By Kaci Schneidawind
Many have heard the sayings “any press is good press” or “bad publicity is good publicity.” That may have been true in times past when social media did not dominate our society as it does now. It provides a platform for free speech, which is sometimes more of a curse than a blessing.
“In the world of business [the idea that any publicity is good publicity] is a bad thing,” junior business major Hannah Marquardt said. “Yes it is free publicity, but at the same time it changes the way people might imagine a corporation or company.”
In this age of tense and treacherous political commentary/correctness, it is easy to either have a statement or action be misconstrued, damaging a reputation or brand beyond repair.
In the first few days of April alone, two major corporations went under fire on social networks. Pepsi released an advertisement on April 4 which starred model Kendall Jenner. In the ad, Jenner joins a rally or protest of some kind, which have been happening all around the country as a result of President Trump’s inauguration in January.
Jenner then walks up to police officers manning the protest and hands one of them a can of Pepsi as some sort of peace offering, which is accepted and met with cheers and celebration from the crowd.
Pepsi probably thought they had struck gold by casting a famous spokesperson, and connecting the ad to protests people have been passionate about. However, most of the general public did not see it this way.
Twitter exploded after the ad was posted, accusing Pepsi of trivializing protests and police brutality in order to sell soda. The ad seemed to minimize the danger and seriousness of similar situations.
Elle Hearns, a former organizer for Black Lives Matter said the commercial “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.”
She said, “No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest. That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”
Under mounting pressure to save face, Pepsi released a statement the next day that apologized for the tone-deaf advertisement and said it would not go to air.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” the statement read in part.
Another blow to a brand came just a week later when a video from a United Airlines flight went viral on April 10.
The video, taken by a passenger on the plane before it departed, showed another passenger being asked to give up his seat due to overbooking. When the passenger did not comply, the officers used excessive force, wrestling the man out of his seat then dragging him by his arms down the aisle of the plane.
The man returned to the plane moments later, his face bloody and swollen as evidence of physical abuse. He was eventually taken off the plane on a stretcher to receive medical attention.
As if the incident was not bad enough on its own, there were several other factors contributing to subsequent outrage.
For one, the man was Chinese, and many critics pointed to the problem of racial profiling by the officers who specifically asked him to give up his seat. Also, the man was a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning.
Many were also not satisfied with the statement given by United CEO Oscar Munoz, which included phrasing such as “reaccommodate” when describing the dragging of the man. It was an apology that lacked genuine remorse, and downplayed a serious and frightening event.
Only after United’s stock plunged by nearly $1 billion did a more sincere expression of regret. In it, Munoz said:
“…I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”
So, how can these companies “make it right?”
For one, it may be helpful to hire a more diverse boardroom. If an African American influencer had had a say in the ad Pepsi put out, perhaps the narrative of the commercial would have been constructed differently, and in turn, succeed in promoting unity.
Also, maybe most importantly, company leaders need to adjust to the new climate of instant feedback in the form of tweets. Their words will be picked apart, motives questioned, intentions dissected.
In short, companies need to build their stock with people occupying a modern and millennial mindset. The sooner they can figure out how to navigate the new waters of these times, the better. Then, there will be a better chance of bad press being good press.