The wonderful world of public relations never fails to deliver when it comes to stuff-ups, and 2021 was no different.
As with any year, poor choices made under pressure, some of which were horribly misguided, resulted in a string of blunders that caused plenty of bewilderment around the world.
One of the picks of the bunch came late in the year, with US online mortgage company Better.com inexplicably deciding to fire 900 workers at once via a three-minute Zoom call, leaving them stunned and confused by the sudden turn of events.
Even by US business culture standards, it was a brutal move a few weeks before Christmas, and there were so many things wrong with the way it was handled, it’s hard to know where to begin.
For many employees, there was apparently no inkling this was on the cards, no performance reviews or monitoring, no official warning letters about their job being in jeopardy, and so on. The CEO bluntly launched straight into the bad news right at the start of the Zoom call, leaving people arriving slightly late confused as to what was happening.
Some staff had their emails and work phones cut off just before or immediately after the meeting, meaning they couldn’t attend it or even say goodbye to colleagues and customers. Others were on vacation, and therefore had no idea they had lost their jobs.
Not only did the firings take place at the start of the holiday season, but they also occurred just after the company received US$7560 million from one of its key investors, giving it plenty of cash in the bank and making the firings appear out of context.
The media got wind of the debacle soon after, and the firings made international headlines. The fallout was immediate, with the head of marketing, head of public relations, and vice president of communications all resigning – and at the time of writing, the CEO is currently ‘taking time off’.
All in all, it was a shambles. A difficult piece of internal communications turned into a PR nightmare, showing the global reputational consequences for when things go wrong so badly.
In other examples from an interesting year, a series of unfortunate events led Seven journalist Matt Doran to interview global music superstar Adele without having heard her new album, sparking negative headlines around the world. It was a major faux pas, but Doran to his credit helped mitigate some of the damage with a detailed explanation of what went wrong – a good strategy given the circumstances, and a decent example of fronting up when many people would just want to run away and hide.
Looking further back in time, we have in this newsletter already covered the catastrophic communications program that went hand in hand with the failed European Super League launch, and the sporting theme was continued, perhaps through no fault of their own, when Coke suffered the ignominy of footballer Christiano Ronaldo removed their product from his table in front of the world’s media, resulting in a significant share price drop for the American drinks giant.
In the world of food, Burger King’s unfortunate ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ tweet was meant to be the first salvo of an empowering campaign, yet was deluged by an initial negative reaction that completely undermined the whole point of the exercise – proving that execution is everything.
These are just some of the many blunders that occurred throughout the year, and it’s interesting to note how ill-considered schemes, risky planning and poor execution can combine to wreak havoc on a brand reputation.
There are lessons to be learned from all of the above examples, one of the most important is to think things through properly before acting, closely analysing the potential PR impact of your actions, and whether they might be misunderstood.
This could involve consulting other people outside of your immediate team and executive group, to get an outsider’s opinion of your plans and insight into whether something might be misunderstood.
Better.com’s example is one of the most egregious because it combined many mistakes into one global catastrophe, from which it will take some time to recover. And in that case, it’s not just the brand damage among media and the general public, but also the negative effect on the potential employees of the future in a never-ending war for talent and a tight labour market. Who is going to apply for a job there now?