We’re just over halfway through the year, and already 2018 has been chockfull (to bursting) with some of the worst public relations crises in recent memory. We thought we’d document the worst of the worst; but boy was it hard to choose. So in no particular order, here are the top eight public crises of the year, because you know, “eight rhymes with great”:
- The cancellation of “Roseanne.” So far, the revival of popular 1990s sitcom, “Roseanne” has been one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2018. The reboot premiered to critical acclaim and blockbuster ratings, both of which held steady over the course of its eight-episode run, leading ABC to greenlight another, longer season.
But that season will forever stay in the writers’ room. While “Roseanne” was in the midst of pre-production, show creator and titular lead, Roseanne Barr, unleashed a noxious Twitter rant, likening one of former President Obama’s top aides, Valerie Jarrett, to an ape.
The response from the entertainment community was swift. ABC immediately cancelled the reboot. A number of other media companies, including Viacom, pulled the plug on syndications of the original shown. And Barr’s own talent agency, ICM, dropped her as a client.
- Beauty brand CEO goes rogue on social. You know you’ve made it big in beauty when makeup powerhouse, Estée Lauder invests in your business. And that’s precisely the position beauty startup, Deciem found itself in exiting 2017. Not only had Estée Lauder acquired a minority stake, but Deciem itself also owned a couple of lucrative sub brands.
In 2018 though? Deciem CEO, Brandon Truaxe started off the year by firing his entire social media team and personally taking the reins of the company’s Instagram account.
The brand quickly came under fire for a series of controversial Truaxe comments on the social media platform, including replies to fellow posters, which even elicited a small boycott of Deciem products.
If that weren’t enough, Truaxe also fired his co-CEO, Nicola Kilner. She’d previously been publicly defending his statements in the press. After that, Truaxe got rid of his entire U.S. staff.
- Starbucks tries not to get burnt. Starbucks is the heavyweight in the coffee business, the biggest chain by far. But more than that, the company has staked its reputation on being a socially-conscious brand, the “third place” for people to meet up after home and work.
That’s what made the next incident so damaging. Starbucks employees at a Philadelphia chain location called 911 to report a trespassing complaint on two African American men. The two were waiting for a third to conduct a meeting. They hadn’t purchased a beverage but asked to use the restroom. Employees insisted that the restrooms were for paying customers only and eventually asked the men to leave. When they didn’t, the employees called the cops. The eventual arrest of the two when they again refused to leave was captured on camera video that instantly went viral, in the midst of a larger conversation on implicit bias.
Starbucks knew it had to act quickly to stanch the backlash. The company immediately put out an apology on Twitter. CEO Kevin Johnson later personally apologized for the “reprehensible incident.” And Starbucks took the extraordinary measure of closing all of its 8,000 stores down for one afternoon to hold racial bias training.
- United Airlines flight attendant consigns pet to overhead bin. United Airlines might have eked out a profit in 2017. But when it came to public relations, the world’s third largest airliner was at a decided loss. Unfortunately, the turbulence continued into 2018.
This March United was back in the news for all the wrong reasons, when a flight attendant forced a passenger to store her dog in an overhead bin during a trip from Houston to New York. At first, the passenger protested but eventually acceded to the request. After uninterrupted barks of protest, the dog, a French bulldog, went ominously quiet. When the flight finally landed after three and a half hours, the owner’s worst fears were confirmed. The dog was dead.
Predictably, United got raked over the coals. Making matters worse was the fact that only weeks before, the U.S. Department of Transportation had issued a report showing that United had been responsible for three-quarters of the dog deaths on U.S. airline carriers in 2017.
- The Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal. Exiting the heated 2016 U.S. presidential election, things were looking good for Cambridge Analytica. Backed financially by a family of politically-connected billionaires, the British political consulting firm and data company had just seen its most high-profile client, Donald Trump, pull off an upset for the ages. Cambridge Analytica, in particular, was being singled out for plaudits.
Oh, how things change. This March The New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained Facebook information on up to 87 million (yes, million) people.
If those revelations weren’t bad enough, video also came out of senior Cambridge Analytica executives confessing to bribing and entrapping politicians (with prostitutes,) as well as conducting secret shady campaigns through a network of shell companies and sub-contractors.
For the company, already ensnared in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, the cascading ethical and legal questions proved too much. Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL called it quits this May.
- The #TidePodChallenge goes viral. Ever since launching back in 2012, Tide Pods, a line of laundry detergent, have come with safety warnings, specifically targeted at parents whose young kids might confuse the toxic packets for a tasty treat. Little did Proctor & Gamble, Tide’s parent company, know that it needed to aim those warnings at a slightly older demographic.
At the beginning of the year, the #TidePodChallenge, an internet challenge to (yes) consume Tide Pods, went viral. It wasn’t a laughing matter when the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported big spikes in the number of Pod-related “intentional exposure” calls it was receiving.
To deal with the (literally) poisonous memes proliferating on social media, Proctor & Gamble put out a statement emphasizing the health risks. In turn, social media titans, YouTube and Facebook removed posts from their platforms where users encouraged others to take the Tide Pod challenge. As a final straw, Tide enlisted popular NFL star, Rob Gronkowski to appear in a video explicitly telling people not to eat the packets.
- Southwest’s broken windows. 2018 hasn’t been a great year for Southwest Airlines either. This year the airliner recorded its first passenger fatality; and it did so under the most gripping of circumstances.
In April, a Southwest flight suffered uncontained engine failure, causing shrapnel to spray throughout the cabin. Some of the debris shattered a window, pushing a nearby passenger through the opening. Though her neighbors managed to get her back in, the passenger eventually died from injuries sustained during the incident.
Making matters worse for Southwest was the fact that only weeks later, another one of its planes had to make an emergency landing due to a cracked window. No one died in that incident. But the toll to the airline’s reputation and bottom line have been significant.
- Snapchat gets smacked for insensitive ad. Plenty of studies show that Snapchat is the preferred app of U.S. teenagers, who prize the platform for its authenticity. That’s why Snapchat’s decision to run an ad, asking users if they’d rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown, was so puzzling.
Less puzzling was the immediate blowback the ad generated. Many saw it as an unsubtle reference to the pop star’s own very public history of domestic violence, suffered at the hands of then-boyfriend, Brown.
Snapchat immediately pulled the ad, claiming that it had only been approved in error.
Rihanna, for her part, was having none of it. She issued a blistering reply on her own Instagram account, denouncing Snapchat for making light of domestic violence.
So there you have it. We’ve still got more than six months to go in 2018, but for the companies, celebs, and politicians who’ve seen their brands irrevocably tarnished, January 2019 probably can’t come fast enough.
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