Epic fail: 3 real-life PR disasters and what we can learn from them

By Ashlea Cartee on May 2nd, 2017

Most companies don’t plan for a crisis, but they can certainly prepare for one. Needless to say, it takes only one mistake to spark a full blown communications crisis (any PR professional’s worst nightmare). A crisis can turn life-long customers against a brand over-night and a poorly handled crises can lead to declining trust among consumers. Moreover, with the rise of digital technology and social media there’s nowhere for brands to hide. Customers have front row seats to watch how their actions, opinions, mistakes and crises play out.

When a crisis arises, companies, regardless of the industry must be willing to accept responsibility, be more transparent, honest and trustworthy than ever before in order to recover and continue to successfully survive. 

Here are three top brand crises that have taken place over the recent years—what we can learn from their fall from grace and how they are working to reestablish their brand reputation.

Unfriendly skies: United Airlines
In 1965, United Airlines introduced its famous slogan: “Fly the friendly skies.” A slogan may just be a slogan, but at the time, it represented a promise to their employees and customers. United Airlines broke its brand promise to make flying an enjoyable experience when one of its passengers was bloodied and forcibly dragged off a flight. The situation did worsen as United’s CEO Oscar Munoz first apologized for the overbook situation through Twitter, but made no acknowledgement to the passenger who was dragged off the plan by the arms and legs. He also appeared on a Good Morning America episode where he apologized to the public for the incident. The brand is now hiring for new members on its PR team, showing that they recognize their need for improvement and a change of direction. Currently, the story continues to be a media obsession and all eyes remain on the airline for their next steps.

Phony accounts: Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo had perhaps the most publicized disaster of any company in 2016. Last September, the public learned that bank employees created millions of fake credit card accounts and activated over 500,000 credit cards without permission to inflate sales numbers over the past five years. Now with credit card applications falling to an all-time low (55 percent), Wells Fargo revamped its advertising and recently launched its campaign “Building Better Every Day,” including marketing efforts across multiples channels—digital, television, print, radio and billboard.

The campaign highlights how the bank strives to be “customer-centric” in guidance and personalized services, while remaining secure and more involved in the community. After the situation, Well Fargo acknowledged the need to put their customers before profits, now ramping up consumer-facing efforts, like customer service and outreach to identify customers who may have any concerns about their accounts. 

Rigged emissions tests: Volkswagen
The Environmental Protection Agency announced in September 2015 that a number of Volkswagen vehicles had been rigged to pass emissions tests. Volkswagen admitted that 11 million of its cars in Europe and the U.S were manipulated to falsely understate exhaust emissions levels. The scandal was one of the worst instances of large-scale corporate fraud in recent history, resulting in more than $20 billion in fines and lawsuits in the U.S. alone, the resignation of the CEO and suspension of several executives and pending criminal charges for a number of U.S. employees.

The organization now is working toward regaining control of its message and consumer confidence–working with US officials, showing empathy for customers and offering compensation and warranties. Over the years, the brand made several moves to win back consumer trust including apologies spread across newspaper ads and changing its tagline to “Think New,” signifying a fresh start. Recently, Volkswagen has been sentenced to probation for three years, where an independent monitor is set to oversee business activity until probation is finished. With the final consequence given, the brand hopes this will be a close to the prolonged chapter of holding a distrusted reputation.

The new world of engagement
Business leaders must be nimble and able to quickly adapt to a developing situation. Along with building your reputation, comes the challenge of equipping your brand with the resources it needs to remain vigilant and act swiftly if a crisis occurs. Smart companies are intensely listening to and strategically acting on insights from their employees, customers and other stakeholders to get ahead of the game and be prepared for any situation that occurs. After major fallouts, controversies and scandals, brands must take a deep breath and look directly to their customers to earn back trust.

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