It’s one thing to have a well-thought-out PR strategy and calendar of activities mapped out, but do you also have a crisis management plan and process in place? Most PR crises happen unexpectedly, and when they do, every second it takes for you to implement damage control is another second of eroded trust and lost confidence.
In the same vein, it’s imperative to ensure that your PR department is well versed with the latest PR best practices, especially in the current digital era, where a simple faux pas can instantly escalate into a major disaster and cause irreparable damage to the brand.
In this article, we’ll examine 9 common PR mistakes made by companies and brands over the years.
9 Common PR Mistakes Made by Companies and Brands
- Slow to do damage control
- Not owning up
- Insincere apologies
- Hoping to get away with deception
- Not having a solid news angle
- Not building proper media relations
- Focusing on the what rather than why
- Jumping on the bandwagon
- Random and ad-hoc PR activities
1. Slow to do damage control
In 2009, a couple of Domino’s employees in North Carolina decided to film a disgusting prank in the restaurant’s kitchen and post it on YouTube. The video showed one of the employees in the process of preparing sandwiches for delivery, sticking cheese up his nose and spreading nasal mucus on the food, while the other employee narrated the video.
Naturally, the video went viral instantly, racking up over a million views. The two employees were slapped with felony charges, and Domino’s Pizza found itself in a major public relations crisis.
Instead of responding to the situation immediately, it took Domino’s two days to issue a formal apology. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that consumer perception of the brand had turned negative within hours of the video being released. Unfortunately, in the social media era, news — especially scandalous or shocking news — tends to spread like wildfire.
Understandably, Domino’s Pizza was caught off-guard by the unthinkable act of their employees and was probably scrambling to figure out how to manage the situation. If they had a crisis management plan in place, they would probably have been better prepared to react swiftly and decisively.
As one of the world’s leading pizza chains, Domino’s Pizza operates over 8,700 stores in more than 50 countries, with around 5,000 in the US. Since the brand’s inception in 1960, the company has built a respected reputation as a trusted doorstep delivery business. It took just 2 employees and a juvenile prank to rob the brand of the public’s hard-earned trust.
Pro tip: To avoid being caught off-guard like Domino’s, set up Google Alerts for real-time mentions of your brand or products online so you can respond immediately to negative news or reviews.
2. Not owning up
BP made history on April 20, 2010 (but not the good kind) when its Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and leaked over 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the biggest ever oil spill in U.S. waters and one of the most devastating environmental disasters recorded in history.
The fatal explosion killed eleven rig workers, and the resulting oil spill claimed millions of sea life, from marine mammals to sea turtles to birds to fish. Oil and methane gas poured into the Gulf for 87 consecutive days as a result. To put it into perspective, there were more than 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools of oil contaminating the ocean over those 3 long months.
BP’s negligence aside, which in itself was a major lapse of judgment, their CEO Tony Hayward’s callous comment when trying (unconvincingly) to apologise for the situation, “I’d like my life back”, showed a serious lack of remorse and accountability for the disastrous effects of their negligence.
Adding salt to the wound, the unfortunate gaffe made front-page news and cost Hayward his job, cementing the BP oil spill as one of the biggest PR catastrophes in corporate history.
On top of the long-lived environmental impacts that continue to the present day, the oil spill cost BP over $20 billion in an out-of-court settlement. A decade later, National Geographic reports reproductive failure, lung disease, heart issues, impaired stress response, and death in bottlenose dolphins.
Similarly, recent studies in 2018 also found impaired lung and heart function and strained breathing among cleanup workers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel who were exposed to the oil.
Though there’s nothing BP could have done to mitigate the seriousness of their mistake, the least they could have done was to take responsibility and own up instead of making a half-hearted, self-serving apology.
3. Insincere apologies
A doctor was violently removed from his United Airlines flight on April 9, 2017, when he refused to give up his seat. He ended up being dragged from his seat and getting bloodied in the face as a result.
The flight was overbooked and the airline had requested a number of passengers to give up their seats. The doctor wouldn’t give up his seat as he needed to get home to open a free clinic for U.S. veterans the next day. His physical and upsetting removal from the flight was caught on video by a fellow passenger and went viral quickly, causing a public uproar at United Airline’s reprehensible handling of the situation.
To make matters worse, the company’s CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement that said “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.” He also referred to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.”
At no point did he acknowledge or apologise for the unnecessarily excessive force used nor the fact that it was the airline’s fault that the flight was overbooked, which was the main reason for the drama. The indifferent apology didn’t go down well, causing the public to call for Munoz to step down. The company’s shares also fell as a consequence.
Apologies need to be genuine and sincere, especially when your company is clearly in the wrong.
4. Hoping to get away with deception
Volkswagen dominated global headlines in September 2015 when the company admitted to deploying cheat software in its VW and Audi brand diesel cars.
The “defeat device” software installed in diesel engines was designed to detect when the vehicle was being tested and to alter the exhaust emission readings to improve results. 11 million vehicles worldwide were affected, including 8 million in Europe.
Dubbed the “diesel dupe”, it became the biggest automotive scandal ever to make the news, considering that for years, Volkswagen had been promoting “Clean Diesel” as an alternative to hybrid and electric vehicles.
Within three days of the scandal being made public, Volkswagen’s stock had crashed by more than 40% and its reputation was in tatters. It led to the resignation of the company’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, and several other top executives.
The initial investigation in the US also spread to other countries including Germany, the UK, Italy, France, South Korea, and Canada. The legitimacy of Volkswagen’s emissions testing became a hot topic throughout the world, especially amongst industry regulators and environmental groups.
It was later found that the affected vehicles’ diesel engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what was allowed in the US. Volkswagen’s response to the scandal was to rebrand its international slogan from “Das Auto” (The Car) to just “Volkswagen”. The scandal was said to have cost the company a whopping $21bn in civil and criminal penalties.
The truth will out, and when it does, the cost will be exorbitant, not just in lost revenue but also in the loss of integrity and brand credibility, which in some cases can be impossible to recover.
5. Not having a solid news angle
Many companies underestimate the importance of having a solid news angle. A newsworthy story is one the public actually wants to read about, not one you think the public should read about. There’s a huge difference between the two. How is your story going to incite dialogue and get people talking?
Here’s how it won’t:
Purely self-serving news
There’s nothing wrong with issuing a press release to publicise company-driven news, e.g. a launch — be it a product, restaurant, or service launch — but it needs to be written in a way that conveys how the new product, restaurant or service will help, inspire, or delight customers.
You need to give readers a compelling reason to want to read your news, given how divided our attention is these days. It’s all the more critical when your company or brand isn’t as established compared to the bigger names — that’s when you have to work twice as hard to be memorable and likeable.
Repeating what everyone else is saying
Don’t just regurgitate what your competitors or the rest of the world are saying. Come up with a unique perspective on the subject. If you’re just going to repeat what the next person is saying, why should the audience care what you have to say?
Not providing any useful, original, or valuable insights
To get journalists (and their readers) interested in your story, it needs to either appeal to their emotions or provide food for thought. The first will allow you to connect with them on a personal level, whether by inspiring, entertaining, or moving them, and the second will share a different point of view, intrigue, and provide helpful information that makes a difference.
Before you hasten to get your next press release published, ask yourself how the information or news benefits the reader and why they should want to read it.
6. Not building proper media relations
No matter where you are in the world, one of the fundamental rules in business (and life!) is that relationships are key to getting things done. Whether it’s the relationship with your employees, suppliers, business associates, or customers — you can achieve a lot more and grow the business faster when you have a healthy rapport with those around you.
The same rule applies to the media. If you want regular and prominent media coverage, you’ll need to invest time and effort in building genuine relationships with the right journalists and media owners. If there’s no mutual respect and camaraderie between two individuals, why should one do any favours for the other?
Rather than just emailing or calling a journalist out of the blue and expecting them to publish a press release, cover an event, or attend a press conference, ideally, you need to put in the groundwork and cultivate a meaningful connection with them first.
This involves doing your due diligence on the individual to understand their area of expertise, topics they’re passionate about, career background, and any relevant personal information to help you find common interests and values. Having this knowledge will allow you to identify like-minded journalists who will be far more likely to give your brand coverage rather than a random person whom you know nothing about.
Respect is the cornerstone of any successful relationship. Knowing this, it’s important to always apply a personal touch to your communications with the press. Never mass email a bunch of reporters — or if you do, make sure to bcc the recipients. But as much as possible, always send individual and personal emails — this tells the journalist that they’re not just another name in your Rolodex, that you appreciate their time and work.
If it’s your first contact with a journalist, always start with a friendly introduction email to connect. Lay the groundwork by telling them about yourself and your company, making sure to highlight interesting information relevant to their reader base that will help engage their readers and drive traffic to their news platform. Before asking for favours, first show them how you can help them.
7. Focusing on the what rather than why
An all-too-common PR mistake made by companies and brands is the belief that they need to constantly sell their product or service features and the ways the brand outperforms competitors.
While product or service quality and reliability is important, it’s not the deciding factor in the purchase process. Most people don’t care about what the product does; they care about how it will make their lives better or easier. The question your brand needs to answer is not what the product does but why consumers should care about it.
Steve Jobs was a visionary in this respect; he knew the importance of focusing on the ‘why’ over the ‘what’. His insightful understanding of branding was instrumental to Apple’s phenomenal success. In his words, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around.”
Apple’s “Think Different” rebranding campaign was and continues to be one of the most inspiring and memorable PR campaigns ever. Their bold “Crazy Ones” commercial associated their struggling computer business with some of history’s most celebrated freethinking rebels who saw things differently, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso and Amelia Earhart, amongst others.
Coupled with the following ad copy, Apple established itself as an icon of innovation and exclusivity, engendering a whole new conversation around computers and technology:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
8. Jumping on the bandwagon
If you’re going to jump on the latest media hype bandwagon or take advantage of trending news, make sure you have a fresh perspective to add to the conversation. If you’re just saying what others are saying or using it as a cheap sales opportunity, you’ll be risking your brand integrity and credibility.
How does the story benefit your audience? If it doesn’t provide any real value, it’s better to refrain from jumping on the bandwagon.
9. Random and ad-hoc PR activities
Last but not least, PR needs to be a concerted effort and not an afterthought. For effective and meaningful results, your PR efforts need to be implemented as part of a well-coordinated, ongoing programme rather than on a random ad-hoc basis.
There needs to be a coherent approach and continuity to ensure a consistent narrative that’s aligned with your brand’s values and marketing messages.
Consistency is key to earning the public’s trust and brand loyalty. Building a favourable brand image takes patient effort and diligence, but when it’s done right, you’ll be rewarded with a dedicated customer base that will happily sing your praises to their friends and family.
Interested in Elevating Your Brand Equity (Worth)?
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Our proven track record spans young startups to SMEs to ASX-listed corporations. If you’re looking to elevate your brand equity and credibility, we’re happy to provide the necessary consultation and guidance to make that happen. Let’s talk!