Like any other year, 2015 has flown by, and it’s brought a number of PR crisis situations for high-profile brands and individuals. There are a few lessons for communicators here when it comes to the root causes, precipitating factors, and handling of each crisis. Here’s my list for the highly dubious honor of ranking among the “top” brand PR crises of this year.
Jared Fogle. The most dramatic fall from PR grace was that of Fogle, who went from Subway brand spokesperson to convicted child abuser. Once a federal investigation targeted him, Subway moved quickly to cut ties, and the company was guilty of no wrongdoing, of course. But headlines like “Ex-Subway Pitchman Sentenced on Child Sex Charges” have to be a brand’s worst nightmare and make it one of our “top” brand PR crises. The unsavory mess points out the rare, but real, risks of long-term attachment to a third-party spokesperson. Even the most upstanding human is fallible; sometimes cartoon characters and animal mascots are a safer bet.
VW. The emissions scandal was a shocking reputation comedown for a once-beloved brand, made worse by the fact that the damage was entirely self-inflicted. It was clear that the company intended to cheat on the emissions test and key executives were complicit in the plan. VW has started to turn things around by cleaning house and beginning an apology tour, but there’s a long road ahead. It goes to show that no amount of crisis planning will beat day-to-day risk management and good business practice.
Brian Williams. He may be the last high-profile news anchor, and I can’t help but think his humiliation is a metaphor for the broadcast news business overall. Williams was suspended in February after he exaggerated details of his experience in a military helicopter during the Iraq war nearly 13 years ago. Worse, the tall tale triggered a cascade of other accounts where he apparently glamorized or puffed up similar anecdotes to make himself look good. Human nature, perhaps, but journalists need to meet a higher standard than others. After his unpaid hiatus, Williams was exiled to MSNBC, another brand in search of redemption, or at least greater relevance. Let’s hope they can help one another.
Amazon. Amazon’s heated—and prolonged—response to a critical New York Times feature made it clear that the story hit a nerve inside the organization. In an uncharacteristic move, CEO Jeff Bezos responded (in a “leaked” memo) to the picture of a “bruising” workplace. Then, months later, in a scathing rebuttal posted on Medium, Amazon’s Jay Carney challenged the Times’s account and accused an ex-employee who was quoted in the piece of malfeasance. The accusations raised eyebrows, particularly because it went against conventional PR wisdom in dredging up a story that had already died down. Of course, the Times responded to the post, prompting a response in turn from Carney, and the argument seemed to devolve into a pissing match and adding it to our list brand PR crises. The ultimate winner was Medium, which gained new visibility as a platform for opinion leaders.
Deflategate. Football fans and armchair pundits spent nearly the entire year watching the New England Patriots and the NFL try to grapple with football’s longest-running sports scandal and latest “gate” headline. Initially, it seemed like a clear reputation hit for Tom Brady and the Patriots. But the NFL’s failure to act swiftly allowed the underinflated-ball story to take over football coverage for weeks and even months. As claims and counterclaims, investigations, “smoking” cell phones, and expert testimony piled on, everyone was a loser, especially the sport of football. Experts should flag just about every PR play on this one.
Chipotle. Give Chipotle credit for raising the bar for quality and responsibility for the entire QSR/Fast Casual category. But its challenge is to balance its commitment to locally sourced and fresh ingredients with the need for stringent food safety measures. On the heels of salmonella and Norovirus outbreaks, it met a more serious crisis when E. coli cases caused 43 of its stores to close. But in a refreshing turn, Chipotle handled its issues relatively well, proactively notifying the press, voluntarily closing the suspected restaurants (though it really had little choice), conducting environmental and food testing, and hiring food safety consultants. Most experts predict it will survive the crisis because customers have grown to trust the brand. The takeaway here is that when a serious problem happens on your watch, the public expects you to take responsibility and be clear on how to fix it.
Coca Cola. One of America’s most admired companies is ending the year on a sour note. After it came to light that Coke was the primary funder of an anti-obesity research group, public health advocates poured on the scorn, even comparing the institute to the old-school tactics used by tobacco companies to keep America smoking. To be fair, plenty of companies underwrite research projects where they have a vested interest. The issue is one of transparency. In this case, it was lacking, and the result was the resignation (termed as a retirement) of the company’s chief scientific officer and a public dismantling of Coke’s research initiative. Coke might have avoided the flood of negative PR by creating a more objective body of scientists and ensuring greater distance between the brand and its research mission.
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