Say what? Recent communications gaffes, and what we can learn from them

When the next history of communications and marketing gaffes is written, the past couple of weeks will deserve its own chapter. First there was Pepsi’s instantly notorious Kendall Jenner ad. Then came an astonishingly tone-deaf initial response from United Airlines to the violent extraction of a seated customer to make space for a company employee. Last Monday, Cosmopolitan magazine issued a teaser tweet on “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds Without *ANY* Exercise.” (The diet secret? Cancer!) To top it off, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer inexplicably referenced Hitler in a bizarre comparison to Syria’s Assad — during Passover, no less.

While these gaffes are fresh in mind it’s worth unpacking how their messages failed so spectacularly. Each incident presented a separate communications challenge, resulted in a different type of mistake and offers a distinct case study. Or cautionary tale.

Be cautious in a charged landscape

The Pepsi ad — featuring a breezy, watered-down version of a social protest — is in some ways the biggest head-scratcher because it was a high-budget, celebrity-anchored spot on which many people presumably signed off. No one in that chain apparently thought, “Hmmm, this may not be such a good idea….” Pepsi was swift to pull the ad and apologize, but the marketing fail is an example of the kind of problems brands increasingly face.

We live in an intensely politicized age in which customers and constituents have unprecedented ability to strike back immediately via social media when they’re offended. Companies have it tough when they try to acknowledge this charged landscape because they walk a fine line between alienating much of their audience and trivializing highly sensitive issues. It’s not a marketing path for the faint of heart.

Pepsi is not the first company to get this wrong. A couple of years ago, Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign sparked outrage when it put both its baristas and its customers on the uncomfortable front lines of the race debate. The company quickly killed the campaign, but doubled down on the broader initiative, building ads and policies that directly engaged social issues. CEO Howard Schultz took sides on several hot-button issues at stake in the presidential election and even pledged in January to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

The takeaway for firms that choose to publicly engage in social issues is to do so with tact, sensitivity and commitment. There will inevitably be backlash from some. Companies should be prepared to face it and stay the course, lest they look like they are trying to cynically cash in on serious subjects.

Denial is not an option

The United debacle is a case of messaging making a bad situation worse. CEO Oscar Munoz’s first step was an internal letter that, among other things, blamed the passenger and commended employees for going “above and beyond.” Videos of the passenger’s brutal removal from the United flight had been going viral online for almost a full day before Munoz issued a tepid apology for “having to re-accommodate” passengers.

It took two days before Munoz issued a more appropriate apology, acknowledging the horror that everyone else felt the instant they first saw the video. The incident itself was evidence of deep systemic problems at United, but the slow and inept response greatly amplified the damage to the brand.

One of the biggest misconceptions of public relations is the concept of spin — the notion that a clever word or phrase can undo misdeeds or completely ameliorate bad news. In this era of “alternative facts” the temptation to try to flip the script may be greater than ever. The thing is, it almost always backfires — and “re-accommodate” now moves to the top of the list of failed attempts to downplay or redirect a blatant and obvious breakdown.

Companies facing a communications crisis must know how to investigate immediately, communicate clearly and understand the moment. Denial is not an option when a mistake has clearly been made, and attempts to finesse the truth are transparent to sophisticated and empowered audiences. It’s never pleasant, but owning up to demonstrable failures is the first step to fixing them.

When thinking casually, still think

The Cosmo tweet was just dumb. Without delving into all the body-image issues that have long plagued women’s magazines, or the shameless clickbait strategies employed across the internet, the most relevant aspect of this ridiculous tweet is that companies need to mind their social channels with care. In too many organizations, social media is delegated too far down the food chain, with too little oversight.

Social media is a casual medium, with relatively loose rules and an interactive audience. It’s harder to manage than traditional communications because it’s fluid. I have no way of knowing whether somebody at Cosmo thought they were being clever or funny, but I do know that somebody did not think things through.

Dare to compare?

And then to Mr. Spicer. I’ll start by saying he has one of the hardest jobs in the world, and I feel for him. Still, the notion of citing Hitler in any argument has long been noted as a classic pitfall indicating rhetorical bankruptcy. He fell squarely into it, and should have known better. But the lesson for any spokesperson, whether standing behind a podium or on the phone with a reporter is this: analogies are dangerous.

Any time you compare one thing to another, you add the history and baggage of the analogy subject to the matter at hand. The more complex or charged the subject, the greater the chance it will divert your argument or perspective down a dark alley. Travel with care.

Plan to play it straight

The bottom line when tackling any thorny communications issue is to plan messages with as much clarity and candor as possible. Don’t go off script if you can avoid it; get a second opinion, and if possible, a third. Reflexive comments are more likely rooted in emotion than strategy, and clever communications ideas seldom hit the mark. When the stakes are high, better to play it straight.

Steven Andersen is Vice President for Content and Client Strategy at Infinite Global. He is based in New York.