Sicily, United, Spicer: Public Relations Gone Bad
PR disasters can happen anywhere to anyone.
While United Airlines is (not) doing its best to recover from the instantly infamous "re-accommodating" of a bumped passenger on an overbooked flight in Chicago, another somewhat smaller drama was playing out on the Italian island of Sicily.
Ahead of next month's G7 summit in the Sicilian town of Taormina, Italian organizers included a photograph of a shady-looking young man staring at a young woman as a welcome image for the island long plagued by the Mafia and macho-ism. The picture was condemned by the Sicilian regional president and quickly taken down, but the damage was done.
Meanwhile, United's damage can be measured in the $1 billion it has shed on its share price since videos circulated of the brutal removal Sunday of a passenger from a Chicago-to-Louisville flight.
The only way a company can get away with doing that kind of thing is if they're really doing something.
The accelerator of these and so many other tales of bad publicity is, of course, social media. Now former United customers convened on Twitter, vowing never to fly the airline again. The videos also went viral in China, the second largest airline market in the world, where some accused United of singling out the passenger because he was Chinese-born. Another United airlines incident a few weeks ago also sparked outrage after two women were banned from a flight because they were wearing leggings, which many said was sexist.
With all the indignation brewing online, some advertisers have attempted to tap directly into the political and social culture. Pepsi tried. A two-and-a-half minute video ad released last week featured model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner abandoning a fashion shoot to join some sort of generic street protest. It ended with Jenner handing a white police officer a can of Pepsi as a peace offering. #Fail.
"They're trying to present a product as a solution to a very large, very important, very serious cultural and societal problem," media studies professor Mara Epstein told New York Magazine. "The only way a company can get away with doing that kind of thing is if they're really doing something."
Perhaps the most extreme example of a company is Patagonia, which was once so message-conscious that it literally told people not to buy their product (for environmentally reasons), as the outdoors brand did in 2011.
In the current political and social climate, the dilemma won't be going anywhere soon. But at least United and Pepsi can be glad they don't have Sean Spicer speaking on their behalf.