Crisis Communications: PR needs a seat at the table

For companies like Pepsi and United, these past few weeks have not been “friendly” after long hours trying to battle crises within their respective organizations.

Every time a crisis hits major corporations, such as these, public relations professionals are left scratching their heads wondering who is in charge and why the PR people “didn’t have a seat at the table?”…from the beginning.

PR professionals are oftentimes called in after the crisis hits versus having a seat at the table during the initial planning and strategizing phases.

It’s clear that in the case of Pepsi, the advertising firm created what they thought was a home run ad for the soft drink maker:  Model Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a Pepsi during a protest rally. However, my guess is that no one ran the ad by their Communications Director or possibly their outside public relations counsel because if they did, I would hope that someone would have counseled the ad team that there could be a tremendous backlash from a variety of audiences that a can of Pepsi could actually calm a police officer during a political demonstration. Frankly, I know Pepsi was trying to be edgy with its advertising, but most PR people would have had the foresight to speak up and say that politics and advertising often don’t mix and the ad would probably create issues.

Now in the case of United Airlines, I’m sure the airport authority or United didn’t train their security guards to forcefully remove a paying passenger from his seat. However, this incident happened on a United plane, so the airline is ultimately responsible. Looking at how their communications strategy was flawed, which is surprising because earlier in the month PR Week named United CEO Oscar Munoz their Communicator of the Year, it seems as if their lawyers got to Munoz first, and that their PR team got a ‘seat at the table’ too late.

Lawyers wanted to blame the passengers, dig up dirt on passenger Dr. David Dao and you know what they quickly found out? No one cared that the doctor had a past. They cared that he was dragged out and felt that it was United’s fault regardless. Blaming someone else for your problems/issues, is never a good PR strategy when dealing with a crisis. As they quickly found out, that was the wrong message to send and needed to pivot quickly when they should have apologized for the incident the minute after it was posted on social media.

In these two recent incidents, it’s apparent that having a PR person or team at the table in the early stages would not have solved the problems, but would have helped shape a better outcome for both parties in the short term and long term.

About the Author

Jason Brown is the Founder and “Mayor” of PublicCity. Prior to founding PublicCity in 2008, Jason gained considerable experience working at various Detroit-based public relations agencies for over 10 years, where he functioned as a media relations specialist.

He has developed and managed communications programs and projects for leading companies, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, eBay and Microsoft and also spent significant time working on various General Motors project work. Jason leverages his vast network of media and community contacts to benefit his existing clients.

Jason is extremely connected with local, regional and national media. Among the highlights of his accomplishments include placing various regionally-based clients in front of the national media spotlight. Jason has secured national placements in Business Week, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Entrepreneur, Inc. and Fortune Small Business.

Outside of the agency, Jason is the Board President of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, Michigan Chapter and also sits on PR/Marketing Committees for Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and Yad Ezra. Jason is a graduate of Michigan State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. He currently resides in Beverly Hills, Mich. with his wife Hope and two daughters, Eliza and Libby.



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