What we can learn from this generation’s biggest PR gaffes

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By Aaron Engelberg

Because public relations combines brand awareness with subtle and direct attempts to form a positive public opinion, it requires a very human touch to succeed, and humans inevitably make mistakes from time to time. PR disasters can range from innocent mistakes to self-induced controversy, or even a toxic culture, and they can happen to anyone. Most often, however, they occur as a result of a failed response to a minor crisis or incident.

In fact, sometimes PR and marketing teams try to think too far outside the box, leading to a complete flop. It’s always important for companies and brands to get creative, but it’s equally important to remain tactful so as to not end up as a meme on social media or the butt of late-night jokes. 

Let’s take a look at some of the worst PR gaffes in recent memory. 

Bud Light’s ‘Up for Whatever’ ad campaign 

Bud Light’s ad campaigns have generally been a hit—think back to the successful “Wassup” commercials that premiered during the 1999 Super Bowl and lived on for years. Its 2015 “Up for Whatever” campaign, however, didn’t enjoy the same success. As part of the campaign, certain Bud Light beer bottles included the phrase: “The perfect beverage for deleting ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night.” 

It’s amazing how, in an age of increased sensitivity and awareness towards sexual violence, a phrase like this could have been considered appropriate by anyone in Bud Light’s marketing team. You’d imagine a company as big as Anheuser-Busch would have arranged a focus group, or at the very least, workshopped the campaign phrases to anticipate how they might resonate with specific demographic groups—like, maybe women. The beer industry has historically focused on marketing toward men, which is evidenced by the commonality of beer sponsorships with sports teams and organizations, and the campaign’s controversial phrase unintentionally undermined the concept of “no means no.” 

While this disastrous campaign made headlines for its shocking lack of societal awareness, Bud Light, at least, issued an apology acknowledging the phrase “missed the mark.” Bud Light’s intention was to encourage people to try new things and be adventurous, but perhaps that theme, without misconstruing sexual consent, fits better with a campaign for a fine whiskey or wine, not a major domestic light beer.

Pepsi, Kendall Jenner, and Black Lives Matter

Generally speaking, mass-appeal marketing campaigns should avoid anything that crosses into politics. And if they do, they should be especially sensitive to the socio-political climate, particularly with regard to racial issues. Pepsi’s 2017 commercial featuring Kendall Jenner intervening between protestors and police didn’t follow this rule of thumb. The nearly three-minute ad shows protestors marching past a photoshoot with Jenner, who then discards her blonde wig and removes her lipstick to march with protestors confronting police, where she hands an officer a can of Pepsi, and voila!… all is fine. 

The commercial was out of touch with reality, capitalized on societal polarization, and minimized the struggle of movements that were taking place across the U.S. in support of Black Lives Matter. The clip also struck a nerve with people on both sides of the political spectrum, something no brand can ever afford to do.

In cases of political tension and hyper-polarization, organizations must take extra caution when conducting marketing campaigns so as to not isolate a specific group, community, or demographic. Pepsi most likely wasn’t trying to make a political statement or pick a side, and while it aimed to promote unity, it was done in bad taste. 

Blizzard’s scandal and poor response

The gaming studio Activision Blizzard has a history of upsetting its customers with long waits and delays on game releases, but a recent sexual harassment scandal brought to light a toxic company culture. Sexual harassment lawsuits and leaked media reports painted a picture of a hostile work environment towards women where sexual abuse was rampant and covered up to protect the perpetrators. 

In addition to a “frat boy” environment described in the media reports, the gaming company began to lose partnerships with major brands and had to deal with employees protesting for better working conditions. And the response from the company’s brass only exacerbated the situation. In its official response, Blizzard didn’t take accountability for the dysfunction, nor did it provide any details as to how to address these problems going forward. 

As a result of the scandal, the company ended up having to pay $35 million to the SEC to settle the claims. The toxicity within Blizzard’s culture is, of course, inexcusable as it painted such a disturbing picture, but the company completely dropped the ball on how to address those issues. Rehabbing its reputation will take a considerable amount of time, and the company has to demonstrate a healthier culture with regard to sexual harassment and how it handles employee complaints. Additionally, the gaming studio’s leadership would be wise to revise their crisis-management method to come off as more caring, accountable, and understanding, i.e. more human. This means not automatically deflecting when serious allegations arise. 

What can we learn?

PR gaffes or crises will always happen, but the most important lessons that CEOs and communication heads can learn is how to manage them properly. Of course, avoiding them altogether should be the objective of every company, brand, organization, or small business. 

Avoiding such situations requires creating an organizational culture that encourages collaboration and communication, so any member of a communications or marketing team working on a campaign, project, outreach, or response will feel at ease speaking their mind. The best communications teams work as true teams, united and capable of steering clear of public outrage. And if and when it does occur, they are able to effectively manage and diffuse the crisis.



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