It’s that time of year again: We’re here to review what we view as the year’s biggest bloopers and blunders in public relations and communications. For better or for worse, there was no shortage of scandals and outrageous moments in 2017 across the public and private sectors. Here are what we think were some of this year’s biggest (and preventable) PR disasters.
The Infamous United Airlines Incident
Is there anyone who doesn’t know about the United Airlines incident? This now infamous PR disaster began when a United passenger, Dr. David Dao, was violently dragged off an overbooked United flight. The scene was caught on cellphone videos and quickly went viral. Chief executive Oscar Munoz only fanned the flames with his non-apology for having to “re-accommodate” Dr. Dao. A leaked email from Munoz to employees also called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent.” United recovered slightly a few weeks later when it released a list of ten improvements the company would make to avoid similar incidents.
Mack assessment: As we often say on the Mack Report, honesty is the best policy. While it’s best to admit (and potentially apologize and correct) for a blunder early, don’t think it’s ever too late. It’s also important to avoid playing the blame game; take responsibility for your own mistakes. We think United could have kept the situation more under control by taking credit earlier for its mistake, calling it what it is, showing empathy and apologizing to Dr. Dao.
Uber’s Bad Year
Ride-sharing company Uber was no stranger to controversy in 2017, facing a number of scandals throughout the year, ranging from sexual harassment claims, allegedly stealing trade secrets, unprofessionalism by CEO Travis Kalanick caught on film, the discovery of shady apps purportedly meant to thwart law enforcement and competitors, and finally the revelation that the company covered up a massive data hack in 2016. You can read a more detailed account of each scandal in The Atlantic here.
Mack assessment: Wow, with a year like that, we’re surprised Uber is still up and running! Although no crisis is the same, we’ve noticed that many of Uber’s scandals seem to result from a lack of transparency-- within the company and to the public. Although Kalanick did issue a genuine apology after one incident and admit his mistakes, it is undermined by Uber’s continuing scandals. We would recommend Uber become more transparent with the public in its business practices and perhaps do a major review of the image it wishes to project.
U.S. Steel’s Sinking Ship
Lake Michigan isn’t known for being the cleanest body of water, but a major spill into its waters is worth noting--especially when near an intake for drinking water. However, it seems that U.S. Steel didn’t feel the same way this year. In October, the company spilled 56.7 pounds of chromium-- 89 percent higher than the permitted amount in 24 hours-- into a Lake Michigan tributary. This was the second spill in sixth months. The Chicago Tribune then reported that U.S. Steel asked Indiana regulators for “confidential treatment.” Despite its attempts at keeping a low profile, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel caught wind of the situation and is now preparing to sue U.S. Steel.
Mack assessment: It seems we can’t say it enough: Honesty is the best policy! U.S. Steel should have been upfront about its mistakes and notified the public on what it was doing to fix the situation. The haphazard handling of the situation makes us wonder if the company had a crisis communications plan in place. These plans can help companies respond in emergency situations in a transparent and efficient way.