Lessons to be learnt from Pepsi & United Airlines

Whenever high profile PR, marketing or advertising ‘gaffes’ hit the headlines, I (as I imagine a lot of PR professionals do) watch on with interest to see how the stories play out in the immediate minutes, hours and days that follow.

Two such occurrences quickly took over social media this week and it was interesting to see how they were handled – particularly as they had very different sources. Pepsi’s quick withdrawal of their latest advert was obviously an issue very much of their own creation, whilst United Airlines faced an unforeseen problem when a handful of their representatives dealt with the overbooking of one of their flights.

Whilst both incidents were quite different on the face of it, they both stirred up interest from all walks of life, a key reason they have been dominating news headlines and trending on social media since. Here are a few key lessons we took from a tempestuous week in the world of advertising and PR:

Organisational PR is more difficult to control than ever

With the power and impact of social media these days, PR is much more difficult to control. A situation can gather pace and garner opinion so quickly that it is more critical than ever to be clear on your approach and message, should things go wrong in a big way.

Adopting a whole company approach to PR

In order for companies to live and breathe their values and for organisational PR to be most effective, there needs to be whole-company approach. As we have seen so graphically in the United Airlines footage, it only takes a small number of individuals to handle a situation in a particular way for a company’s entire attitude to quickly be brought into question.

The people shown may well have handled the situation ‘by the book’ as suggested by the company’s spokesperson, but sometimes common sense has to prevail in such situations, an approach that I know Richard Branson (to keep the airline theme) actively encourages across his workforce.

Mea culpa

It is human nature to mess up from time to time. There is no shame in holding your hands up and admitting it, before working damn hard to rectify the situation and repair the reputational damage along the way (of course it does also help when another huge brand has an even bigger PR blunder just days later!)

In trying to buy themselves time, the response from United Airlines had a worrying air of arrogance about it. Pepsi on the other hand were clear and decisive in their response and contrite in the nature of their apology to all parties concerned.

Many studies have shown that if you are able to do this effectively, customers are actually likely to show more loyalty towards your brand.