'You can't treat people as idiots': How three PR disasters gave Pepsi, United and Spicer week from hell

A week is a long time in public relations.

But as a trio of PR disasters from the past seven days show, it only takes a few seconds for your brand to suffer serious damage.

It has been a turbulent few days for Pepsi, United Airlines and White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who were all forced into public apologies after almost unbelievable mistakes.

It started with Pepsi pulling a high-profile advert that featured reality TV star Kendall Jenner walking out of a photo shoot to join a demonstration with a large police presence.

Jenner, of course, dispelled the tensions by offering the officer a can of Pepsi.

The advert was lambasted on social media for making light of recent protests in the US, including those organised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The soft drink company took the advert off the internet within 24 hours of its premiere and issued an apology.

Kendall Jenner makes the peace in the pulled Pepsi advert (Picture: Pepsi)

It said: ‘Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise.

‘We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.’

MORE: Sean Spicer said Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons – here’s what you need to know
MORE: United shares slump after passenger dragged off plane

But Pepsi’s problems were dwarfed on Sunday evening by those created by another big corporation, United Airlines, who forcibly removed a passenger from a plane bound from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, because it was overbooked.

Footage posted on social media by fellow passengers showed doctor David Dao being pulled from his seat and dragged down the aisle. He was later filmed with blood on his face.


The head of United, Oscar Munoz, initially defended his staff and accused the passenger of being ‘disruptive and belligerent’.

But the smartphone footage didn’t lie, and he was forced to apologise properly, later saying it was a ‘truly horrific’ incident.

He said the company would ’fix what’s broken so it never happens again’.

United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz needed two apologies to get it right (Picture: Rex)

Ironically, a month ago Mr Munoz was named PR Week’s ‘Communicator of the Year’.

Perhaps even more ironic was the criticism of the United incident doled put by White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

He described it as ‘troubling’, a word that doesn’t quite cover his own monumental mistake made in a press briefing in Washington DC on Tuesday.

When speaking about Russia’s support for the Syria following a recent chemical weapons attack that killed 89 people, Spicer compared Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler.

He said: ‘We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.’

He added: ‘I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.’

The comments were met with anger across social media, with many pointing out that Hitler used gas to kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust.



Spicer later apologised, saying: ‘I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas.

‘Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison, and for that I apologise. It was a mistake to do that.’

The three PR disasters have been the talk of Twitter this week, with many users cheekily accusing them of trying to outdo one another in the public blunder stakes.

Sean Spicer addresses the press during the briefing in which he made his Hitler gaffe (Picture: AP)

PR expert Mark Borkowski said companies need to think and act as fast as social media when they make a mistake.

‘We live in a time-compressed world and therefore your actions from the moment the blue-touch paper is lit to the way the firework goes off is a very short time scale,’ he told Yahoo News UK.

‘You have to react as quickly as the social media agenda.

‘People are not learning lessons on social media – they’re conducting themselves with 20th century rules for a 21st century communication age.

Spicer was forced to later apologise for his remarks (Picture: AP)

‘What these three things prove is that people who don’t have great PR do all the wrong things really, really well.’

Mr Borkowski praised Pepsi for acting swiftly to remove its advert and issue an apology, but had harsher words for United Airlines for taking so long to do the right thing.

‘They ignored the overriding issue, which was you’ve got a film that’s being shared on social media that’s been left for the world to interpret,’ he said.

‘When the share price dropped off the cliff they then started to have to use the “S” word and apologise.’


He called Spicer’s comment on Hitler an ‘inane and stupid remark’ but didn’t think it was surprising.

‘We have seen from his White House press briefings from day one that he has been belligerent, obtrusive and representing the president’s interest without respecting journalism,’ he said.


‘He’s not so much a press enabler and enabler and a spokesman – he’s just an attack dog, a Rottweiler listening to his own snarling, spitting invective.’

And what lessons can be learned from these huge PR mistakes?

Mr Borkowski said: ‘You cannot treat people as cattle. You can’t treat people as idiots.’