This last few weeks have been shocking when it comes to PR disasters from brands like Pepsi, United, and even the White House. What in the world is going on and how do we make sense of it?
Here are a few thoughts for leaders and companies to ponder so they can be ready when something negative happens – from employee blunders, to customer service nightmares, to people not having all of the information when they start posting on social media.
1. We Need Diversity in Teams & Leadership Positions
One of the biggest challenges with the Pepsi ad is that it was created in a vacuum. It seems there was very little feedback on the ad and what the ramifications might be once it aired. Any brand has to think through scenarios and what might happen, how could something be interpreted. The ad seems inspirational and positive when you are in the design room and yet that does not mean it is something Pepsi should have run with. Do your teams that make decisions, are client facing, etc. have enough diversity to understand when things may miss in a big way or create negative publicity?
For example, a diverse marketing team helps ensure that the messages and campaigns align to audiences that are also diverse. It is of course not guaranteed, but it certainly increases the likelihood of a mistake being caught. Do you have the right diversity to reflect your customer base? From your Board, to your C-Suite, to decision makers, and associates that are customer facing – make sure you have the right kind of diversity to make your company more effective.
2. Are You Provocative or Polarizing?
Another challenge is that when a company, CEO, or leader, wants to be part of a larger dialog then you have to do your research up front and mitigate risks as much as possible. With Pepsi entering into the police / Black Lives Matter conversation, that is absolutely provocative and polarizing. The odds of something going wrong are pretty high, so why risk it? Pepsi could have learned from the Verizon ad which pursued a very important idea that had little downside. The ad was not highlighting that having a Verizon phone would make young girls amazing. Unlike the Pepsi ad, where as you long as you have a Pepsi handy – you can stop riots and build better relationships with police. I love that Pepsi was working on being provocative, but if the ad is being forced to fit a conversation, versus authentically engaging in a relevant dialog, then don’t do the ad.
3. Educate People with Information First
A few weeks ago, the big topic was leggings and how United was talking to young passengers that were “family & friends” about what they can wear on the flight. The problem is that if no one knows the policy and there is no information to mitigate perception issues, then a social media perfect storm will happen. In this case, what should United have done? They could have signs and pins that United Family and Friends wear to denote a slightly different status. So people have more information and do not just fill in the blanks with their own information, which usually is wrong. Help your audience get to the right conclusion, don’t assume they know everything. Re-evaluate which policies could lead to the wrong conclusions.
4. Empower Your Team to Make the Right Decisions
At what point did it make sense to have the police remove a passenger? Did someone not envision how horribly wrong this could go? What person on the ground made that call, instead of escalating the decision, or just sending the United team on another flight? Companies should train their employees to always Do the Right Thing. Which has never looked like dragging a customer off the plane (unless they were harming others). How is the CEO walking the talk and reminding customers and employees of the company values? Remind your employees to do the right thing, always, especially when no one is watching, and most definitely when every person on the plane has a video camera.
5. Always, Always Apologize and Work on Making it Right
CEOs in situations where there is a crisis or negative press should always have scripting that prepares them on how to respond. Although a leader should respond quickly, they should only respond quickly if they are going to have a clear, thoughtful, and sincerely thought through message. If you are the CEO and you do not have enough information, then be even more careful of what you say. Blaming the customer, especially when you drag them off the plane for your own team to fly, probably won’t go very well. It took three tries for the CEO to make an apology. Get your ego out of the way and respond with empathy.
Normally, I end with five thoughts, but Sean Spicer has inspired a sixth insight.
6. Don’t Fly by the Seat of Your Pants in the Heat of the Moment
First of all, know your history. Second of all, if you are not good on the fly then practice, practice, practice. Slow down and think before you speak. It is better to pause, then to bring in a comment that can destroy your credibility in a moment. Impressing people with your knowledge can obviously backfire. In Spicer’s case, have empathy and just say you totally and completely messed up – don’t try to talk your way out of it. Even if you apologize, it still may not go well for you, but at least you authentically, sincerely, apologized and are trying to make amends.
Be a noisebreaker with empathy,