As 2017 comes to a close, we take time to reflect on the year’s biggest PR disasters:
UNITED AIRLINES … The only good news for United Airlines is that its string of PR disasters occurred early in the year when they could be overshadowed by newer debacles over time. But what a year it was. The airline took the worst hit when it literally dragged a passenger off an overbooked plane, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth in the process. While that incident took the lion’s share of the headlines, the airline also managed to make additional waves when it banned two girls from flying because they were wearing leggings and forced a mom to hold a toddler in her lap for a full flight because it gave away the toddler’s paid-for seat to a standby passenger. United apologized for all the incidents, but the airline’s brand was harmed and its stock price remains down nearly 17 percent since the first incident.
RED CROSS … NPR and ProPublica have been a thorn in the side of the American Red Cross since the media outlets examined the nonprofit’s spending following Superstorm Sandy in 2014. They found, for example, that seven months after the storm, the Red Cross still had not spent $100 million of the $300 million it had raised. Unfortunately for the Red Cross, NPR revisited the questions about the Red Cross’ efficacy just as Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the Red Cross was frantically trying to raise money for relief efforts. The Red Cross promised more transparency, but a generation of Millennials who like to invest locally have been finding smaller nonprofits on the ground in affected areas to support. The long-term implications of this PR disaster for the Red Cross have to be scary.
PEPSI … In April, sugar-water purveyor Pepsi pulled a controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner that seemed to exploit national race protests in Missouri and other states. The ad showed Jenner bridging the divide between protesters and police by offering them Pepsi, which resulted in one NBC analyst commenting, “If the Black Lives Matter movement were led by a 21-year-old white supermodel armed with a can of fizzy soda, then maybe everyone would just get along.” Pepsi has perfected the art of “just spell our name right” over the years, so whether this counts as a PR disaster is in the eye of the beholder. The reality is they underscored their anti-establishment credentials while getting massive amounts of free media.
FACEBOOK … Advertisers love Facebook because it allows them to customize ad campaigns to target people with very specific tastes. Football fans, country music lovers, frequent vacationers … and “Jew haters?” An investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform allowed individuals and organizations “to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally.” After ProPublica contacted Facebook, it removed anti-Semitic categories such as “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Facebook said the categories were created by an algorithm, not employees, and “said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.”
PAPA JOHN’S PIZZA … Unforced errors and unintended consequences are the bane of PR professionals, and Papa John’s demonstrated this in a remarkably efficient way this month. The pizza chain is a huge NFL sponsor, and it attempted to link its declining pizza sales to NFL players’ national anthem protests and said it might cease its NFL sponsorship if the protests continued. That stand earned it the support of neo-Nazi newspaper The Daily Stormer, and Papa John’s was actually forced to try to blunt the PR disaster by issuing a statement asking neo-Nazis not to buy its pizza.
TERRY FREI … Denver Post sports reporter Terry Frei was fired in May when he tweeted: “Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.” Many found the tweet racist, while others argued that it was merely nationalistic. Either way, the PR disaster meant Frei was out of a job within hours.
Read the entire series of 2017’s biggest PR disasters: