If your brand has ever had a difficult run-in with the media, it’s hard to take an organisation seriously when they claim “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Particularly when dealt with the wrong way, an organisation can receive terrible publicity that can have a detrimental impact on the brand and business.
In the age of social media, bad news travels fast. A brand’s first response will always be the one people remember, and if this comes from a place of frazzled urgency, you can find yourself in strife. United Airlines received more bad publicity than it could have bargained for this year, but it was the initial justification for its actions that truly disgruntled the public.
On April 9th 2017, a passenger was forcibly dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight after refusing to forfeit his seat for a staff member, losing his front teeth and becoming bloodied in the scuffle. This letter to United staff was released on the day of the incident:
“This situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help,” United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote. “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
It only took a day for the second letter to be released which refuted the actions taken and provided the deepest apologies to the passenger that was forcibly removed from the plane. Unfortunately, this was too little too late – the damage had been done.
It’s important to remember that it is possible to come back from condemnation. In late 2015, Airbnb came under fire with bad publicity when research revealing customers with “distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names.” That data was only compounded by reports on social media from travellers who experienced that discrimination first-hand, as well as a lawsuit over such actions.
Acting as the true hero the brand seeks to portray, its CEO released this letter which took a profound stance on the issue:
Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them. Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry. I take responsibility for any pain or frustration this has caused members of our community. We will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.
And indeed it has. This branded indiscretion has resulted in Airbnb taking a stand against not only racial discrimination, but becoming a vocal advocate for marriage equality also.
To be clear, brands will always be vulnerable to bad publicity, but mastering your rise from the ashes could be what saves your name (and your neck). As Airbnb so humbly showed, admitting to your mistakes and apologising is a good start if there are no legal implications.
So, what can you do to prevent hordes of villagers chasing you with pitchforks?
Test potential scenarios and put your plan in writing. Pick your spokespeople, your channels and your approach, and review your plan regularly to ensure it’s up to date. This may seem menial, but when your team is in shock about the meteor coming their way, you’ll be glad to have something that was prepared on a calmer, sunnier day. Acknowledge the situation, apologise to the effected parties, state your values and outline your plan of attack moving forward.
Bad publicity doesn’t have to have the last word. Who knows, you may just come out better for it in the end.