A Week of Public Relations Nightmares

This past week has consisted of one public relations nightmare after another. First United Airlines, then Pepsi, then United again, then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. By the time I’m finished writing this article, there may be another mess that some unfortunate PR specialist has to clean up. As a student studying public relations in college, I find all of these situations horrifying on a personal level, but I also reflect on my own studies and consider what I would do in those situations. This week was certainly a lesson in what not to do in the word of public relations.


    The PR week of our nightmares all started with controversy over leggings. While college students may be proud supporters of leggings as pants, United Airlines thought otherwise. Two girls were removed from a United flight because they were wearing leggings, which apparently violated the airline’s dress code. Social media had some very strong reactions to this story when it first broke. Many were confused as to why these girls in particular had been targeted when most people wear comfy clothes on airplanes- including leggings. It was later revealed that the girls were flying using vouchers for friends and family of airline employees, which have a certain set of rules attached to them, including a stricter dress code. United offered an explanation on Twitter, but the damage was already done. From a public relations standpoint, this is a situation where providing an explanation immediately is important, and United waited too long and caused a fervor on social media. Also, making all of your policies clear and easily accessible will probably help too.


    Just as we were all getting over the United situation, Pepsi gave us an even worse one. Pepsi released a commercial that was immediately criticized for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement and other recent protests. The protest in the advertisement was vague, with signs saying things like “Join the Movement” (What is the movement? Who knows!) and seemed more like a party than an actual protest. It looked like a tame version of Mardi Gras, without any beads. The protest came to a “victorious” end when spokesmodel Kendall Jenner (of being a Kardashian fame) handed a police officer a can of Pepsi. Needless to say, people were offended by the commercial and took to social media to complain about it. The ad even inspired a Saturday Night Live skit. Pepsi chose not to remove the commercial when viewers first reacted to it, insisting that they were trying to spread a message of unity. Insisting on keeping the commercial did not do them any favors from a PR standpoint. Later, they finally took down the advertisement, confessing that they “missed the mark.” They also apologized to Kendall Jenner, who is facing her own PR nightmare, though she, like Pepsi, should have thought this advertisement through a little more before going through with it.


    United Airlines was almost in the clear. For the most part, people had forgotten all about the leggings incident and were focusing their outrage on Pepsi. All United had to do was stay out of the news. United made headlines earlier this week for forcefully removing a passenger from an overbooked flight, injuring the man in the process. The video of officers dragging the man, with blood running down his face, went viral. United had, like many other airlines do as well, overbooked the flight, then needed to transport four of their own employees. They asked for volunteers to take the next flight, then chose the passenger who was removed at random. The man was a doctor who needed to return to his patients, so he resisted leaving the plane. When tensions escalated, someone took out their phone and started recording. The CEO of United issued an apology for having to “re-accomodate passengers,” then later issued another, more sincere apology when the first failed to reassure customers. Even if legally, United is allowed to overbook their flights and remove passengers from them, it still looks really bad for them, especially since they were already in the news lately.


    Just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse for United, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer replaced them as social media public enemy number one. In a press briefing, Spicer was forced to defend the president’s unilateral decision to attack Syria in retaliation for recent chemical attacks, and compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler. Except he completely “missed the mark,” as Pepsi would say, when he claimed that even Hitler had not used chemical weapons. Except Hitler did use chemicals to kill Jews in concentration camps. So not only was Spicer offensive by downplaying the horror that Hitler caused, he was also wrong. I understand that defending Donald Trump is a really challenging job, but please do your research before you make bold claims. As the press secretary, Spicer is one of the public faces of the administration, so this incident reflects poorly on the administration as a whole, not just him.


So here are some lessons we learned from these companies’ mistakes: Err on the side of caution. Think before you speak. Get another opinion, and then another, and then another. Bonus points if they identify as  different gender/race/religion/sexual orientation/socioeconomic status as you. Having different perspectives is always a good idea. And upfront honesty and transparency is almost always the best PR policy. If you made a mistake, admit it, apologize for it, and learn from it.