In the public relations world, making mistakes can be a little more detrimental than in other industries. This article covers 7 of the deadliest sins in PR that you can teach your students to help them avoid career-damaging mistakes.
Whether they are seeking to be a sought-after public relations consultant, communications lead at a brand, managing director of a PR firm, or a communications professor at a university, your students need to know how to keep themselves out of sticky situations.
Deadly Sin #1: Failing to Act Immediately
In any public relations blunder, it is important to show your audience that you are listening and responding. No response is a sure way to lose customers and to raise concerns and suspicion.
In 2009, two of Domino’s employees almost took down the entire brand when they posted a video on YouTube of themselves preparing food in disgusting ways. However, Domino’s also contributed to this disaster by remaining silent for two whole days.
By the time that they offered an apology, it was too late. The situation was already out of control and the public’s opinion of the brand had already turned negative.
Crises spread quickly, so it’s important to teach your students that with any mishap, there should be a thorough plan and strategy to rectify the situation as soon as possible and avoid any more issues.
Deadly Sin #2: Breaching Trust
Breaching the public’s trust is a major “no-no.” Once that trust has been broken, it’s a difficult journey to fully repair it.
The North Face scandal (also covered in Chapter 10: Crisis Management in “PR Principles”) involved the company North Face replacing images of popular tourist destinations on Wikipedia with their own product placement images. This manipulation backfired, leaving their consumers feeling uncertain about the company’s credibility.
North Face’s response was lighthearted, saying that it was a simple “hack” and that no harm was meant, but that only angered the people more. Ultimately, the company had to end the campaign and publicly apologize, promising that there would be new training for on-site policies.
Although it may be easy to manipulate the truth a little for your own gain, it’s important for any new public relations practitioner to understand that breaching the audience’s trust is an irreparable mistake.
Deadly Sin #3: Downplaying What Actually Happened
You probably got the gist of this from the North Face incident, but downplaying the truth will only cast you into the limelight for more accusations.
That’s why the mishandling of the Boeing 737 Max crisis is unforgettable.
After the first crash in October 2018 killed the entire crew and all 189 passengers, the company reported that it was due to an “unknown error.” The second crash happened in March 2019, again killing all of the crew and 157 passengers. Crash investigators figured out that the crashes were caused by a malfunction in the planes’ automatic safety systems.
Boeing originally tried to downplay the accident by blaming the pilots, but the company had actually never told anyone about the automatic safety system, so the pilots hadn’t been trained to deal with it.
Instead of trying to downplay the situation, Boeing should have been up-front about the issue and taken responsibility for their lack of safety concerns. If Boeing had admitted its mistake and grounded all planes after the first crash, the situation might not have become the PR nightmare that it was after saying that the planes were safe and thus allowing for a second crash to happen.
Deadly Sin #4: Lack of Transparency
You might be noticing a theme: No one appreciates feeling like the truth is being hidden from them. Despite whether the situation may be positive or negative, not being transparent can damage your reputation.
For example, in 2010, Toyota experienced a recall due to 6,200 complaints about the sudden acceleration of Toyota automobiles. Out of these complaints, 89 deaths were recorded and 57 people were injured.
Earlier in 2009, when the first crashes happened and complaints started filing in, Toyota came out with a recall saying that the floor mats were causing issues and sent out a letter saying that they will fix the accidental acceleration problem. Their overall statement was that “no defect exists.”
The NHTSA rebuked Toyota for being inaccurate and misleading in this comment, stating that the floor mat couldn’t be the full reasoning for these accidents and that they must look into a defect of some kind. This caused an investigation that resulted in a major PR embarrassment for the company.
When a crisis arrives, and it will, it is better to respond immediately and as transparently as possible. Otherwise, it will seem that you are brushing off the incident or ignoring the problem.
Deadly Sin #5: Disingenuous Apologies
Public opinion is hard to win and very easy to lose, so it pays to be careful with what you say and to give genuine apologies when you’ve made a mistake. This 2017 United Airlines incident is a great example to show your students what not to do.
United started losing traction on its reputation with a leggings scandal when the airline kept two teenagers from boarding the flight because they were wearing leggings. The issue surrounding the company’s reputation escalated when another passenger was forcibly removed from a flight a few weeks later, breaking two of his front teeth and suffering a broken nose and concussion.
What was the final blow? The CEO, Oscar Munoz, released a statement in which he defended the airline’s actions and insincerely apologized for having had to “re-accommodate these passengers.” When that wasn’t received well, Munoz tried apologizing several more times to make up for the attempt, which only made the public angrier.
In most circumstances, a genuine response can help shape the public’s opinion and show control over the situation. The United Airlines incident can be an example to your students of how disingenuous statements can be hurtful to a company’s public image.
Deadly Sin #6: Forgetting to Think Ahead
A part of being a good public relations professional is thinking ahead to prevent problems. For example, teach your students to check images or copy and make necessary changes to save themselves or their company from a future headache.
The 2015 Bud Light “Up for Whatever” campaign scandal is a good example of what happens when some poor copy choice incites a rather large misunderstanding. The bottles were released with a label that read, “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night.”
The audience took the message as Bud Light was promoting rape culture, even though the company meant the message to inspire fun. The campaign missed the mark completely, and the company came out with a statement emphasizing their mistake and clearly stating that “no means no.”
When coming up with any campaign, it’s important to think of how every little thing could go wrong. To foresee the issue and make sure all the details are correct and there is no possibility of incurring a severe backlash – which brings us to our last deadly sin.
Deadly Sin #7: Overlooking Details
Along the lines of thinking ahead, being on a public relations team means working closely with the marketing departments to double-check details and avoid unsavory situations.
Returning to the Bud Light scandal, that poor marketing decision could have been avoided and maybe saved the company some damage if the team hadn’t overlooked important details, such as the ongoing “Me Too” movement. Despite fast-acting crisis management, the timing of this poorly worded campaign couldn’t have been worse.
The negative connotations of the slogan “removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night” could not be taken lightly while violent acts against women have been a blazing hot topic. Overlooking the “Me Too” movement and using phrasing that contradicts “No means no” created backlash that could’ve been avoided if they had taken current issues into mind and checked all the details of the campaign.
Due diligence is one of the most important things to teach your students. Ignoring a major movement that was happening in the world caused Bud Light an unnecessary headache. Having multiple eyes on a project, combined with planning ahead, will allow for issues to be resolved preemptively.
Sometimes the smallest of errors can go a long way in the public relations side of things. It’s important to keep this list in mind when creating strategies on how to respond when there is a crisis, or how to avoid one in the first place.
Crisis management is one of the most significant things for any young practitioner to master. While teaching these seven deadly sins is another thing to add to your busy schedule, it is well worth the effort today to avoid disasters tomorrow.
For best practices and industry advice on how to tackle a public relations crisis like a pro, get free instructor access to our “PR Principles” courseware.
For more tips like these, check out the 5 Top Tips: PR Principles blog post.