Joanna Walters talks to gurus of public relations about how Pepsi, United Airlines and White House spokesman Sean Spicer fell into PR disasters
Pepsi hasn’t had it this bad since it burned Michael Jackson. But when the company hurriedly pulled a poor-taste advert it turned out to be only the start of a nightmare few days for public relations that ended at the White House.
In the fallout, marketing and “crisis communications” experts have thronged the public gallery to offer stern critiques of the unwise Pepsi Kendall Jenner “protester” video, the United Airlines responses to a passenger being dragged from his seat and White House press secretary Sean Spicer ignoring six million Jews killed when he said even the Nazis had not used chemical weapons, when talking about Syria.
“What a week of perfectly avoidable gaffes,” Courtney Lukitsch, who runs Gotham PR in New York, told the Guardian. “They all broke the rules of PR for beginners: always be 10 steps ahead, don’t say anything you don’t want broadcast, make sure you have the emotional intelligence to understand how your audience feels and, when in crisis, take responsibility.”
Pepsi admitted it had “missed the mark” after outrage erupted online over images in which celebrity Kendall Jenner depicted a model-turned-protester who miraculously calms tensions at a racially-diverse peace demonstration by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. The ad went viral for all the wrong reasons, pilloried as tone deaf and scorching the Pepsi brand on a scale reminiscent of the 1984 debacle when Jackson’s hair burst into flames during filming of another of its commercials.
Ed Zitron, owner of EZPR and author of This is How You Pitch: How to Kick Ass in Your First years of PR, said Pepsi handled the aftermath of the mistake better than the other two parties, because it quickly pulled the ad and took responsibility. “But it’s astonishing that the ad was made at all. How many layers of authority did this idea go through?” he asked.
Ted Birkhahn, president of Peppercomm, a PR and crisis communications firm with offices in New York, London and San Francisco, said wryly that recovering from the episode “redefines the ‘Pepsi challenge’ for the company” – a reference to a successful Pepsi campaign of the past. “They misunderstood the young audience they are trying to target,” he said.
Lukitsch blamed the “glaring error” on the company trying to “jump on the band wagon” of contemporary protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and resistance to President Donald Trump – and misjudging badly.
She blamed the company for failing to understand fully “what’s going on in the real world outside office hours” and choosing celebrity Jenner to play the protagonist who hands the policeman a soda. “She’s not someone who’s out there being an activist, she’s in this rarified, Kardashian world, so there was no authenticity there,” she said.
Birkhahn said many companies still don’t respond nimbly to events going viral via social media. “They need to monitor all channels 24/7” and be able to respond effectively within an hour or two, he said.