In a year where an average Joe has the gall to mansplain the Bible to the Pope on Twitter or a presidential spelling error (covfefe) can go viral, PR pros need to be more vigilant than ever about their brand’s social media presence. If pre-2016 media monitoring was a convenient tool in your martech stack, it’s now your right-hand man. (And if you aren’t listening to social on your smartphone, you need to start that, stat. For Meltwater customers, here are links to our iOS and Android apps.)

PR Crisis Comms Recap

Yes, it’s only June, but these PR brand fails are too good to wait until December to assess and learn from. Some of these missteps have caused companies to re-evaluate their business practices and put jobs on the chopping block, while others were minor snafus that the brands involved would surely like to forget. Thankfully, most recovered through quick-acting PR crisis comms. Those still in recovery mode usually faltered in their initial response, which sometimes led to additional crises while the brand was under a magnifying glass.

Without further ado, let’s count them down:

7. Shea Moisture

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Checking Shea Moisture’s sentiment score with the Meltwater media intelligence platform from the beginning of the year, we see that Shea Moisture consistently skews positive with a few blips. The biggest dip being these series of commercials in late April. Once the apology was offered, sentiment score began climbing and is now safely positive.

Shea Moisture, a brand offering hair care products, thought they were expanding their reach by including different hair types in a series of television commercials. They didn’t consider that despite this push for inclusivity, they included mostly white women with very few women of color (WOC)/black women represented. Seeing as WOC have been their core audience from the start, the backlash was furious. The WOC who had supported Shea Moisture felt like they were left behind as the company grew. In a candid mea culpa on IG, Shea Moisture copped to their error, explained how they made the mistake and vowed to do better in the future. 

6. Adidas

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Adidas’ sentiment score is usually neutral, but sending this email sent it into a negative sentiment score. A month after the crisis, they experienced some volatility, but as of publication, Adidas is back to a neutral sentiment score.

Adidas congratulates Boston Marathon “survivors.” There is such a thing as really bad timing, Adidas learned this the hard way when they sent an email congratulating Boston Marathon participants. In the tone-deaf email, the subject line was: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” Social media was quick to admonish and remind them that the 2013 tragedy wasn’t far enough in the rearview mirror. 

Adidas immediately issued an apology, acknowledging brand #fail, and the crisis didn’t balloon. In responses and retweets, you’ll see their audience debating and even defending them. Because of the quick response by their comms team, they were able to show genuine remorse in their apology, and their message was welcomed by their community.

5. Juicero

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Despite the bad press that Juicero received from the Bloomberg video, that news wasn’t the worse sentiment score for the wifi-enabled juicer this year, that goes to the announcement that one of its founding team members was jumping ship in late January. And while the uselessness of the juicer caused a general negative sentiment score since April as of publication of this post, the sentiment is now skewing positive.

Juicero is a company that makes wifi-enabled devices for juicing fruits and veggies. When a Bloomberg video revealed that the $400 (previously, $700) Juicero Press wasn’t actually needed to squeeze the company’s single-serving packets of chopped fruits and vegetables, the mockery on social media was brutal. Turns out that using your hands and a little pressure was almost as effective. Amidst the criticism, Juicero became a poster child for VC excess. The new CEO, even when faced with the reality of the video, was unwilling to back down on the product’s value proposition, so Juicero remains a running joke. Refunds for the pricey juicer didn’t seem to halt the negative articles. Given the huge overhead in manufacturing consumer goods, Juicero’s prospects for survival are still in question. 

4. Fyre Festival

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Sentiment score can be tricky when schadenfreude takes over and the audience expresses joy over a brand’s crisis. Since those actually affected by the failure of the festival is a small portion of the social media audience discussing Fyre. (Which is to say, it’s hard to parse sarcasm in social media language.)

Organizing a music festival is a lot to take on. But despite the effort required, each year, a few new ones are produced (some make it, some don’t). Adding a new twist, Billy McFarland and musician Ja Rule decided that they’d launch a luxury version with headliners Blink-182, Migos, and Major Lazer. The destination was a private island in the Bahamas, and tickets ran from $2.5k to $250k for deluxe packages.

Presale tickets promised amenities like villa-style housing, gourmet catering, beach yoga, bikini-clad models, and yachts to lounge on. Instead, the well-off people who arrived on the island found a “disaster tent city” with no villas, no bands, and no models. Turns out the organizers were much more adept at influencer PR than PR crisis comms (not to mention event planning). Instagram photos document bread and cheese sandwiches in place of gourmet meals, leaving those who couldn’t afford the ticket rubbing their hands in glee. Schadenfreude is an addictive brew for those who had anticipated feeling FOMO.

3. Pepsi

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A big brand like Pepsi is bound to inspire wide ranges of sentiment and we see this using the Meltwater media intelligence platform. The Kendall Jenner “Live for Now Moments Anthem” commercial is a low point on the graph, April 4th, but notice how March 19th is a lower point? It’s the 20th anniversary of the Spice Girl’s Pepsi advertisement. This week, at least, Pepsi is firmly in positive sentiment score territory.

It’s hard to believe that the Pepsi “Live for Now Moments Anthem” commercial starring Kendall Jenner was conceived and green-lit without anyone along the process saying, “Let’s reconsider this…” The set-up is a multiculti cast engaged in street protest. While Pepsi never commits to a particular cause, Black Lives Matter and immigration both come to mind. The ad spot follows Jenner as a model who becomes politicized by a protest happening near her photo shoot, so she joins the march. At a pivotal moment when there is a stand-off with cops, she offers a young officer a Pepsi, diffusing tensions, and everyone erupts in cheers. Within no time, this attempt to position Pepsi as both a protest drink and a balm to heal tensions was lampooned in a Saturday Night Live sketch. The in-house-produced campaign was pulled within a day and Pepsi apologized. Ironically many of the signs being held up by the commercial’s protesters read “Join the Conversation,” but when Pepsi’s real-life audience did just that, on social media and in the press, the iconic beverage brand was at a loss. While this gaffe is unlikely to hurt their bottom line, it serves to highlight the importance of anticipating engagement and making sure that a brand’s position can be backed up.

2. United Airlines

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Using Meltwater’s media intelligence platform to look at United Airlines’ sentiment score for 2017, it’s been rocky as they hit minor crises and then course correct. Of course, airlines are experts at crisis comms and as we move into the summer, United’s sentiment score is skewing positive.

United Airlines‘ troubles this year began with #leggingsgate, but the drag and drop incident with Dr. David Dao was the pinnacle of their PR comms crises. Being an airline, you’d think they’d be well-versed in diffusing tensions, but their delayed responses and the tone-deaf communications around both incidents underlined the need for modern digital comms training (it’s always watching and always on), and the interconnection between customer service and community-building. 

1. Uber

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 11.47.34 AM.pngWith the Meltwater media intelligence platform, we see that Uber was trending positive in sentiment score from June through December 2016, but the brand began to see a decline on January 8. Since they have been hit with multiple crises this year, they’ve been unable to get a positive sentiment score on social media.

Rounding out our list, Uber is the personification of what not to do when hit with wave after wave of crises. Their troubles may have started with a seat on Trump’s advisory council, tales of a misogynistic work culture, the perception of trying to break a taxi strike in NYC, or other shady shenanigans. But given that they have been unable to stem the tide of seemingly unrelated crises, it has been proposed that misguided management and a toxic culture are to blame. The company is still reeling and have recently fired 20 employees in connection to these crises, including Emil Michael, their SVP of Business

Even if Uber handled their multiple crises appropriately at every step, with so many different crises coming out, it’s apparent that there are deeper organizational issues. Issues that are beyond the scope of a well-prepared PR department, or even an outside crisis PR firm. Indeed their contracting of well-regarded, former Attorney General Eric Holder and his 13-page report of recommendations at Uber was a good start to addressing the misogyny in the organization but felt like too little too late. And as accusations of corporate espionage still loom as well as allegations of greyball tactics their CEO, Travis Kalanick, is out as board members try to stem the tide of bad press that could endanger the bottom line.

As the PR and corporate world await the announcement of a new CEO, this move hopefully signals a new direction for the company. After Uber implements all of Holder’s recommendations, and when the affect of those changes reverberate throughout the organization, it’ll be the tough work of the PR and comms team to broadcast those changes to the public. It remains to be seen if this housecleaning will be enough to turn the organization around, but the PR industry is likely rooting for a happy ending to this unicorn’s tale.

Main PR Takeaway:

Each of these social media fires could have been, if not prevented, at the least mitigated, by listening to your community’s chatter and putting “just in case” crisis comms into place

Additional PR Takeaways:

  • Know your brand’s value proposition and lead with that.
  • When a brand misstep occurs, genuinely apologize and share what you’ll do to mitigate making similar mistakes in the future.
  • Don’t fake community. Actually, don’t fake anything.
  • When in doubt, talk to your community; they’re the people who already support you. They know your brand values, even if you’ve momentarily forgotten them.
  • Treat your community with respect and listen to what they have to say, they will welcome you. If you’re only interested in the bottom line, it will show.

crisis communications brand fails