Facebook is facing one of the biggest scandals in the company’s history, facing accusations of mismanagement of user data after analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have used data from 50 million profiles in President Trump’s 2016 campaign. The true nature of this PR disaster is complicated, but as entrepreneurs, CEOs and marketers, what’s really important here is how Facebook decided to respond.
While Mark Zuckerberg used multiple outlets to apologize to users and address important points of the controversy directly, he waited several days to do so and left out some key pieces of information. This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has been criticized for mishandling bad press, so it left me to wonder, what are some of the best ways CEOs have handled publicity crises?
1. Adidas recovers from a bad subject line.
In a 2017 marketing campaign, Adidas sent a promotional email to Boston Marathon participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” oblivious to the potential connotation linking it to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Adidas spokeswoman Maria Culp immediately recognized the error after a few customers pointed it out, publicly stating, “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.” Her response was heartfelt, apologetic, straightforward and most importantly, immediate — which may have prevented an even bigger disaster.
2. Taco Bell makes a secret recipe public.
Back in 2011, Taco Bell’s parent company (Yum! Brands) was facing a lawsuit over the content of its meat. The lawsuit alleged that its “seasoned beef” product was only 35 percent beef, implying that Taco Bell had been lying in its advertising. In response, Taco Bell made several statements and released videos that showed the true makeup of its seasoned beef product: 88 percent beef and 12 percent “secret recipe.” Taco Bell also disclosed the ingredients of the “secret recipe,” and the lawsuit was dropped. Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed commented on the strategy, stating that it “sets the record straight about the high quality of our seasoned beef and the integrity of our advertising.” This is a fantastic example because of Taco Bell’s fast, completely transparent and multi-channel response to the controversy.
3. Virgin Galactic recovers from a deadly crash.
In 2014, Virgin Galactic attempted a manned test of a space tourism craft in the Mojave Desert when an anomaly resulted in a total crash; one pilot was killed and another was injured. CEO Richard Branson, immediately upon learning that this had happened, wrote a brief message about his grief as he prepared for an in-person flight to visit the crash site and meet with the people involved. He later wrote an extended post on the matter, expressing his shock, explaining the situation and resolving to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Branson’s human side shone through here; his response was immediate and passionate. He dropped whatever he was doing to visit the site and manage it in person and he filled customers in about the details as soon as he could.
4. JetBlue makes up for a massive inconvenience.
Back in 2007, a major ice storm on the East Coast of the United States led to JetBlue cancelling more than 1,000 flights over the course of 5 days. As you can imagine, airline travelers were livid. CEO David Neeleman, instead of blaming the weather and giving a robotic, formulaic response, wrote an apology letter to JetBlue customers and introduced a new customer’s “bill of rights.” He also included monetary compensation for the missed flights, and presented a list of action items the company would take to help affected passengers. Though the backlash was still fairly severe, Neeleman was upfront about the company’s mistakes, he acknowledged the massive inconveniences his customers were facing and he told them, upfront, what he was going to do to make things right.
5. Cadbury takes a break to improve.
In 2003, a Cadbury chocolate manufacturing plant in Mumbai discovered that two chocolate bars had been infested with worms. Though most of the examples on this list turned the tide with a quick, proactive response, Cadbury didn’t respond right away. It got into a disagreement with the FDA, and faced significant backlash from the media before taking the next step. A few weeks afterward, the Cadbury marketing team took all its advertising off the air (during a season that usually bears increased sales for the company) and launched an educational campaign for retailers, while making significant overhauls to its manufacturing and storage processes. It took four months, but once the upgrades were over, Cadbury recovered its image with the media and ramped up its advertising back to normal levels. The company didn’t rest until it prevented the incident from ever recurring.
Obviously, preventing a PR catastrophe is much better than dealing with one after it’s happened, but this isn’t always possible. If you find your startup or your brand being attacked, criticized or otherwise in a bad PR position, take inspiration from these effective leaders and try to set the record straight.