Public Apologies: Redemption or More Bad PR?

Admitting that you did something wrong is not always easy, especially when the reputation of a company or public figure is on the line. Communicators need to be constantly ready to handle bad PR in a careful, efficient way. The past week (April 9-16, 2017) was full of public blunders, so I decided to grade a few of the responses that followed them.

  1. United Airlines
    After a video went viral of a passenger being dragged off of a United Airlines flight, the internet was in disbelief. Photos then surfaced of the victim with a bloody face, and different versions of the story emerged. Some said this happened just because the flight was overbooked, others said the passenger was unruly, and some even claimed this was because he was a minority. But consumers didn’t care to know the exact policy or factual scenario. All they saw was a forceful removal of a passenger from a plane. United was barely done explaining a miscommunication in the media where two female passengers were not allowed to board a plane wearing leggings when it had to respond to this incident.

    Response Grade: C
    United apologized for needing to “re-accommodate” customers, but the public thought that word didn’t begin to cover what the video showed. Their CEO Oscar Munoz managed to make a more authentic response on television, recalling the shame he felt when learning of the incident. Emotion was apparent in his voice as he promised this would never happen again on his airline. Sadly, this response wasn’t very immediate, and many people got caught up on the callous original statement. For someone recently named Communicator of the Year by PR Week, Munoz should’ve known better.
  2. Pepsi
    The latest Pepsi ad campaign features Kendall Jenner moving through a crowd of protesters to offer a police officer a can of the beverage. He accepts, takes a drink, and the diverse crowd cheers. 2017 has already been a year full of protests on emotionally, racially, and politically charged messages, but the scenes on the news looked nothing like this commercial. Critics said Pepsi was taking a serious subject and making a mockery of it.

    Response Grade: B+
    Pepsi released this statement following the incident: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.” Although not the most genuine sounding, Pepsi pulled the advertisement swiftly and was soon out of the news cycle. Certain polls actually showed that people had a favorable view of Pepsi following the ad. The damage to their reputation shouldn’t be permanent.
  3. Sean Spicer
    The current White House press secretary has a tough job explaining and defending statements from Donald Trump that often cross the line. Last week, he crossed the line himself with his statements on the Holocaust. After reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used a chemical gas on his own people, Spicer said, “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” The World War II blunders continued, as Spicer attempted to distinguish Hitler’s gas chambers with Assad’s chemical weapons, referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers”. Needless to say, many were not happy about this disregard for history.

    Response Grade: C-
    This is not the first time the Donald Trump administration and Sean Spicer have come under fire for inappropriate and insensitive comments. The White House’s first response was to try to explain the comments further, trying to make clarification where an apology was desperately needed. Spicer himself said, “I made a mistake; there’s no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have, and I screwed up. It really is painful to myself to know that I did something like that.” Careless comments about the Holocaust is not something taken lightly. Although Spicer seemed genuine, his office has a track record of mixing up important historical figures and events. An apology is not worth much if the behavior keeps happening.

Small missteps can come with a large price for public figures. Communicators need to be especially careful when crafting their apologies, or they risk ruining their reputation forever.

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