'Week of perfectly avoidable gaffes': how Pepsi, United and Spicer went wrong

Joanna Walters in New York
Pepsi, United Airlines and Sean Spicer

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.

The astonishing gaffes were followed, especially from United and Spicer, by botched responses, from stumbling justification to awkward apologies.

“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.”

Memes and jokes blossomed on social media and late night chat shows and Saturday Night Live, which had already scored a hit with Melissa McCarthy lampooning Spicer.

Pepsi

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.

United Airlines

While Pepsi was still reeling, United Airlines knocked it from the headlines when it emerged that a paying passenger had been dragged bloodied and screaming off a flight, in an overbooking fiasco caught on video that quickly consumed social media.

Zitron called the treatment of Dr David Dao, who was picked to be bumped from a flight leaving Chicago and then violently hauled off the plane when he refused to leave, “obscene” and the company’s response “robotic, inhuman”.

Dao suffered concussion and lost two teeth in the assault, his lawyer said on Friday.

Just two weeks earlier, United had faced another PR test when two 10-year-old girls were barred from wearing leggings on a flight. That time after Twitter lit up with protests and even celebrities weighed in, United tweeted back defiant, technical language about its procedures.

When Dao was roughed up, United initially blamed him for being belligerent. It was law enforcement officers who dragged Dao off, not United employees – but the damage to the airline was done, said Zitron. “If you came to this story blank you would think that United gate agents had beaten this man senseless.

“I don’t even care if the guy was belligerent, what the public saw was him dripping blood, trapped in an enclosed space mumbling that he wanted to go home. Flying has become increasingly unpleasant and this is more than a PR crisis, this amounts to anti-branding,” he said.

Zitron said airline bosses should have immediately expressed genuine concern for the man and promised to investigate. Instead, United chief executive Oscar Munoz first blamed Dao then made several grudging statements before, as the share price fell, fully saying sorry.

“You really only get one shot at apologizing. If you get it badly wrong, everything after that doesn’t matter,” said Mo Hedaya, a spokesman at brand management company Bluestar Alliance.

Just days earlier, Munoz had been named US communicator of the year by PRWeek, a title previously held by Malala Yousafzai and Edie Windsor.

Sean Spicer

Within hours of the United Airlines PR disaster electrifying the news cycle, the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, arguably trumped both this and Pepsi by, during Passover, somehow forgetting the Holocaust and the horrors of Zyklon B, and declaring that Hitler never stooped to chemical weapons.

After Spicer stood at his podium addressing the White House press corps and claimed that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, Lukitsch said this was by far his worst performance in a young tenure already marked by aggression and missteps.

Lukitsch said: “People who know Sean say it’s as if he’s had a personality transplant since he began working for President Trump. I think he’s been instructed to be pugilistic and also that, with intense pressure and lack of sleep, people are working too fast and it’s getting sloppy.

“Before this job he was a measured, low-key guy, always smiling and laughing.”

But now, with the public tuning into his live briefings as a form of daytime TV spectacle and then Spicer last week appearing on news shows to apologize for ignoring six million murdered Jews, he has become the story.

Lukitsch said that “in general” that makes their role impossible for a PR.

“But I think he’ll survive because no-one else wants the job.”

For Zitron, sometimes the PR solution is to very simple. He said Spicer should have quickly issued an unconditional apology “and then just shut up”.

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