Which PR Crisis was More Damaging – Pepsi or United?

In the age of social media and smart phones, customers have the power to instantly destroy a brand’s reputation. United Airlines and Pepsi were both hit by customer backlash after PR blunders – United with its rough handling of a passenger, Pepsi with its ad featuring the reality show actress Kendall Jenner — went viral.

We spoke with Professor Henri Weijo, a marketing and consumer behavior expert, to discuss how the companies handled their PR crises and how brands can avoid similar mistakes.

Q: How did United Airlines and Pepsi differ in reacting to to their PR blunders?

Weijo: United made the classic PR mistake of not apologizing and admitting fault immediately. They took their sweet time in releasing a statement and made matters a lot worse by initially issuing a “We’re looking into the matter” non-apology.

To their credit, Pepsi pulled the ad and apologized right away. They also made a smart decision by apologizing to Kendall Jenner for “bringing her into this mess,” which made their apology feel more genuine. That said, the original snafu was pretty rich. I still see new Pepsi jokes every day on Twitter.

Q: Will these PR blunders hurt the brands long term? 

Weijo: United’s incident will be forgotten soon. The airline industry in the U.S. is very much a commodity market with customers searching for the lowest cost flight or most comfortable connection. Research shows that the general public and the market tend to forget corporate malfeasance in a matter of months or up to a year.

With Pepsi, it’s a different story. They are a lifestyle brand fighting in a competitive market. The brand hit might take longer to recover or require higher investments to repair the damage.

Q: What can brands learn from the Pepsi and United crises?

Weijo: People want to see brands fail. They crave the schadenfreude and the onslaught of funny reactions that ensue. The video of the United passenger being carried off from the plane was played on millions of devices, and so were the different parodies and reactions to it. A harmless PR bush fire turns into an inferno much quicker now. So even if a brand were not a fault in a situation, fighting it might be futile. The mob mentality will take over and will turn it into a PR crisis anyway.

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1 thought on “Which PR Crisis was More Damaging – Pepsi or United?”

  1. The united airlines foul-up was due to a practice of overbooking in order to ensure that all seats are taken (and paid for), when a few passengers inevitably do not show up. The situation is created because there are some airlines who return money when a seat is not taken, after the original order has been placed. It is high time that the laws were changed so that overbooking is unnecessary whilst allowing the airlines to fully paid for what opportunities for flying that they provide. Also once a seat is occupied for what ever reduced “last-minute” cost, the law should insist that its occupant cannot be unseated.

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