8 Spectacular PR Fails

Spectacular PR Fails

1. Will United’s PR Disaster Finally Make Airlines Reconsider the Hated Practice of Overbooking?

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Now that it’s gone viral, the video showing three burly airport security officers physically dragging a screaming passenger off United Airlines Flight 3411 yesterday has left the carrier with quite the public relations nightmare—along with a broader question: Will this very public, shocking incident result in broader changes to airline booking policies?

In case you missed it, a passenger was forcibly removed and literally dragged from a United Airlines plane prior to takeoff at Chicago O’Hare Airport on Sunday. The flight wasn’t initially overbooked in the traditional sense of an oversold number of tickets, until the airline realized it would need seats for crew members deadheading to Louisville, Ky., to take over another flight.

Following standard procedure, United asked for volunteers to give up their seats. When no volunteers came forward, the airline randomly selected four passengers on board to be bumped. One of them—who said he was doctor due to see patients the following morning—refused to give up his seat, resulting in his forcible removal at the hands of security (as several nearby passengers filmed it all on their phones).

United, still recovering from a a recent social media flare-up around teen passengers who weren’t allowed to board in leggings, was quickly shredded on Facebook and Twitter as the new video went viral.

“Social media, and particularly real-time video, has led to unprecedented transparency in the travel industry,” observed Daniel Craig, CEO of Vancouver-based travel consultancy Reknown, “and airlines in particular are under enormous scrutiny.”

Make that enormous fury. Twitter exploded with angry reactions to the incident, some of them dripping with genuine venom.

United’s initial response via Twitter—one that summarized the facts but was curiously oblivious to the brutality of the event—didn’t help the situation very much.

(United Airlines did not respond to Adweek’s request for comment.)

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz eventually issued a longer statement, apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers” and assuring the public the carrier is “reaching out to this passenger” to “resolve this situation.”

While United Airlines is left to manage a very messy situation, Craig said the incident shines a light on larger problems that need attention in the airline industry.

“To me the bigger issues here—when taking the video and UA statement at face value—are twofold,” the travel industry consultant said. “First, the messy situation of bumping passengers should take place before passengers are boarded. No passenger should ever be removed from their seat after boarding in order to accommodate a ‘more important’ passenger. The other issue is how the passenger was physically handled, which is a matter to be addressed with law enforcement authorities.”

Travel expert Mark Murphy adds that the viral video’s lack of context has placed too much responsibility on the carrier when, in fact, security officials—and even the passenger himself—share some responsibility, as well.

“To be fair to United, the people that removed this guy, that created that ruckus, were security at the airport. They dragged him off the plane,” said Murphy, who added: “The whole scenario could have been avoided if the man would have gotten up. He could have stepped off the plane and [gone] into the gate area and explained his situation, and they could have made a decision.”

But since that’s clearly not what happened, and now that the world has a video of a screaming coach passenger being dragged down the aisle to the airplane door, the bigger question may be: Will airlines reconsider their overbooking policies to avoid events like this altogether?

Unfortunately for passengers and the PR teams at major airlines, industry experts seriously doubt it.

“Not really,” Murphy said.

“We shouldn’t hold our breaths,” Craig added. “From my experience, overbooking is an acceptable and largely functional airline practice that rarely results in situations like this.”

Overbooking, Craig explains, not only helps airlines by filling no-show seats, “it also benefits travelers by giving them access to seats on sold-out flights, allowing airlines the flexibility to accommodate travelers when they arrive late or miss a connection, and occasionally giving passengers the option to voluntarily give up their seat in return for a travel voucher. Without these practices, if travelers missed a flight or connection they would be more likely to be charged a fee.”

Only one major airline, JetBlue, has a firm policy against overbooking. On its site, the carrier states: JetBlue does not overbook flights. However some situations, such as flight cancellations and reaccommodation, might create a similar situation.”

While that policy hasn’t always kept JetBlue from disappointing passengers, it has been a point of differentiation in an industry where the practice has remained standard operating procedure.

2. Uber pushes back on Trump's order after #DeleteUber starts trending

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Uber pushed back against President Trump's immigration ban, after taking serious heat on social media for its initial response.

CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted Sunday afternoon that Trump's travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries "is against everything Uber stands for." He said the ban affects thousands of Uber drivers.

Kalanick said Uber would compensate drivers for lost earnings if they're unable to work because of the ban. Uber also set up a $3 million legal defense fund for the "wrong and unjust" ban.

Lastly, Kalanick said he would pressure the president to "stand up for what's right." The Uber CEO is an adviser on Trump's economic council.

Uber's strong statement came after many customers lashed out against the company, saying it had responded inappropriately to Trump's Muslim ban.

Trump issued a sweeping immigration order on Friday, banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. . By Saturday afternoon, protests had sprung up at airports around the country, where more than 100 visa holders were in limbo.

In solidarity, the New York City Taxi Worker's Alliance called for a complete stop to pickups from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at JFK airport, where two Iraqis were being detained.
At 7:30 p.m. Uber said that it was suspending surge pricing from JFK -- effectively lowering the cost of a ride.

The backlash was swift. #DeleteUber started trending on Twitter, with people sharing photos of the "delete" screen on their phone and likening Uber's move to crossing the picket lines.

Early Sunday morning, Uber tweeted an apology about and issued a statement.

"We're sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet -- it was not meant to break up any strike," the statement read. "We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially tonight."
The company pointed to Kalanick's Facebook post Saturday, in which he said the company was working to identify drivers from the seven countries who could be impacted by the ban.

But in his post, Kalanick also reiterated the importance of working with Trump, something he stressed to employees at an all hands meeting last week. Kalanick is a member of Trump's business advisory group, which will have its first meeting this Friday, he said.

Meanwhile, Uber's biggest competitor, Lyft, took a decidedly different stance. The company emailed customers Sunday morning, condemning Trump's order. Lyft called the executive order "antithetical to both Lyft's and our nation's core values." Lyft also said it was donating $1 million to the ACLU over the next four years.

Uber has come under fire before for its willingness to work with Trump's administration. On Inauguration Day, protesters stood in front of Uber's San Francisco office holding a sign that read: "Uber collaborates with Trump."

"Whatever your view, please know that I've always believed in principled confrontation and just change; and have never shied away (maybe to my detriment) from fighting for what's right," Kalanick said in his post.

3. The 1995 Calvin Klein Ad Campaign That Was Just Too Creepy

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Calvin Klein was no stranger to controversy when it came to his company’s advertising campaigns, but in 1995 he really pushed the envelope.

The campaign shot by world famous fashion photographer Steven Meisel, featured models in what appeared to be a wood-paneled basement.

The campaign was reportedly inspired by an editorial Meisel had shoot for L'Uomo Vogue.

The provocative ads were seen on television, in print, on billboards and…

…on city buses. The highly visible campaign stirred controversy and generated immediate backlash.

At best the campaign looked like amateur porn, but most parent groups felt that the images along with the [creepy] commercials were borderline child porn.

Prompted by complaints the Justice Department was forced to open an investigation into whether or not the company had violated any child pornography laws. The investigation was dropped when the company provided proof that all the models were adults.

4. Where Pepsi went wrong with its disastrous ad, according to ad execs

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The protesters in Pepsi's disaster of a commercial may not have had a message, but critics certainly do: Worst. Ad. Ever.

The now-scuttled spot inspired a monumental flood of derision from all corners of the web on Tuesday. Activists, celebrities and Americans of every political leaning united in roasting Kendall Jenner's tone-deaf answer to centuries-old racial tensions. 

Many saw the commercial as the epitome of Madison Avenue's worsening habit of leeching onto serious social causes with empty corporate posturing. Don't expect that to end with The Pepsi-Jenner Disaster.

"It's a huge cultural shift," said Max Lenderman, founder and CEO of the ad agency School, which specializes in social good-themed marketing. "There is this inherent power to it."

It hasn't always been like this. The idea of working social causes into advertising is still relatively new, Lenderman said, only starting to catch on within the last decade.

And with market research showing that young people now like to shop with brands that have a point of view and actually make change, brands aren't going to stop their performative "woke"-ness any time soon.

"The key component is how you do it and if you miss, you miss hard."

The all-consuming political hysteria accompanying Donald Trump's presidency has tempted brands to more frequently wade into topical discussions. That was particularly evident during this year's Super Bowl when it seemed like every other ad was a lofty messages about immigration, gender equality or other hot-button issues.

5. Philip Morris is 'extremely sorry' for Czech study

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PHILIP Morris, the tobacco giant that makes Marlboro cigarettes, yesterday took a deep breath and issued a grovelling apology for a study which said that smoking was good for the economy.

The report, written on behalf of the Czech Republic arm of the business, caused outrage among anti-smoking campaigners for its claim that one of the "positive effects" of smokers dying early was lower state expenditure on health care and pensions.

Politicians jumped to protest. Yesterday some newspapers in the US carried advertisements from anti-smoking groups which showed a picture of a corpse with a toe tag reading: "$1,277. That's how much a study by Philip Morris said the Czech Republic saves on health care, pensions and housing every time a smoker dies."

In a statement Philip Morris said the study "exhibited terrible judgment as well as a complete and unacceptable disregard of basic human values".

The study found that the Czech government made $147m, thanks to smoking in 1999. Investigators added up the costs of tobacco use for things such as medical care for smokers who are sick or who set themselves on fire and the reduced taxes they pay when they are recovering.

It subtracted this from gains such as the tax charged for the habit and the lower level of state benefits drawn by smokers because they die early and concluded that those lighting up are dying for a good cause.

Philip Morris has been attempting to improve its image through extensive advertising pointing out its many charitable donations. It admits the release of the report was a setback.

The company added: "We understand the outrage that has been expressed and we sincerely regret this extraordinarily unfortunate incident. All of us at Philip Morris are extremely sorry. No one benefits from the very real, serious and significant diseases caused by smoking."

6. BP's clumsy response to oil spill threatens to make a bad situation worse

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The public relations strategy for dealing with a disaster such as the Gulf of Mexico spill, now officially the worst in US history, was always going to be about damage limitation.

With each failure to stem the flow, BP's credibility has taken another blow.

But at times, BP's response has made the situation worse. In an interview with the BBC a month ago, chief executive Tony Hayward attempted to shift the blame for the accident to the US owner of the sunken rig, Transocean. "This was not our accident … This was not our drilling rig ... This was Transocean's rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment." BP press officers briefing journalists that week repeated the line that "this was not our accident". Never mind that investigations into what caused the accident had barely started, with BP, Transocean and the company in charge of cementing the well, Halliburton, all pointing the finger at each other.

Weeks later, after BP gave details of its own preliminary findings into the cause of the accident, a more contrite Hayward said: "A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early – and not up to us – to say who is at fault."

But the damage had been done, as BP appeared to be trying to duck responsibility. Duncan John, a partner at StrategicFit, a strategy consultancy for the energy industry, praised BP for spelling out how likely each of their attempts to halt the spill were to work. But warned: "Communication over the extent of their responsibility and the consequences may run the risk of aggravating an already sceptical public if not carefully handled."

Last month, Hayward also made some ill-advised comments in an interview with the Guardian which received widespread coverage around the world. Asked about the amount of oil and dispersant flowing into the gulf, he responded: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." While technically correct, the comments made the company appear aloof and unconcerned about the environmental damage being done.

In the same interview, he also said that if all other attempts failed, he could "guarantee" that the flow of oil would stop in three months with the completion of a relief well. At that stage, oil had not reached land in large quantities. But pressed about the damage already done to the marine environment, he said: "No, that's the point you seem to be missing ... The containment exercise on the surface is proving to be extraordinarily effective." Independent scientists have since found vast underwater plumes of oil, including one 120 metres (400ft) deep about 50 miles from the destroyed rig. Hayward, who has a PhD in geology, said on Monday that BP had no evidence of such an underwater slick, arguing that because oil is lighter than water it will rise to the surface.

For BP, seeing is believing, it seems. Last month, it flew a group of journalists, including the Guardian, in a helicopter over the Gulf of Mexico. The plan had been to fly over the site of the accident itself to see the clean-up efforts, but the pilot had to turn back half-way because there wasn't time. BP officials on board insisted there was no oil to see anyway, as all the oil was being dispersed by hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals, which regulators have since restricted because they could be making the pollution worse.

The official estimated flow rate of 5,000 barrels per day, a figure repeated by BP, increased last week to between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels. The revision was partly based on new video footage of the leak from the seabed which BP only released following pressure from scientists and the US Congress. Civil penalties are charged on a per barrel basis – up to $4,300 each – so BP's liabilities are in direct proportion to the size of the leak.

BP has said the effort to protect the shoreline of Louisiana is run jointly by itself, the US Coast Guard, and the much-maligned US offshore regulator, the Minerals Management Service (MMS). When it comes to the hugely complex attempts to stop the flow of oil 5,000 feet below the surface, BP is running the show. With anger in the US mounting over BP's failure to stem the leak, President Obama has been under pressure to take control of the operation. But he knows only the industry – not governments – has the technical knowledge required. This means Obama has little choice but to rely on BP, the company he has been heavily critical of, to try and fix the mess it may have had a hand in creating. Matthew Lockwood, from the centre-left thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, says the spill underlines the dilemmas faced by governments in the era of big energy companies.

The enthusiasm and can-do attitude of the 2,500 BP staff seconded from all around the globe to handle the disaster are not under question but this is not their job and the company is not an environmental organisation, despite attempts to rebrand it as "Beyond Petroleum". Hayward on Sunday alluded to the role BP has unwillingly adopted: "I'm sorry. We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back."

7. Bloomingdale’s Apologizes for This Weird, Vaguely Date-Rapey Holiday Ad

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We're guessing no one at Bloomingdale's has access to social media, because there's no other way to explain how it let its now-viral holiday ad pass through quality control.

In case you don't have a Facebook or Twitter account, and thus missed it, the ad depicts a man gazing at a woman who is laughing and looking away from him, accompanied by text that reads, "Spike your best friend's eggnog when they're not looking."

The image, which appeared in Bloomie's 2015 holiday catalog to advertise Rebecca Minkoff merchandise, was critiqued and thoroughly mocked around the Internet over the last few days, thanks to what many (rightfully) perceive as its predatory tone.

Following the social backlash, Bloomingdale's issued an apology: "In reflection of recent feedback," it said in a statement, "the copy we used in our current catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale's sincerely apologizes for this error in judgment."

Some remain dissatisfied, and we can't help but wonder: What chain reaction of brain farts left them so unaware of how rapey this ad is, and what were they actually trying to convey? Steer into the skid, Bloomingdale's.

8. China Buick PR Disaster as Dealer Uses Abducted Baby in Ad

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The biggest PR disaster so far this year in China is happening right now.

The far and away top trending topic on 600-million-strong microblog Weibo is “长春” (“Changchun”). It’s about the a baby named Haobo who was abducted when the SUV she was sleeping in alone was stolen in Jilin Province on Monday. Tuesday night, as the obsessed nation posted about the baby, a man turned himself in to police and “confessed that he had strangled the baby and buried him in the snow.”

As events were unfolding, one of Buick’s dealers in China decided the Changchun tragedy would be the perfect subject to tout features on its new model cars.

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