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Following the recent Pepsi and United Airlines PR blunders, marketing expert Darrin Duber-Smith offers cautionary advice on how to control a story without losing the plot.

So, there is such a thing as bad publicity

Following the recent Pepsi and United Airlines PR blunders, marketing expert Darrin Duber-Smith offers cautionary advice on how to control a story without losing the plot.

April 24, 2017

By Mark Cox

So, what on earth happened in PR land the last few weeks?

The first thing to note is that we’re talking about two very different kinds of PR disasters here. The United Airlines dragging-a-passenger-off-the-plane incident, and the other recent episode where two teenagers were prevented from boarding a plane for wearing leggings, both originated with decisions made by staff on the ground, which then escalated. But the whole Pepsi ad was presumably conceived and signed off by people with six-figure salaries. How they managed to get it so wrong is a whole different story.

Let’s look at United Airlines first. What went wrong and how could they have better handled it?

The intention in these cases should always be to close the story down, but United Airlines kept fueling the fire with insensitivities and easily disproved mistruths. First, they lied about the plane being “overbooked.” (It wasn’t; the problem was that four United employees turned up at the last minute.) Then they claimed the passenger “fell” and injured his face, when 10 video recordings clearly showed him being dragged into a chair arm. And finally, CEO Oscar Munoz’s line about needing to “re-accommodate” customers was just asking for ridicule. Someone should have spotted that.

Munoz’s initial statement (“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”) actually bordered on victim status. The next day, he described the removed passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” Only when the scandal had wiped $255 million off United’s stock did he fully apologize for the "truly horrific" incident. What should he have done?

Here’s the problem for higher profile brands: Social media moves incredibly fast, which means you have to respond rapidly and coherently – and they’re really struggling with that. Basically, you can’t have the “weekend guy” who’s minding the desk dealing with this stuff, which is what I suspect happened here. Every word the CEO put out should have first been filtered through PR professionals who knew what they were doing. But Munoz was clearly improvising and his off-the-cuff messages ended up costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars. The answer for major corporations is simple: Ensure they have top PR people ready to respond in real time, 24/7. But a lot of the big brands just haven’t got this idea yet.

Still, this was a lose-lose situation anyway, wasn’t it?

Actually no, it wasn’t. One thing this incident showed is that the current U.S. overbooking policy (last year, 40,000 passengers were involuntarily denied permission to fly) is grossly unfair and needs a radical overhaul. So this was a great opportunity for United Airlines to challenge the industry standard and look like a progressive company for once – but they blew it. Following their tone deaf response to the leggings debacle last month, they currently are looking just horrible to consumers.

So, the Pepsi ad. Are you surprised that a major global brand – worth more than $150 billion – created a multimillion-dollar advertisement that it had to dump after one day?

Not really. For whatever reason, many companies feel increasingly under pressure to take positions on controversial subjects – that’s why so many of this year’s Super Bowl ads were unwatchable. The big problem with this, of course, is that a massive global brand’s idea of “seeming to care” can just appear sanctimonious to the viewing audience. And this is already happening; many of our commercials have recently become infused with a slightly smug and cloying quality.

Making the Pepsi ad took months, cost millions and involved scores of well-paid people. Yet nobody saw what was obvious to the most casual viewer. What blinded them?

Put simply, the prevailing crackpot idea that brands need to be political and “edgy” has become very deeply embedded. Major companies are obsessed with getting everyone to talk about them. (That’s presumably why the much-mocked placard in the Pepsi ad said “Join the conversation.”) But of course, if they’re not talking about you in a good way then you’ve wasted your money and damaged yourself in the process.

Well, I suppose being “edgy” is all about risk.

That’s right. And ads like the Pepsi one, which deliberately state, “Hey, we’re taking a position,” are what I like to call 50/50 issues. You kind of know in advance that half the people will love it and half will really hate it. But if your bold, new marketing idea is going to involve alienating half your audience, then that is not likely to be a winning proposition. I’m not sure why Pepsi couldn’t see that.

Ultimately, was this just a case of 40-something executives trying to give “the kids” something cool and hopelessly misjudging it?

No. I challenge the accepted notion that it was marketed at millennials – what self-respecting millennial watches TV anyway? Baby boomers are every bit as radical as their younger counterparts, and they watch much more TV. I’d argue that this was actually meant to be a mass appeal ad, but it simply tried too hard to capture the zeitgeist and got way beyond the product.

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

That is such a dumb phrase. There absolutely is such a thing as bad publicity, and whoever said that clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. Admittedly, bad news can occasionally be good for unknown companies, provided the news isn’t too bad, and it really gets their name out there. But for major brand names, things can escalate quickly and get truly catastrophic. Just ask United Airlines.

Finally, how do you avoid these situations – and if you can’t, what are the golden rules for escaping intact?

Try not to let bad things happen. And if they do – for God’s sake, don’t pour fuel on the fire.


Darrin Duber-Smith is a senior lecturer of marketing with an expertise in image and brand management.

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