Key Insights On Managing Public Relations Mistakes From Pepsi and United Airlines Controversy

Public Relations crises are not a new issue, but the prevalence of social media to dissect these crises commonly ignites flames into firestorms.

It puts all public relations and marketing plays into the spotlight — from commercials to press releases to Twitter banter.

This week we’ve witnessed two public relations crises, one from Pepsi and the other from United Airlines. All distilled in 140 characters on Twitter.

The central theme parallel to both the Pepsi and United Airlines controversy, and many before them, is the importance of having an objective, third-party agency with a crisis management plan to ensure brand consistency and accountability.

Even if your in-house team is fantastic, public relations mistakes happen.

Just think, PRWeek recognized Oscar Munoz, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Airlines, as Communicator of the Year just a few weeks ago. This award was based on his "outstanding communication skills" under pressure.

When his initial apology for the violent, involuntary passenger removal was released on Monday it did not point to his merits as a communicator.

That same day, United Continental Holdings (UAL) stock was down 4%, equating close to $1 billion. This proved to be the worst aftershock of the event from a financial standpoint, with the stocks recovering later that same day and ending the day off by only $250 million.

It’s important to evaluate the response of public relations mishaps to understand constantly-evolving public perception. Should you respond right away? What is the appropriate platform from which to respond? Is there an objective third-party that can help keep you accountable?

Let’s break down our key takeaways from the trending public relations mistakes over the last week:

Key Insights On Managing Public Relations Mistakes:

Controlling the Narrative

Social media has produced direct access to big brands, decision makers and law enforcement. When a public relations blunder occurs, people and stockholders demand urgency in the form of a swift and appropriate response.

A delayed response and lukewarm, insincere apology is not a good thing for controlling the resounding narrative. Just take a look at the issue of Sean Spicer’s comparison between Assad and Hitler, and the fallout from his weak apologies and reactions that may lead to his resigning from his position as press secretary.

Ineffective apologies are a catalyst for the sass and cynicism of the Internet — bait for trolls to create humorous memes.

To salvage and manage your reputation, a response should be published that same day of the outrage in order to limit attacks and better control the narrative. This hinders next day headlines based on the public’s response, instead focusing on the next step of your crisis management plan.

Since every word of a response will be critiqued, it is important to not panic and immediately send out a tweet when the public begins to ignite controversy. This is where a crisis plan comes in. It ensures a proactive and preventative approach to allocate time for speaking to internal employees.

When a carefully crafted public response has been created it should be approved by a third-party public relations agency. The most important tactics to remember are that honesty and accountability should be the key components of any communications strategy, crisis or not. Leaders must be prepared to accept responsibility for public relations crises.

Biggest Public Relations Crises Of The Last Year

Understanding Changes in Public Perception

Brand’s are able to mitigate the long term impact of public relations crises of this scale, but only if it is handled honestly and transparently. If we analyze some of the largest public relations scandals over the past several years, we can see that despite stock dips in the short-term brands often rebound to previous stock prices long-term.

It is unlikely that this scandal will affect United Airlines to any significant extent. The limited airline competition in the United States will result in passengers choosing the company that offers them the best value — and United is one of three that are most popular. As well, these actions result in no monetary or capital asset loss, but the brand may be forced to deal with a huge loss in the Chinese market.

A petition labeled “Chinese Lives Matter”, has more than 50,000 signatures. The petition calls for a U.S. federal investigation into United Airlines following allegations of racism. The petition references the fact that the man chosen to leave the flight was Chinese, and during the removal he shouted that he was being removed because he was Chinese.

Other petitions on websites such as and Care2 have also appeared, but have failed to garner the outrage and public attention that the Chinese Lives Matter petition has received.

Social Media Policy

For Fortune 100 brands, a crisis plan for social media is crucial because there are so many touch points in the marketplace. When publishing a response or answering consumer questions remember to be proactive, transparent and respond first on the channel where the crisis broke. For Pepsi and United Airlines, the most relevant response channel was Twitter.

Small, medium and enterprise businesses, developing and implementing a social media policy is now a requirement.

On social media, preparedness is key because of the ability to respond to customers directly. Much like having a public relations crisis management plan, we recommend developing a social media policy and action plan to mitigate any damaging situations that may arise. Even if your social media profiles weren’t originally created for customer service purposes, it won’t prevent someone from contacting you or talking about you there.

Handling complaints or controversy on social media allows you to deal directly with customers, making them feel that their business, or even just their opinion, is valuable. Rather than waiting for people to demand answers, be as open and honest as possible. Acknowledge that something has happened, even if you don’t have a solution or answer available yet.


The key takeaways from Pepsi and United Airlines public relations mistakes over the past week offer key insight on the importance of being prepared for crises. This also speaks to the importance of having a third-party public relations agency to help develop and implement crisis management plans due to their objectivity and expertise.

[x_button shape="square" size="x-large" float="none" block="true" href="" title="Learn more about Photonic's Team" target="blank" info="none" info_place="top" info_trigger="hover"]Looking for a public relations partner?[/x_button]

Subscribe to Photonic PR News