An examination of 2017’s biggest public relations blunders (so far)
Written by Miroslav Tomoski
In an increasingly connected world, fact checks and search engine savvy have made it easier to look below the surface and see the inner workings of government, business, and even our friends and neighbours. It has also made public outrage more accessible, from comment sections to Twitter trends.
Such an open world has changed the way in which public relations (PR) is conducted. In essence, PR is the art of public speaking. Knowing how to appeal to a variety of worldviews with a single message is a delicate practice that can topple world leaders and international corporations alike. With such high stakes in such a volatile environment, public relations is a balancing act between transparency and censorship.
Though politics often lags behind innovation, politicians have proven themselves to be pioneers of PR and have brought it into the digital age with incredible finesse. As Americans cast a suspicious eye toward their new leader, they do so with a sense that the Obama White House left a sparkling legacy. Obama charmed the nation all while presiding over the most secretive administration since Richard Nixon; prosecuting more whistleblower cases than all previous administrations combined.
Despite its deceptive nature, the strategy employed by the Obama White House—and by several other presidencies—displayed a brilliant understanding of the all-important tool that strategists like to call ‘optics’. His appearances on late night television, where the questions are light and use the WWI-era Espionage Act to prevent information from leaking to journalists, ensured that the administration stayed on-message while keeping drone strikes out of the headlines.
For the press, the standard set by Obama and the election of Donald Trump promised to be a relentless combination. After a grueling campaign in which reporters were kept behind barricades with restricted access to the public by a candidate who declared the media to be the "enemy of the people," the future of political reporting appeared grim.
While tensions may be running high between the media and the Oval Office, the current administration's understanding of optics has had the unintentional effect of drawing the public’s eye to almost daily scandals. As White House correspondents battle with the frustration of having the most ineffective press pass in modern reporting, the real stories are being broadcast to backdoor journalists and seasoned veterans from outside the press room.
Trump's direct social media approach has been an unfiltered PR blunder left vulnerable to fact checks and daily scrutiny in re-tweets, nightly parody, and full press coverage. His seemingly disorganized staff has labeled the media as its opposition, and calls anonymous sources fake news while feeding the beast from the West Wing.
Still, the truest blunders of the current administration belong to its mouthpiece, Sean Spicer, who has been so newsworthy that he is the first press secretary to become a regular character on Saturday Night Live. Despite official lines and the tailored language of press freedom, the press secretary is meant to give White House correspondents just enough information to keep them quiet. In fact, the position itself was conceived by a man who despised interacting with reporters.
The Nixon administration created the country’s first communications office headed by marketing veteran Bob Haldeman, who according to the Washington Post, referred to himself as “the president’s son-of-a-bitch.” The Nixon press office was so effective at concealing information from the press that his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, was able to lay the groundwork for a transformative foreign policy toward China without anyone noticing that he had been to Beijing.
Where his predecessors understood that a press secretary is meant to stay out of the limelight, Spicer has made it his job to stumble onto the front page from day one. From his over-the-top claims about crowd sizes at the inauguration to the more recent comments stating that Hitler never used chemical weapons, Spicer has served the purpose of creating headlines out of routine Q&A sessions.
If the strategy is to create distractions from substantive issues, placing Spicer at the helm has been a brilliant move. But more than anything, he draws greater attention and scrutiny which can make it difficult for the West Wing to function.
Closer to home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a master of optics, but only when seen from a distance. His reversal of a campaign promise to reform the electoral system and an unpopular budget saw his approval ratings drop below 50 percent. In an attempt to remedy this, the PM took a tour of the country to address Canadians’ concerns. But according to research company, Nanos, the tour had the opposite effect, further sinking his public approval. Yet Trudeau remains internationally beloved, with articles and memes gushing at the world’s “Hottest Head of State” because, in truth, the strength of good PR is a short attention span. A sincere apology, a good photo-op, or even time can sway the public opinion. Sean Spicer has yet to lose his job and even George W. Bush is making public appearances now that it looks like he may not have been the worst thing to happen to America.
Politics is the testing ground for public relations. If you want to measure the true cost of a PR slip up, follow the money because the real damage comes when investors and advertisers begin to fear that your bad PR is contagious.
United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, learned this lesson in the fallout of the airlines overbooking incident. When footage of Dr. David Dao’s removal from a United flight first appeared, Munoz issued a soft apology in which he called the incident a "re-accommodation" while referring to Dao as someone who was “disruptive and belligerent” in a leaked letter to employees.
After just a single day, as United’s stock began to nosedive and the company lost $1.4 billion, Munoz issued a second apology in an increasingly sincere tone:
“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened.”
That same effect can be seen in Fox News Network’s handling of sexual harassment accusations against host Bill O’Reilly. Despite allegations of sexual harassment from six individuals, O’Reilly—whose show The O’Reilly Factor has been rated number one in cable news for 20 years—remained on the air. But as more than 50 advertisers began to pull away from the program, Bill was asked by network executives to take a vacation, and later told not to return.
Investors and advertisers now have more power than ever to dictate the content and products that are provided. In the case of United, it was painfully obvious that the situation could have been handled better, and in Fox’s case, the correct decision was eventually made. But the lines aren’t always so clear.
When Pepsi launched its now infamous Kendall Jenner ad, it appeared to have everything they needed to make a viral video: a millennial icon, a diverse set of actors, and an uplifting message. It’s never made clear in the ad that Pepsi intended the protesters to represent the Black Lives Matter movement, but in the end, that’s the way it was interpreted. What Pepsi learned is that public outrage is difficult to predict, especially when it comes to the internet. That unpredictability, when combined with ad revenue, has the ability to turn PR into something completely different.
For example, YouTube’s new monetization policy restricts the ability of creators to collect ad revenue. The policy, which places limits based on content that is considered inappropriate for advertising, is so restrictive that many creators have equated it with censorship. Their frustration is understandable since YouTube considers inappropriate content to include, “controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.”
One popular creator, Phillip DeFranco, pointed out that YouTube had been demonetizing his videos for months without his knowledge, placing the interest of its advertisers before its creators in an attempt to avoid future scandals. In fact, the streaming giant cast such a wide net that it recently had to review its policy after it found that ad revenue had been restricted for several videos simply for discussing LGBT issues.
The same platforms that allow the public to voice their opinions and become effective watchdogs of democracy have become victims of their own volatility. Where traditional public relations is meant to be a subtle—and at times reactionary—art, modern communications has set the practice along a dangerous slope between what's seen and what's just below the surface.