fight the fire: navigating public shame in the face of unmet expectations and unmitigated scandal

In this blog, we’ve outlined the four major buckets that basically all PR crises fall into – delinquency, idiocy, deviance, and endless implosion. We’ve sketched the general qualities of a scandal falling into the bucket, followed by a Real World Example you’ve no doubt heard of. In the proverbial laughing stocks this week: BP (of course), Pepsi, Volkswagen, and Samsung. You probably know why.

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Delinquency

Sometimes, a PR nightmare is born out of a company’s delinquency in their work. It’s often not simply an offhand comment that gets snagged, exposed, and rehashed (over and over and over) by the media. Sometimes there are very real oversights that cause very, very real problems like death and destruction and doom. Messaging in the midst of a crisis that was created through negligence and persists without a satisfactory resolution is touch and go. In these scenarios, there’s back-watching and front-line charging. Let’s look at a Textbook Example.

Exhibit A

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Backstory

You’ve heard of the BP oil spill because you’ve had ears and eyes since before 2010. Without rehashing the play-by-play, it’s the stuff out of PR textbooks. It’s what we were groomed to handle, as Public Relations Professionals (PRPs). Obviously, you would hope the earth’s largest bodies of water would never be pumped with 200 million gallons of crude oil (because of course), but if it’s going to happen, you sort of fantasize about being on the Reputation Rescue Response Squad. Until you haven’t slept for the entirety of the 87 days your company has been singlehandedly wrecking an entire ecosystem, that is. The numbers are staggering (200 mil and 87 days) and you can imagine the narrative management plan that was on blast – and is really hard to make effective while the problem perpetuates. In this case, PR wasn’t going to fix the 8 delinquent failures that led to the disaster that left the Gulf reeling. People died. The ocean was black.

Ultimate Ball Drop Moment

“I want my life back.” – Former (Because Obviously) CEO Tony Hayward

Bounce Back Opportunity

The oil and gas industry is fraught with controversy, from environmentalists and Pro-Planet People. So, BP had had marginal success with a “Beyond Petroleum” campaign they had started in the early 2000’s, before Deepwater Horizon. It helps to have a boatload of goodwill going into a unmitigated disaster such as this, especially for a company who is typically labeled as the Looming Liability. Initially, BP’s PRPs floundered to get their facts straight. What they purported to be 1000 gallons a day was actually 5000 which is not ideal from the misrepresentation of the truth standpoint and the fact that that’s 5 times the amount of crude oil in the ocean than they had said before. Not cool. Then BP shifted blame at the first opportunity. Not classy. In PR all of the time, perception is the reality you have to work with. They’ve navigate through the challenge and have come out the other side, and yet, what do you think of when you think of BP? Exactly.

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Idiocy

Like literally everyone in the world could have told Pepsi it wasn’t a good idea. Sometimes the unmitigated scandals referenced in the title of this blog originate simply from a systemic lack of collective brain matter. They go so far as to create a 2 minute 39 second video about a sensitive, very real issue that affects and offends So Many People and the culmination of the effort has Kendall Jenner bring about World Peace and Global Acceptance by offering a cop a Coke (Pepsi). And apparently, there was no one in the meeting when the Pepsi People were brainstorming this idea who was able to speak up and say “I think we should consider other options. We have more thinking to do.” So that’s how you end up with PR disasters born of idiocy. See and do not do.

Exhibit A

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Backstory

You know about the racism controversy that’s been going on since forever in this country because you’ve had eyes and ears for more than the last 24 hours. Pepsi produces the video. It goes over like a lead balloon. It’s completely laughable (read: tragic) that it wasn’t blindingly obvious that our girl KJ isn’t going to part the protesters like the Red Sea, hand militarized police a Pepsi and suddenly the Centuries Old Issue will be a thing of the past. He was just a little thirsty is all. All this time we thought it had to be something more. 

Ultimate Ball Drop Moment

The idea’s conception, like most completely tasteless notions such as Kendall Jenner ending racism with a carbonated beverage.

Bounce Back Opportunity

Of course they apologized to Kendall Jenner, who didn’t pick up the throbbing message in the studio air: “This is one of the Most Mindless Marketing Maneuvers of All Time.” (No seriously. Just make like the Nike opposite, and Don’t Do It.) So, at least KJ was apologized to, for Pepsi’s mark missing, as they put it. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.” So, in standard PR outline form:

We had great intentions.

We screwed up.

This is what we did, but we didn’t really mean to do it.

No Kardashian was harmed in the making of this scandal.

Takeaway: have real thoughts when pursuing something new.

Deviance

Some times people and intentions are bad. Decisions are made, consciously knowing they’re wrong, unethical, dangerous...but they’re made anyway. When those decisions involve a company leader or the company itself and they come to light, the public backlash has to be dealt with by the Reputation Rescue Response Squad. It’s difficult to maintain transparency about things that are just bad – impure intentions, knowledge of transgressions, inaction in the direction of rectification. It’s not defending the Bad Guy, per se, but it is certainly cleaning up the Bad Guy’s mess, while onlookers remind you about how big the mess is, how long it’s going to take you to clean up, and how that Bad Guy was The Very Worst.

Exhibit A 

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Backstory

Emissions cheating is frowned upon. Especially, when it’s coming from a company who is very particular about their brand management, image, and being labeled a green, efficient car manufacturer. Volkswagen was issued a violation notice by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Prior to this, VW executives had spent over a year telling US officials the discrepancies were the result of a technical error, but as more information came to light it was clear that the differences were known to exist and intentionally maintained to VW’s advantage. Tools were used to skew the emission numbers themselves and on-road tests revealed almost 40 times the number of some pollutants. Unacceptable.

Ultimate Ball Drop Moment

“We didn’t lie.” (But they did) – Matthias Muller

Bounce Back Opportunity:

Since the United States regulator powers that were uncovered the lies, VW immediately recalled the cars in the US and in Europe. However, VW contended throughout the scandal that the cheats they had employed in Europe were legal in Europe, so when they started distributing goodwill payments to American owners, they didn’t feel the same obligation to their European customers. The Europeans were less than excited about this. Professional brand managers, however, VW brought in the Dream Team to handle their nightmare, as well they should have. An internal investigation was conducted, in the spirit of palpable transparency. They took a pretty substantial ding to their record and spun some mud on their formerly squeaky wheels, but they’re mindfully making a comeback. The efforts to downplay and claim ignorance proved to only further vilify and further complicate the undertaking of rectifying VW’s international image. Go and do not do likewise.

Endless Implosion

Sometimes things just blow up and not in a good way. Sometimes that’s literally what happens. It’s especially unfortunate when the thing that blows up is a device people hold very close to their face. It’s especially not ideal when your customer base is tech-savvy, intact smartphone wielding technology Couch Critics. You remember the whole Samsung thing, right?

Exhibit A

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Backstory

Apple’s Number 1 Smartphone Competition, Samsung produced the Galaxy Note 7. Lauded for its size and capability, they flew out of stores and promptly began exploding. The issue was identified as a battery issue – a pervasive battery issue. This was not one or two explosions. Instead, 92 reports were filed with Samsung and it wasn’t long before the Note 7 was placed on the Do Not Fly list, alongside other combustibles, weapons, and America’s Most Wanted. This did not look good. This was not good. Samsung was criticized for unclear messaging about whether or not the phones were safe to use after the first initial combustion reports. The phones were recalled globally, resulting in a loss of over 41 billion in projected revenue, while Apple release its iPhone 7 without hiccup (or explosion).

Ultimate Ball Dropping Moment

The replacement phones also blew up.

Bounce Back Opportunity

Customers were urged to power off their devices and take advantage of the multiple options Samsung had laid out for getting rid of their phone and getting reimbursed. Samsung distributed special packaging for customers to use when returning their phones. In December 2016, Samsung announced their plan to distribute a software update for all Note 7’s still in use that would disable them. Ultimately, Samsung claims they retained 95% of their customer base, surprisingly not losing them to their comparatively flame-retardant competition.