Arkansas PR Pros on Pepsi, Hitler and Unfriendly Skies

Arkansas PR Pros on Pepsi, Hitler and Unfriendly Skies

It was a dizzying couple of weeks, even in the ever-spinning world of PR.

Just as the outrage and laughter was dying down over Pepsi’s silly ad featuring the model Kendall Jenner at a multicultural protest, video of a bloodied man being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight sprang up everywhere.

Arkansas PR and advertising professionals were already scratching their heads, and then presidential spokesman Sean Spicer oddly lifted Hitler from the bottom of history’s list of worst dictators.

Spicer apologized, but only after several attempts at walking back comments that compared Hitler favorably to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and described Nazi death camps as “holocaust centers.”

Pepsi, too, was sorry for its ad, which seemed to suggest that racism and police brutality could be solved with the gift of a can of soda.

United CEO Oscar Munoz initially apologized for “having to re-accommodate” passengers, as if that were an apt description of a 69-year-old being pulled unconscious from the cabin by security officers. The man’s crime? Refusing to give up his seat for one of four employees United was determined to get onto the flight.

“Welcome to the age of mobile,” said Brooke Vines of Little Rock’s Vines Media LLC. “The United CEO did more harm than good by not thinking the initial statement through. Apologizing for ‘re-accommodating’ after viewing that video is astonishingly bad.”

Jason Brown of The Communications Group pointed out that Munoz, ironically, was named PRWeek’s “Communicator of the Year” last month, and said he dug himself deeper by criticizing the passenger, Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, as “disruptive and belligerent.” United didn’t follow a simple rule, Brown said: “If you mess up, fess up.”

Chip Paris of Paris Marketing & Public Relations in Fort Smith said the airline should have realized it couldn’t escape the brutal optics of the video. “Blaming others is almost always a losing proposition,” he said. United “mishandled a common situation that could have been defused” with little effort and expense.

Timing is crucial, said Kristen Vandaveer Nicholson of Mangan Holcomb Partners. “The speed at which you apologize for a PR blunder can make or break a brand,” she said. “United went 18 hours before making a public statement, and by that time, the video had been viewed millions of times.”

Munoz finally grasped the damage his brand was taking. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said Tuesday afternoon, taking “full responsibility” for a “horrific event.” By that time, more than a day had passed and United’s stock was plunging.

“At some point you have to own it, apologize and weather the storm,” Vines said. “This shouldn’t have happened.” Overbooking, she said, is a problem airlines could mitigate with better policies and a sense of fairness to customers.

United’s management seemed “out of touch,” said David Martin of Martin-Wilbourn Partners in Little Rock, who often handles crisis management. “They have a lot of work to do,” he said. “They need to make a financial commitment to reputation repair and to create a crisis communication response team.”

Martin said he flew United overseas last week and the airline ran out of forms passengers needed for entry at customs. They were directed to a website for a free gift. “Not enough at the end of an 18-hour flight,” Martin concluded.

Denver Peacock of the Peacock Group in Little Rock said a multimillion-dollar fiasco could have been avoided if United had “simply offered more compensation or found alternative passage for its crew.”

In Pepsi’s case, it pulled its ad and apologized for its tone-deafness, and for putting Jenner in a bad spot. In the ad, she joins street protesters and defuses tensions by handing a police officer a Pepsi. The ad was scorched on social media and quickly became fodder for comedy, including a “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Cecily Strong, playing Jenner on the phone with a friend, says, “I stop the police from shooting black people by handing them a Pepsi. I know! It’s cute, right?”

Vines said the SNL clip summed up the ad’s problems. “What you have is a lack of common sense,” she said. “Some issues are simply too sensitive to exploit. It’s hard to believe that the concept went through so many approvals … and someone actually signed off on it.”

Paris offered a possible explanation. “Apparently the spot was created by Pepsi’s in-house ad group. That could partially account for why it made it all the way through the creative process without someone questioning the content.”