A Tale of a PR Nightmare: Pepsi & United Airlines

Using an outside agency may have been able to save Pepsi and United Airlines a headache, and their reputations.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly heard about two large U.S. companies and their unfortunate PR problems. I’m not going to tell you why that infamous Pepsi ad might have been problematic, or why United Airlines may want to look into better ways of “re-accommodating” their customers. However, I am going to shed light on how a bad PR situation was made worse by the lack of outside agency help.

On April 7, AdAge published a piece about the Pepsi-Kendall Jenner ad fiasco that caught my attention. The article points out that it didn’t take more than a few hours for folks on the outside to start pointing fingers and placing blame about how such an ad made it through to publication. It was the in-house ad agency at Pepsi that seemed to be the one at fault. The article quotes a Reddit post by stating “In-house just doesn’t cut it, as there are too few people in the chain saying ‘no.’” It quickly became exceedingly clear that Pepsi would have benefitted greatly from an outside perspective.

This isn’t to say that an outside agency wouldn’t have made the same mistake, but it’s clear that having someone unattached to the brand itself might have provided third party guidance that an in-house staff simply could not. While there is certainly such a thing as “having too many cooks in the kitchen” when producing an advertisement, or anything for that matter, the chances of failure are substantially reduced when alternative perspectives are brought to light.

A few days after reading the AdAge article, United Airlines overbooked a flight which resulted in a passenger being dragged, bloodied, and screaming from a flight. As a public relations professional, one of my immediate thoughts was how United would handle this PR nightmare. Ideally, United Airlines would have a crisis communications plan created specifically for situations like this. These plans can help guide a company’s response to crisis scenario when the pressure and stakes are high. Pre-emptive crisis plans are developed to prevent any rash decision making when it comes to responding to such an event.

I do not know who decided the first statement put out by United should be from the CEO and should include belittling the situation to simply needing to “re-accommodate” a customer, but I feel confident that this was not at the recommendation of an outside PR agency. Also, it was more than just the word re-accommodate that was an issue. Granted I was not there on that plane, but I did see the video that circulated the internet, and it was obvious that in one way or another United was at fault for what occurred.

Whether or not the men pulling the passenger off the plane were hired by the airline, this happened to a United customer on a United flight. The first statement from United should have been a clear-cut apology and a commitment to the customers and their safety. The CEO caused further issues for the company when he sent a letter to employees stating that the customer had been “disruptive’’ and “belligerent.” There are ways to deal with these situations to avoid turning an incident into a full-fledged fiasco, which is why we help our clients produce crisis communications plans.

Obviously, there is no such thing as a fool-proof PR plan. However, I do think that with an outside perspective, someone who isn’t involved in the everyday happenings at a company, can provide useful outside counsel and unique solutions. Sometimes, the solution might be to simply say “no, that is a bad idea.” Both United and Pepsi could have saved their reputations, and a fair amount of money, if they had collaborated with an outside agency.

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