04.14.2017 | Colleen Moffitt
Recently several notable brands – United Airlines, Pepsi, Wells Fargo and Uber, among them – have experienced significant backlash from consumers after major crises, followed by a wave of negative press coverage.
As a PR professional, how these disparate situations have been handled thus far has, to say the least, been interesting to watch. With many of these companies, addressing the immediate communication crisis is critical; however, PR and crisis communication alone will not solve the underlying business issues that have led to the public brand strife. Strategic public relations can indeed be powerful – but it cannot solve fundamental business issues such as a lack of leadership or poor corporate-wide communication, a toxic culture, a failing business model, a flawed product or unethical behavior.
Brands that provide strong leadership based on shared values are much better able to empower employees across all levels in the organization to make decisions that reinforce and support the business objectives. When employees understand the vision for the company and its business objectives, they are better equipped to make decisions in the moment that reflect that vision and reinforce the values of their organization.
Consider, for example, how a Zappos customer service representative reinforced their company’s values by sending flowers and a sympathy card to my family when we returned shoes after my mother’s death that she had purchased but not worn. This employee made an in-the-moment decision that did not rely solely on policy and that reflected the company’s values.
Kara Swisher, in her article “Dear Tech Bros: It’s not a PR problem at Uber (or Yahoo or any of it),” counters the widely-shared opinion that “it’s a PR problem,” and “PR can fix it.” She writes, “Thus, those who keep insisting to me that PR is the problem for Uber have to catch a clue: The company is having troubles because it neglected to put key human resources and management systems in place that would counter its rich-frat-boy-meets-Vegas tendencies. It needs to do that now and quickly; it needs to complete a thorough and independent investigation that names names and exacts some form of justice.”
Recently, I was asked how I would respond if United Airlines were to call our firm for PR counsel during its unfolding crisis. My first point would be to emphasize that the apparent issues at United are not isolated to PR and communication. Therefore, the solution shouldn’t be siloed to just public relations but rather be implemented across cross-functional teams. In this example, United’s leadership needs to adapt, evaluate both the company’s and the brand’s values, and make its employees empowered to make decisions in the moment that align with those values and reinforce the aspirations of the brand.
When it comes to navigating through a crisis and then working to re-establishing customer and stakeholder trust in an organization, PR should have a seat at the table, no question; however, the table needs to include leaders across the company in order to be effective and authentic. It’s not a just PR problem.