How to deal with a PR crisis (what United Airlines can learn from Odwalla and Samsung)

5 min read

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about United Airlines making recent headlines. Following their earlier PR blunders like United Breaks Guitars along with blow back from the leggings incident (their agents barred young girls in leggings from boarding a flight in Denver), they’ve done it again.

Except this time, it’s much more serious.

From misused vocabulary (what does volunteer mean, again?) to physical assault, things aren’t looking good. How will United Airlines recover from this social media disaster? Well, let’s see how some other leading brands have handled major PR fiascoes:

How Odwalla handled their PR crisis

With transparency

What United Airlines can learn from Odwalla and Samsung

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods, you’ve probably heard of Odwalla juices. I used to grab one whenever I didn’t have time for a full meal back in college. It was more than just a juice. Some of their products were almost substantial meal replacements. And cost about as much as one, too. They just screamed healthy — especially the green ones. Or they did… until they started to scream E. coli.

When health officials confirmed the link between E. coli contamination and Odwalla’s apple juices, that was only the beginning. But when the consumption of their juices caused over 60 people to get sick and even led to the death of a child, it was unclear how they were going to recover.

Faced with more than 20 lawsuits, their CEO reacted quickly and immediately implemented a nationwide recall of all Odwalla beverages containing apple and carrot juices. He also publicly accepted full responsibility for all of the above-mentioned incidents, offering to pay for all medical costs related to the E. coli outbreak.

Opting for total transparency, Odwalla held daily press briefings to ensure the public was kept well-informed of how they were handling the situation. This included full-page newspaper ads and a website dedicated to coverage of the latest developments.

After pleading guilty to criminal charges regarding the outbreak, they were penalized with a $1.5 million fine by the FDA. When news finally began to break up about their toxic juices, they had already lost a third of their market value.

How were they going to recover from this?

With total transparency, just like they did when they took full responsibility for the problem.

And they maintained the same level of transparency when repairing relations. They fixed the contamination issue and improved their processes for quality control and safety, making sure the public was well-informed about these modifications.

By focusing on their customer relations and rebuilding trust for their name, they were able to re-launch their apple juice just 2 months later. Coca Cola later bought the brand for $186 million.

How Samsung dealt with their PR crisis

What United Airlines can learn from Odwalla and Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was one of my top choices when I was in the market for a new smartphone. I even went to see what it looked like at Best Buy, and U was thisclose to buying when all of a sudden — smoke started coming out of the charger port and it just exploded! The experience left me scarred: my left earlobe now looks like a chew toy and the doctor had to surgically remove about 12 shards of glass from my cheek.

(Just kidding.)

But that was the fear after reports of exploding Samsung phones began to surface. Public opinion had become shrouded in distrust. Especially because of the way the situation had been handled. Rather than immediately own up to the mistake, Samsung opted to downplay the extent of its reach.

They could have (and probably should have) showed concern for the safety of their customers by reaching out to them about the malfunction ASAP.

However, contrary to exercising total transparency about the severity of the events, they announced the malfunction from an inconspicuous tab on their website. Blow back from these incidents quickly began to escalate.

Samsung eventually followed up with consumer alerts on all their social media channels a few days later, but by then, the whispers in the wind had become thunder in the storm.

What can we learn from how these major brands handled PR disasters?

Transparency is key

If a mistake was made, ‘fess up. Don’t try to sweep it under the carpet. Firstly, you might not get all the pieces. Secondly, if your consumers suspect that you’re not telling them the whole story, they’ll lose trust in your brand and your reputation will suffer.

Take all the necessary steps to ensure that your customers know you’re doing something about the problem. This is crucial to protecting your reputation.

Take responsibility for your part

In any given situation, there’s considerable gray area. Often, it’s not just one person or company that is 100% at fault. It’s highly unlikely that Odwalla went around dropping petri dishes full of E. coli into their production line, or that Samsung programmed their phones to explode upon connection to charging cables. But negligence can be just as dangerous as premeditation, especially with social media.

The public demands closure.

Time is of the essence!

Everybody makes mistakes. How you deal with them in the aftermath — and how fast you do it — is what matters most in a PR crisis.

What about United Airlines? How did they handle their PR crisis?

What United Airlines can learn from Odwalla and Samsung

United Airlines may not have handled the situation in a very timely, apologetic, or transparent manner — at least, not initially — but social media and a viral video soon made this inevitable.

It took several days for the CEO of United Airlines to acknowledge the negative role that their staff played in the incident, offering monetary reparations to the passengers on the flight. This helped soften the blow, but transparency demands more.

Questions that  now plague passengers before booking a flight on United:

If United overbooks my flight, will I be ‘volunteered’ off the plane? Can I count on United to get me to my destination on time?

And these are just the milder concerns from people who haven’t given much thought to the doctor’s perspective in the debacle.

When your reputation is at stake and the world wide web is your stage, the Internet can make or break you.

That’s why social listening is indispensable when it comes to protecting your brand reputation.

When do consumers get angry?

When they think a situation isn’t being handled, and that this will happen again.

By quickly responding to conversations where people are talking about the incident (or incidents, as loose scorpions appear to be yet another concern for United passengers), your PR team can begin to rebuild trust.

It may take days, weeks, months, or even years, but rest assured, in the event of a PR crisis, your consumers are talking. And your brand reputation demands that you listen to them.

For more resources on PR and online reputation management:

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