What companies can learn about crisis PR from the United Airlines leggings incident

On Sunday morning, a United Airlines gate attendant barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because they were wearing leggings. News of the leggings incident went viral, and within hours, United Airlines had a PR crisis on its hands.

The incident started when Shannon Watts, political activist and founder of Moms Demand Action, overheard the exchange and tweeted about the incident to her followers.

 

 

The airline responded to the public backlash with its own tweets to explain the incident.   

 

 

The company also issued a release explaining customers are welcome to wear leggings on its flights. The release explains that United views employee pass riders as representatives of the company and expects them to be appropriately dressed for flights.

 

 

Though United responded quickly to the crisis, customers, activists and even celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Patricia Arquette have expressed anger about the incident.

Jonathan Guerin, a United spokesperson, said himself the airline should have done a better job of responding to the situation. According to Reuters, Guerin said, “We’ll definitely take something away from today, but we’ll continue to engage with our customers (on social media).”

So what can other companies take away from this viral situation when facing their own crisis?

First, never underestimate the power of social media. Incidents today don’t stay contained, and with Facebook and Twitter, angry customers have an easy—and potentially viral—outlet.

Second, be sincere. Many considered United’s response to the issue stilted or unsympathetic. As per the Reuters article, Guerin said the company could have been more clear in its initial response to the issue.

Finally, have a plan for your social media outlets. United did a great job of responding to a potential issue quickly and telling its side of the story, but because the initial response was bungled, it backfired. Know what kinds of feedback you need to respond to, what you’ll say, and in what format you will respond.

After all, the best way to handle a crisis is to prepare for it before you’re facing it. If you need help crafting your plan, give us a call. At Wellons Communications, we have experience in social media and in handling crisis situations, and we can help you put your best foot forward. Give us a call today at 407-339-0879.

Don’t be a dope: drug scandal leads to sponsor fall out

Lance Armstrong. American professional road racing cyclist. Seven-time winner of the Tour de France. World champion of the sport. And a bona fide dope.

In light of strong evidence of the use of performing-enhancing drugs, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has banned Lance Armstrong from competing and will strip away all his titles earned throughout his career.

For years Armstrong has craved the spotlight, but now he’s making front-page coverage in leading media across the country for all the wrong reasons. And sponsors are taking notice. Endorsers – such as RadioShack, Anheuser-Busch, and longtime friend Nike – are bailing on the popular former cyclist in light of these allegations.

This controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong shows how a reputation built over time can be destroyed in mere seconds. Especially in today’s digital world where headlines jump from your computer screen to your daily morning paper in less than a day, it can be hard to hide from the truth.

Organizations fight fake reviews

The value of a good review for a business is priceless. How many of us browse Yelp when choosing where to grab a bite to eat, scout TripAdvisor to plan a vacation, or check out reviews of the local auto mechanic down the street just to see what others are saying? People rely on the opinions of others (instead of just advertisements) to decide on where to spend their money, which is why online reviews are so important.

However, don’t let the urge to get more buzz around your business sway you to the dark side. Fake reviews can tarnish your brand, and organizations have been cracking down to weed out fraudulent posts.

All the sites I mentioned already have algorithms and human moderators in place to fight fake reviews. Yelp in particular is very aggressive, with 20% of their reviews never making it to public display. In fact, Yelp is planning to punish repeat fraudsters by exposing them and shaming the businesses that employ these deceitful tactics. It is also against Federal Trade Commission guidelines, which states that you must disclose if you have been paid to endorse a product or service. Not doing so entitles you to steep fines, like a $250,000 one the FTC slapped Legacy Learning Systems in 2011.

But an even greater damage that outweighs any monetary concerns is the damage to your reputation. Years of building your business as a credible organization would instantly evaporate and instead be replaced with public scrutiny. Make sure to only employ reviews from credible sources and not engage in deceptive practices to ensure that the next business exposed online and shamed for fake reviews is not yours.

Facebook frenzy in the Zimmerman case

Social media sites have transpired past our everyday lives and into the courtrooms. Just look at the Trayvon Martin case and current trial against his killer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s team of lawyers has now entered the social media fray by creating a blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts to interact with the public, sparking interest and conversation. Recently, the George Zimmerman Legal Case shared a link on their Facebook to a blog article about Zimmerman’s abandoned Myspace page. In just four hours, the post had one share, seven “likes” and 93 comments.

With that said, the Zimmerman defense team may have bitten off more than it can chew. Media exposure has made George Zimmerman a household name and the face of evil. Their tactic of trying to shape public opinion of the most vilified man in the nation is an admirable effort, but the consequences have revealed that these social media labors can be detrimental to their cause. With dozens (sometimes hundreds) of comments popping up every time something is posted, we can see that the perception of Zimmerman continues to spread and swell. The handler of the Facebook account is threatening that any discussion or speculation on the facts of the case will be deleted, but that is not enough to control the catalyst of negative opinions brought on by every post.

Only time will tell how George Zimmerman’s legal defense team will handle such heightened criticism of their high-profile client and whether their online efforts will pay off. Either way, this case has certainly proven to be an interesting experience showcasing the evolution of social media.

Reputation Management in a Modern World

“Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked and never well mended.”
– Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanack”

Long gone are the days where figureheads of corporations remain in the shadows. Now, news outlets and the public are putting the spotlight on these bigwigs, often exposing their misdeeds in the process.

Best Buy is a recent example of this. Two weeks ago, the CEO of the consumer electronics giant, Brian Dunn, resigned after the company opened an investigation into his “personal conduct.” There was speculation that he misused company assets to contribute to an alleged relationship with a female subordinate.

Another high-profile case involves University of Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, who was recently fired from his multi-million dollar gig for violating a morals clause. The crime? He had a secret affair with a recruiting coordinator for the Arkansas football team.

These examples highlight two important lessons related to reputation management and the media. First, political leaders are no longer the only ones to have their personal lives catapulted to the front page; no one is safe from the scrutinizing eyes of the customers or shareholders. In fact, everything from financial records to emails to cell phone text messages can sometimes be fair game to the press thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

Good reputation management involves being aware of the fact that nefarious activities in your personal life can easily cross-pollinate to news outlets and spread like a virus. It takes just one blow to your credibility to dismantle the years of hard work building that reputation.

Secondly, we learn how personal reputation is not the only concern in these scenarios. As shown from the Dunn and Petrino issues, organizations believe their image is tied to that of their employees. This is nothing new, as noted by Cees B.M. van Riel and Charles J. Fombrun in their 2007 publication, “Essentials of Corporate Communications.” They termed the phrase “media mania” to refer to this trend of how companies and their top executives now perform in the media spotlight. The book also states that chief executive officers in particular act as spiritual and emotional symbols of the organization, so it is especially important that these figures adhere to the same values and ethics of the companies they represent.

In this day and age, technology has allowed media outlets to report and deliver news instantly, which means they are quick to pounce on breaking scandals in politics, corporations and even football fields. Organizations have certainly taken notice and become more critical with media monitoring and reputation management, showcasing how they may react to threats by removing scandal-plagued employees from payroll, like what Best Buy and the University of Arkansas did to their offenders.

It also helps if the immoral acts weren’t committed in the first place, either.

Groupon: Accounting principles up to 50 percent off

Ok, so maybe the headline of this is tad unfair and technically incorrect. However, there is no denying that Groupon’s reputation has stung in recent days because the popular Chicago-based online coupon company overstated its financial position in its first quarter as a public company.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Groupon’s auditors discovered that the coupon company suffered a “material weakness in its internal controls” and did not set aside enough money for customer refunds.  The size of this oops-worthy mistake was more than $14 million, the newspaper reported.

For companies that are trying to polish their accounting numbers to make them look as good as possible, there is a deep downside – bad PR that travels quickly. Reputations are hard to earn and quickly lost.

The numbers might have frustrated Google’s investors if the company had recorded their financials right the first time; however, it would also not be shown in a negative light at the front page of the leading financial newspaper.

Groupon should leave the deep discounting to specials. Deep discounting on accounting practices will lead to negative publicity that will last longer than the daily deal.

PR Job – put a new Sheen on this one

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By Cori Pope

By now everyone’s heard of the self destructive, downward spiral of beloved Two and a Half Men star and Golden Globe winner, Charlie Sheen.

Just in the past month Sheen’s reputation has gone from notorious bad boy to infamous binge drinking, coke smoking, ever in the presence of porn stars partier. To put the icing on the cake, all this comes as he’s still on probation for his domestic violence spat with ex-wife Brooke Mueller.

Recently, a video surfaced of Sheen dancing, with three scantily clad women at the inception of his 36-hour cocaine fueled party binge last week. Of course, this marathon resulted in a trip to the hospital and rehab.

Now, Charlie’s speaking up about the rumors saying, “All crap. Believe nothing. I will never speak about any of this as long as I’m alive. You’re all gonna have to keep towing the same redundant line, guessing wrong.”

Later his rep spoke on Sheen’s behalf of his remorse and new work ethic.

“I have a lot of work to do to be able to return the support I have received from so many people. I want to say thank you to my fellow cast members, the crew of Two and a Half Men and everyone at CBS and Warner Bros., especially [CBS CEO] Les Moonves and [Warner Bros. TV President] Bruce Rosenblum for their concern and support. And to my fans, your good wishes have touched me very much. Like Errol Flynn, who had to put down his sword on occasion, I just want to say thank you.”

Right now his reps need to put on their best public relations hats to turn his reputation around, which will not be an easy fix.

But here’s a little encouragement, look at Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore, Brittany Spears and Whitney Houston.

The World Cup of Reputation Management

Shot bounces off Robert Green's hands and into the net in the U.S. vs. England's 1-1 tie. (Sohn/AP Robert)

Shot bounces off Robert Green's hands and into the net in the U.S. vs. England's 1-1 tie. (Sohn/AP Robert)

Advertisement for the 2010 World Cup touts that one game changes everything.

How right they are. One defender caught napping—or an unfocused goalie (need we mention England’s Robert Green?)—and a game, if not an entire cup, can be lost.

Lose a game. Lose a chance at greatness.

The same tagline also applies to reputation management.

Just ask Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent, who made some inappropriate and untimely comments about Israelis. She was forced to hastily retire – ending her more than 50-year journalistic career in disgrace.

Just ask the BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose multiple gaffes have made him such easy pickings that the late night joke writers don’t even have to try.  A leadership change at BP would not surprise many insiders.

The only people likely happy with BP’s troubles are Toyota, who have fallen off the front page because their recent mistakes have been washed away by bigger, newer examples of poor reputation management.

One misstep…and years of golden reputation and favorable public image can be tarnished forever.