Top 5 PR Crises of 2017

2017 was a big news year. Some might even say ‘huuuuuge.’ But aside from politics, several large public relations crises also made major headlines. From United Airlines’ removal of a passenger in a brutal video, to Wells Fargo’s shady coverups of an even shadier fraud scandal, we’ve briefly recapped 2017’s top PR stories in this article. With only three weeks left in the year, let’s hope for everyone’s sake we don’t have to update this list again before January 1. 

1. United Airlines Scandal

Earlier this year, a video surfaced of law enforcement forcibly removing a passenger from a domestic flight, resulting in visible injuries to the passenger. People were outraged at United Airlines for “re-accommodating” a passenger on an overbooked flight in such an extreme manner.  

The PR team seems to have been sleeping on the job through the whole disaster. CEO Oscar Munoz issued an apology, however a leaked internal message penned by Munoz describing the victim as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ certainly undercut any pretense of sincerity.

No immediate action was taken by United on behalf of its passengers, aside from a single overbooking policy change.

This PR disaster resulted in 46% of millennials saying they would “avoid United flights.” Ouch. 

2. Harvey Weinstein and Co. Scandals

This year, starting with the high profile producer Harvey Weinstein, over 20 celebrity men have been accused of sexual harassment or assault. It appears that the culture of silence has lifted a bit and predators are being exposed in a domino effect.

Several of the alleged perpetrators initially reacted with denial and anger. These denials were often undercut by the emergence of new victims reporting their abuse and corroborating the accounts of early accusers.

These allegations have resulted in serious consequences for the accused – Kevin Spacey was removed from his House of Cards contract with Netflix, and Harvey Weinstein was booted from the board of his own company, just to name a couple. 

3. Equifax Data Breach Scandal

In September, news broke that over 140 million Americans had their security compromised in the largest data breach in history. Trust is one of the most important factors when consumers are handing over private information, so obviously this is was a huge PR nightmare.

Equifax handled the breach extremely poorly. They tried to keep the incident quiet for six weeks after it occurred, which made the crisis even worse when the news did come out. Customers weren’t able to take steps to protect themselves for six weeks while the breach was kept secret.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Equifax offered to smooth things over by offering free credit monitoring. The only catch was that participants had to waive their rights to pursue legal action against the company. Obviously, this was penned by lawyers whose goal was to limit legal liability and not protect the company’s brand image.

This was the triple crown of public relations blunders:

Expose customers to risk of identity theft through irresponsible handling of info.

Keep the breach secret for several weeks, exposing your customers to more risk.

Offer a transparently self-serving reparation once the mistake is exposed.

4. Uber Scandals

Uber had an awful year, embroiled in scandal, lawsuits, and a revolving door of executives. One of the lowlights of the year was the February release of Susan Fowler’s whistleblowing essay, claiming a toxic culture at the company led to sexual harassment and rampant sexism. A video showing former CEO Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver further tarnished the company’s image.

Uber’s self-inflicted wounds show that in the age of social media, human resources problems can quickly become public relations problems.  

5. Wells Fargo Fake Account Scandal

This year, the news broke that Wells Fargo employees had been creating numerous fake accounts unbeknownst to customers. These accounts helped stressed employees meet sales goals. Like with Uber, a toxic corporate culture at Wells caused massive public image problems for the company.

Wells Fargo’s response to the crisis was woefully inadequate. They went on record saying that the fake accounts were an isolated incident done by low-level employees, refusing to take responsibility for the actions of employees on their payroll. Word got out that whistleblowers were suppressed, and that more people knew about the fake accounts than was originally implied. In fact, it was a company-wide issue, not an isolated incident at all.

Conclusion:

Some of these disasters could have easily been avoided and resulted from toxic cultures emanating from leadership (Wells, Uber, Weinstein). Others were the result of a combination of bad luck, honest mistakes, and poor decisions (Equifax, United). Unless you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to deal with a PR nightmare on this scale. But do you have a plan in place to react if something does come up? How would you put out a fire if your organization was under public scrutiny?