All companies now operate in a world that’s closely watching their policies, actions, and how they handle themselves when things go wrong. In light of several high-profile public incidents in which brands came under fire (United Airlines and Pepsi, for example), Andrew Winston writing for HBR, highlights three basic realities businesses are facing.
First, now that everyone has a cell phone camera and access to social media, the speed of shame is as fast (and as ruthless) as the internet. Second, everyone expects an apology — and a real one, beyond boilerplate PR language. And third, employees must feel safe and empowered to speak up when they see something going terribly awry.
United Airlines has leapt into a brand disaster of mythic proportions. In a scandal that’s still evolving quickly, the company’s employees had Chicago Department of Aviation officers forcefully remove a passenger — a paying customer sitting in his seat — from an overbooked flight. Around the world, people watched a video of the bloodied man being dragged down the aisle. The company’s stock lost hundreds of millions of market cap, but the damage to the brand (and future sales) may be far higher.
The incident, along with some other recent brand missteps, highlight some basic realities about the world companies operate in today. Three themes seem critical.
The speed of shame is as fast (and as ruthless) as the internet. When will companies realize that everyone now has a video camera on them, and that they can broadcast live on Facebook within minutes? People can now destroy brand trust at the speed of light, with consequences that are far-reaching. For example, in China, a critical growth market for the airlines, the disturbing passenger-shot video story has gone super-viral (likely in part because the passenger manhandled by United was Asian). It was the number one topic on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, with 100 million views. And while it’s way too early to predict the financial damage in that country or more broadly, the brand will likely keep taking hits for a while — other stories about being mistreated by United are getting airtime and countless people are pledging to stop flying United.
Yet United is far from the only company to experience instantaneous negative reactions recently. Last week, PepsiCo ran — and then quickly pulled — an advertisement showing the model Kendall Jenner breaking through a line of protesters (who looked more like they were at a dance party) to hand a Pepsi to a police officer. Jenner’s offering of 12-ounces of peace and love seemingly solves all of society’s tensions. The backlash, especially from those who saw a jarringly off-note take on Black Lives Matter protests, was justified — and unbelievably fast. Has there ever been a major ad that debuted and was pulled in less than 24 hours?
In both cases, word spread partly though dark humor, which raced around Twitter, Facebook, and newscasts, including a map of a United plane with a section labeled “Fight Club.” And Saturday Night Live’s brilliant take on Pepsi captured the essence of what was likely a well-intentioned effort. SNL gave us an imagined conversation between the ad’s creator and his family (unseen on the other end of a phone call, like an old-school Bob Newhart routine). His dawning realization that he’s made a big mistake is comedy gold. Humor plays a big role in stories going viral and, in cases like these, it may help people cope with upsetting images. But it doesn’t do the brands any favors.
Everyone expects an apology — and a real one. Pepsi got this right. The company acted quickly and owned the error. As a spokesperson said, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.”
United, on the other hand, has had a rough couple of days. The first statement from Oscar Munoz, the United CEO, was just bizarre, focusing on his employees while also using an awful euphemism for violently pulling someone off a plane: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” read more at hbr.org