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PR People Are Failing Right Now

A veteran public relations officer told us why United Airlines, Sean Spicer, and Pepsi should have known better.

by Mike Pearl
Apr 12 2017, 5:46pm

Photos: Wikmedia Commons user Milad A380; Mike Mozart; Screengrab from CNN

As the people responsible for communicating their organizations' messages to the world, PR representatives have hard jobs. But if there's a bar they have to clear at bare minimum, it's this: don't make things worse. Three high-profile PR nightmares over the past week have really hammered this point home.

On Monday, United Airlines faced a serious, visceral backlash to a video of a man being literally dragged from one of their planes after he refused to give up his seat—which turned out to be because United needed room on the plane for additional employees. United's initial strategy was to merely describe the event, and acknowledge it wasn't great, followed by a staff letter that smeared the passenger as "belligerent." Shortly after the airline's stock price plunged. Eventually, on Tuesday, United issued a basically normal apology that—and I'm just speculating here—probably would have been more effective if it come earlier in the timeline of events.

United's horrors were sandwiched between two other self-inflicted brand disasters. Last week, Pepsi released a TV spot featuring Kendall Jenner that tried (and completely failed) to make its brand message rhyme with the messages of recent political protest movements. The soda company's PR department eventually issued an apology, but, somewhat hilariously, also apologized to Jenner in the process. Then on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer—the PR rep for the Trump Presidential Brand—attempted to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sound kinda-sorta worse than Hitler by claiming that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons—despite the Holocaust having been a thing that happened. Spicer then sputtered, backpedaled, proffered four clarifications, and then finally an apology.

To find out what sort of demon has possessed some of the most powerful PR operations in the world, I got in touch with Ron Culp, who has headed PR efforts for major brands such as Sears, and fashioned himself into a guru of his trade, with a teaching position at DePaul University. Culp emphasized the importance of trusting your gut, and also, the importance of not mentioning Hitler when you don't have to.

VICE: It's now a pretty unanimous belief that United turned a serious mistake into a total catastrophe. Is there something special about United that led to this PR disaster?
Ron Culp: United has come a long way under the current CEO in rebuilding bridges with employees, and relationships that had really been tattered in the past. I'm confident that the initial statement was constructed with human resources and legal having heavier hands in the decision as to what would be said than what prevailed [in the later statement].

What do you mean when you say "United has come a long way"?
The employee relations are better there than they have been in decades, and they're working as a team, meaning the entire organization. [But] the interpretation of some rule that very much was in their operational manual, [that] went beyond what was humanly logical, created this incident.

With that as the backdrop, why would United's initial non-apology have seemed like a good idea? 
[Because of] the speed at which something had to be said. Legal will always err in favor of protecting the company—meaning financial responsibilities, and making sure that we don't admit to something that we're going to end up paying [for] or saying something that legally binds us. If they could—and certainly this was the trend back in the 1990s and early 2000s—[saying] "no comment" could be better received. They need to respond very quickly, especially if you're a consumer-facing company.

What's it like in the office when a company does that?
You get all the parties in the room, and somebody takes responsibility to draft it. When I headed communications in companies, I always wanted to be the one to draft the statement because he who controls the editing controls the final message in most cases. Initially, we've got to be thinking about liability. [In] this case I think it was both a liability issue as well as wanting to show support for employees, who—I'm sure at the point that it was unfolding—said, "these are our policies!" And yes, they are. At that point they're not [yet concluding], well, those are the policies, but it still shouldn't have been this way.

What could have saved them from PR oblivion at that phase?
This is where gut instinct plays a critical role. Sometimes the mind that is trying to rationalize all the ramifications needs to give way to the gut. Anyone seeing that—to your point—would be saying, "we need to do something other than this legalese-sounding response." I headed PR at Sears for a number of years, and we learned early on that you don't make friends with customers by not treating them as if they're very important to you.

Would you say a similar gut-check could have saved Pepsi last week?
You might be the lowest person in the room, but at what point is it is your obligation to speak truth to power? And to do it in such a way that you raise a question that would help protect that company from making that blunder. Clearly no one did that. I don't know if Pepsi's communications department was involved. I can't imagine that they were—you just had to see the ad.

Who fares worse from a PR standpoint? United or Pepsi?
Pepsi got a lot of publicity out of this, and there are people who were subliminally listening to Saturday Night Live the other night, and have no idea what this issue is about. All they saw was three minutes about Pepsi, so, "Oh, I'll have a Pepsi, that's fine!" It's a flash-in-the-pan moment for a brand that is as advertising-driven as Pepsi. 

One place I don't think that any-publicity-is-good-publicity approach works is the White House. Do you have any sympathy for Sean Spicer right now?
There's no doubt that he has the toughest public relations job in the world. In the old days we had two news cycles! I loved it. I could say, let's see here: I know that Mike is on deadline for a morning paper. I'll call him back around 5:00 today, or 5:30, and if it's the afternoon paper, then I've just got to call you before noon. That's not the case anymore. I don't know when he gets time to sleep. You've gotta stay on top of all the issues, and you've got a sizable staff whispering in your ears, and you've got all the policy people around the president, and of course you have the president, who's doing his own thing. As currently construed, it's an impossible job.

But then again, as a public relations officer, what did you think of that Hitler comparison? 
You don't make one evil worse by referring to another, because you open—as he did—the door to misinterpretation of what he intended to say, and to a level that was embarrassing. You just don't go there.

Is there a PR rule of thumb about this?
I try to never compare anyone to anything. Describe the situation! He clearly was trying to make the situation in Syria stand apart as really as maniacal and evil as it possibly could be, but it's hard to make any comparison to what went down in the 1940s.

This conversation has been edited and compressed for clarity.

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