war to sell shoes. The brand was then taken as insensitive, which is bad enough already.

Turns out that this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. According to CNN, Cole had caused another controversy in 2011, as protests escalated in Egypt when he wrote “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online… -KC.”. This was later deleted and he apologized for the social media gaffe.

Photo by Yan on Pexels.com

Social media can be tricky, but common sense is a great way to start. Kenneth Cole’s tweet caused anger in people and negative emotions are absolutely terrible for PR. It’s tolerable when we make a mistake by saying something in the wrong way, considering the severity of the situation and making use of common sense, but there are boundaries to be respected – statements like the ones I have mentioned here are only two among several examples of what should never happen.

2 – When bad PR happens due to a lack of timing and context in the campaign strategy

If you like comedy, like I do but I am bad at it, you heard of something called “timing”. Timing is the art of knowing when your message is best to be sent. Like when surfers are sitting on their boards in the ocean waiting for the perfect wave: if they wait too much, they will lose the peak of the wave, if they don’t wait for enough, they will likely not reach the peak (if you are wondering, I did took surfing lessons but I am also bad at it). Good timing is crucial in everything.

At the beginning of 2019, we were already seeing a lot of buzz from the #MeToo movement, gathering global attention to the mistreat and abuse women had suffered in the entertainment industry. The media covered many shocking and severe cases of abuse from important men, on stage and backstage. With this context, Gillette decided to run this campaign:

“What’s wrong with that?”, you might be wondering. Yes, their intention on spreading a message to reach the male’s consciousness, to drop out of the warrior armor and be more human and embrace empowerment with a positive action was acknowledged. However, it’s naive.

People don’t like to be played. I am not saying this was part of the intention of Gillette’s campaign, but they failed on a crucial point of timing, leading to a faux pas that’s hard to forget. If you look at the campaign with a wider point of view, you will see that they do mention the #MeToo movement right away, in an attempt to bring up the toxic masculinity culture in society. They meant good, but they did it in a not so adequate form. The inspirational speech leads to the phrase “The best men can be” in a situation where women had the active voice and male should only listen.

Feminism, regardless of whether or not you like and follow it, states that woman often loses their voices to men because they are perceived as not enough against men – sometimes, this happens in a subconscious level where men do not recognize it, sometimes it’s said and played out loud. Gillette’s campaign even shows it: watch the campaign video again and pay attention from 00:00:28s to 00:00:32s. Those four seconds show a meeting room with many men and one woman. What looks like the meeting leader does is to pat her shoulder as a “good girl” and translate her point to grown-up language. Not to take any political sides here, but I do not know any woman who hasn’t been in this exact same situation.

The campaign is naive because, even when trying to support the #MeToo movement and women out there, it’s very clear that they took the opportunity to make it all about men saving the world when they were supposed to listen to what woman have to say and expose regarding the way they are treated. Of course, toxic masculinity would have its turn on this matter, but there was no room yet for Gillette to engage in this particular debate, especially with an active voice praising men. The message was good, but the timing wasn’t right. And guess what: people noticed that right away.

It takes sensibility to run a good campaign and the lack of it can cause some losses. After this faux pas, Gillette dropped by nearly six points at the YouGov BrandIndex in the following week of the campaign launch and fell to the bottom of the list of 45 health and beauty brands – before the campaign aired, they had the seventh place.

3 – When bad PR comes from a bad solution for a previous problem

When an Organization is already facing a crisis and its response to it is questionable, you might wonder what is wrong with public relations. The problem here resides not in the PR, but in the strategy adopted to mend it. In my Master’s Degree Thesis, I am studying Boeing’s biggest crisis with the 737-MAX aircraft crashes under the Crisis Communication and Public Relations lenses.

Boeing’s 737-MAX aircraft was launched as an update to the 737 version, launched in the ’60s. This update was a response from Boeing to its major competitor, Airbus, which had announced a new aircraft model. Willing to keep competition tight, less than a year after becoming aware of Airbus’s plan, Boeing decided to do the above-said update on the 737 aircraft instead of developing a new aircraft model from scratch. That would save them time and money. The update promoted by Boeing to keep its competition was an engineering challenge, leading to changes in the aerodynamics of the aircraft that could make the plane unstable during its flight. For that reason, Boeing also included a software update to overcome this situation.

Boeing’s 737-MAX started its operations in May of 2017. Fast forward to October 2018, 737-MAX aircraft suffered its first crash. This plane was operating for only two months when the accident happened. A few months later, in March of 2019, another crash with the same aircraft model happened in similar circumstances. Too little time between the crashes caught the attention of the authorities and the reports have shown that, despite there was evidence of human error, Boeing had a major role in the whole scenario.

Boeing’s response to the reports was shockingly negligent. The speech given by the company insisted that their planes were safe and refused to place a recall in all of its aircraft immediately and launching an investigation. Further investigations on this matter revealed that the software developed for the aircraft update had a severe mistake on it and this forced Boeing to change its speech on the safety fail. But when Boeing finally acknowledged its communication mistake, it was too late.

Photo by Tobias Rehbein on Pexels.com

The fact that Boeing treated both disasters as if they were ordinary mishaps in aviation when 346 have lost their lives in the crashes had a very bad outcome on its reputation. The situation development was so intense that aviation authorities demanded the grounding of 737-MAX aircraft that was in operation. This lasted for nearly two years due to safety risks and has caused the company an enormous financial loss. Boeing actually lost many orders from airlines and its stock price and revenue dropped drastically. The company’s reputation faced severe instability and public opinion regarding its trustworthiness has seen better days.

What happens after a bad PR break out?

Before we finish, how do you feel about the cases above? How did the PR on them persuade you? Probably, in a bad way. The public’s perception of the company gets affected and this is what happens next.

When you get hit by bad PR outcomes, you have to deal with a crisis. The way you handle it is crucial for your survival in the market. Being prepared for a quick response to manage the reputation and humbled to assume strategies that might push the brand a little down until the problem is solved are important, but again: there is not a golden formula that will work for every situation.

A good PR will guide you through the crisis communication, show you how you can use your resources to mitigate risks and diminish the losses you are about to face in situations like this. However, these actions shouldn’t be taken only in emergency cases: you oughta prevent the disaster if you can, but be prepared for it in advance anyway.

Keep up with me to learn more about the crisis you will inevitably go through at some point. It happens to everybody, but only the ones who know how to deal with it survive.

Published by flaviastamato

Publicist and writer, a citizen of the world trying to free herself from writing cliches (but it's so tempting....)

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