Written for Daily Hive by Rachel Thexton, president of Thexton PR.
There are a variety of potential public relations disasters happening daily around the world. We hear nothing about some of them, likely because the company or individual has a strong crisis management plan and a reliable PR expert to execute it quickly and effectively.
Then there are PR crises the whole world seems to be discussing.
This indicates that the situation was not handled well or was so severe that little could be done in the short term to put out the fire. A recent Stacker.com article reported that two-thirds of consumers wouldn’t buy from a company with misaligned values. Patterns as such make PR crisis management more important than ever.
I encourage clients to have a solid PR crisis plan in place should they run into problems — whether something they need to own up to or a situation where facts need to be presented immediately to prevent unfair blemishing of their reputation.
We know that social media is rife with misinformation, but when a crisis hits, action is always required. Saying nothing, ignoring the issue, and hoping that it will simply go away is never an effective solution.
To complete 2022, here is my take on the three worst PR blunders of the year. We’ll talk about where things went wrong and what could have been done to prevent a public relations nightmare.
The FIFA World Cup in Qatar
FIFA, the governing body for soccer — or football, as much of the world calls it — has been facing multiple issues while hosting its 2022 World Cup in Qatar. As an Arab country with human rights concerns, Qatar was a controversial host city for an international event of such magnitude.
Hosting in Qatar is where FIFA’s PR issues began, and they grew substantially as the games progressed.
As a conservative Islamic emirate with strict alcohol laws and poor treatment of various marginalized groups, including migrant workers and the LGBTQ community, problems were bound to occur. How FIFA’s leadership has been managing these problems has become a full-blown crisis for the organization.
First came one of the biggest PR mistakes — a lie.
For years, FIFA assured fans that alcohol would not be banned inside venues but recently flipped, saying it would not be sold at the games.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino hosted a press conference where he seemed insensitive while claiming that he appreciates the LGBTQ+ community and poorly treated migrant workers in Qatar because he was picked on at school for having freckles. His language throughout the public address continued to offend, severely bruising the FIFA image.
The organization then warned participating nations that they would receive a yellow card for wearing a One Love armband in support of the LGBTQ community, as homosexuality is banned in Qatar. The Royal Dutch Football Association launched armbands two years ago to promote inclusivity.
In this case, the event being hosted in Qatar is a PR mistake, but the leader of the organization’s behaviour and FIFA’s overall insensitivity, lack of accountability, and mistruths are most harmful long term. It will likely take a complete overhaul of FIFA leadership and multiple authentic apologies to help save the reputation of this sports organization.
The Balenciaga advertising campaign
With an advertising campaign that depicts children holding bears in bondage-style attire, there are questions about how Balenciaga’s ads could have seen the light of day without a company PR leader not screaming in discontent and fear.
Although the fashion company has made smart decisions in pulling the ads, addressing their misjudgment, and apologizing for the offensive content, the campaign was inappropriate and offensive enough to have required maximum crisis management measures.
Balenciaga seemed too slow to respond, waiting for complaints to pile up before pulling the ads. The fashion brand also didn’t completely take accountability, throwing blame and lawsuits at the photographer and making it hard for the public to comprehend how an ad campaign for such a big brand could be published without the approval of senior management.
The company needed to be 100% apologetic and take responsibility for such a vile PR mess in its lap. If Balenciaga did, in fact, deliberately ignore a PR counsel who warned them against this campaign, this is a lesson in relying on and trusting your specialized professionals when they share their expertise.
Will Smith’s outburst at the Academy Awards
The world watched in shock as the typically charming performer Will Smith stormed the stage during the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony to slap host and comedian Chris Rock across the face on live TV. This was his reaction to an inappropriate joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith and her lack of hair (she suffers from alopecia).
My PR focus is on Will Smith as a top celebrity and how this incident and his behaviour afterwards matter for his personal brand image.
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This is an example of how years of good deeds, rare controversy, and even committing not to curse in his music due to the teachings of his beloved grandmother can be challenged with one seriously negative action and how it is subsequently managed.
Instead of sincerely apologizing and leaving the show to collect his thoughts, Smith accepted an Oscar that evening and allowed his emotions to take over with what some saw as defending the slap during his acceptance speech and an attempt at an apology. Smith was later seen celebrating at an afterparty, not commenting on the incident.
Rock’s comment was clearly hurtful and inappropriate. That said, Smith’s physical aggression went too far and rubbed many the wrong way.
We are often defined by how we manage our mistakes, and in this case, Smith would have benefited by taking time away from the cameras immediately to let his emotions settle and consider his next move.
A private conversation with Rock would have been appropriate. An apology to the Academy and the public was a must.
It took Smith four months to formally apologize to Rock. Explaining how and why the words were hurtful would be appropriate but with an apology, accountability, and an acknowledgement of the gravity of his actions.
Every year brings new PR disasters, but how they’re managed reflects how the brand will be perceived in the long term. Smartly planning to extinguish a PR fire and having a professional help you create and execute this plan is a valuable investment.
Everyone makes mistakes, but how we handle them is ultimately the key to reputation recovery.