For a prominent brand with a long history, public relations crises are all but inevitable. That said, not all PR flaps are created equal — something to which United Airlines and Pepsi can surely attest after a rough week in the news.
Earlier this month, Pepsi created a stir with a spot featuring Kendall Jenner that many observers felt trivialized protest movements everywhere, which prompted the company to pull the ad. The crisis was overshadowed just days later, when a passenger on a United flight was forcibly removed from his seat for refusing to give it up to accommodate a few of United’s employees.
With both scandals still fresh in the public’s collective memory — and the source of an endless font of Internet ridicule — CNBC spoke with several crisis communicators to see what United and Pepsi could do to smooth the ruffled feathers of outraged consumers. The advice may also prove instructive to American Airlines, which on Friday found itself caught in the middle of a controversy stemming from an on-board altercation caught on video.
‘Don’t make it worse’
Beck Bamberger, founder of Bam Communications, said that Pepsi actually did a few things right in responding to the backlash, but could have done better.
“Pepsi did issue an immediate apology and yanked the ad, but a better crisis protocol is to detail what action you — the brand, CEO, whomever — will do moving forward, and then execute immediately on the action promised,” she told CNBC.
Todd Mitchem, organizational change expert and author of the book “You, Disrupted,” said that Pepsi’s best bet was to put the whole affair in the rearview mirror.
“There’s no need to make this worse by attempting damage control,” he said, adding that the beverage giant should steer clear of political content.
Alex Slater, managing director of the Clyde Group public affairs firm, suggested Pepsi should “lay low and wait it out. People will move on to yelling about something else as soon as you stop feeding the fire and let them.”