As 2017 comes to a close, I take time to reflect on the year’s biggest PR disasters:
UNITED AIRLINES … The only good news for United Airlines is that its string of PR disasters occurred early in the year when they could be overshadowed by newer debacles over time. But what a year it was. The airline took the worst hit when it literally dragged a passenger off an overbooked plane, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth in the process. While that incident took the lion’s share of the headlines, the airline also managed to make additional waves when it banned two girls from flying because they were wearing leggings and forced a mom to hold a toddler in her lap for a full flight because it gave away the toddler’s paid-for seat to a standby passenger. United apologized for all the incidents, but the airline’s brand was harmed and its stock price remains down nearly 17 percent since the first incident.
UBER … When the hashtag #DeleteUber becomes your company’s most impactful marketing campaign, you know what kind of year it has been. You can pick which issue was the worst: privacy and tracking concerns, erratic behavior from its CEO, a plot to evade regulators through a complex program named “Project Grayball,” allegations of systemic sexual assault, being banned in the London – the choices go on and on. Former CEO and still-current board member Travis Kalanick added to the miserable year by feuding with his fellow board members, threatening a potentially lucrative IPO.
EQUIFAX … There are only about 320 million Americans, so it takes a special kind of incompetence to let hackers steal the personal data (names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and driver’s license numbers) of more than 145 million of them. But the good folks at Equifax rose to the challenge. Particularly frustrating is that there is little to nothing that average consumers can do to punish the company. Fortunately, Equifax’s corporate clients have also grown leery of the company. And to date, it has spent nearly $90 million in legal fees and other expenses to respond to the incident.
RED CROSS … NPR and ProPublica have been a thorn in the side of the American Red Cross since the media outlets examined the nonprofit’s spending following Superstorm Sandy in 2014. They found, for example, that seven months after the storm, the Red Cross still had not spent $100 million of the $300 million it had raised. Unfortunately for the Red Cross, NPR revisited the questions about the Red Cross’ efficacy just as Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the Red Cross was frantically trying to raise money for relief efforts. The Red Cross promised more transparency, but a generation of Millennials who like to invest locally have been finding smaller nonprofits on the ground in affected areas to support. The long-term implications of this PR disaster for the Red Cross have to be scary.
FACEBOOK … Advertisers love Facebook because it allows them to customize ad campaigns to target people with very specific tastes. Football fans, country music lovers, frequent vacationers … and “Jew haters?” An investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform allowed individuals and organizations “to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally.” After ProPublica contacted Facebook, it removed anti-Semitic categories such as “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Facebook said the categories were created by an algorithm, not employees, and “said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.”