PR disasters: How social media changed everything

12 Apr 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
PR disasters: How social media changed everything

A citizenry armed with cameras and social media can make life very difficult for those in power, writes Raymond Snoddy

The negative side of internet advertising has been made very clear to advertisers and the advertising industry in recent weeks.

The international response by advertisers, who have been saddled with totally inappropriate clips or websites, has been equally clear. The rise of programmatic advertising may not be quite as fool-proof as its supporters claim.

Those capable of taking a longer-term view on the effect of the scale of such advertising on the established media will also note the potential dangers to civilised discourse, society and even democracy, if the deployment of such big concepts can be forgiven. The charge sheet also has to include feeding the rise of irrational populism around the world.

The scale of the complex “problem,” if a problem it is, was yet again revealed by the latest figures on internet advertising spending in the UK, which rose by 17 per cent in 2016 to more than £10 billion.

The biggest rise of all came in mobile ads which jumped to no less than £3.9 billion.

It will be interesting to see whether the lemmings continue to head for the cliff with quite the same enthusiasm this year.

As Dan Bunyan of PwC, which produced the latest figures with the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, admitted: “Right now, considerations such as brand safety mean the advertiser is rightly demanding more certainty in the placement of their ads.”

Indeed, although there is little sign that the response of the social media giants so far is even close to the scale of the problem.

But one thing that cannot be denied is the instant power social media can direct towards unacceptable behaviour by large international corporations, organisations and even governments.

We live in a glorious age when almost everything leaks, and with the exception of leaks that could endanger lives, it is right that it should be so. Things are also getting better for whistle-blowers whose role is usually positive in trying to keep their colleagues and superiors honest.

A citizenry armed with the modern equivalent of digital television cameras and internet access can turn an instant spotlight - for example - on unacceptable levels of police brutality, whether the extreme armed variety of the US or our more modest British efforts.

It is a power that makes things very tricky indeed for chief executives and those who would seek to manage their crises, a tough lesson now being learned by the United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz.

Ironically, with truly remarkable prescience Munoz last month received the title of “Communicator of the Year” from PR Week magazine. Now the great Communicator is probably hanging on to his job by his fingertips.

Not everyone knew that an airline, at least in the US, has the right to forcibly remove a properly paid up passenger already sitting comfortably and causing no trouble whatsoever, because the airline had overbooked.

Whether United or its agents had the right to remove such a passenger, as it happens a doctor, in a bloodied condition and ultimately leaving on a stretcher, will probably be a matter for law suits.

Obviously everything was filmed by fellow passengers and immediately posted. It’s what happened next that will occupy a prominent place in the annals of crisis management.

For Communicator Munoz there was only one chance and it wasn’t on the table for long - the most abject of apologies and both instant compensation for the humiliated doctor and payment to a charity of his choice.

It would have been a lot cheaper than the $600 million hit to United's capital value as its shares became one of the biggest fallers in the S&P 500.

United proceeded to make a series of spectacular mistakes.

1 - It refused initially to answer questions about the incident other than explaining that the police were called after a passenger “refused to leave the flight voluntarily.”

2 - Communicator Munoz went on to Twitter to say that everyone at the airline was very upset about what had happened. Not half as upset as the doctor involved.

3 - Munoz apologised but only for having to “re-accommodate” customers to make way for United staff.

4 - The United chief executive then made matters worse in a letter to employees saying the passenger had been “disruptive and belligerent” and that employees had followed established procedures with “situations like this.”

5 - And then Munoz, in his third attempt to still criticism, which made him look even more shifty and hypocritical, fully two days after the incident apologised for the forcible removal of a paying passenger from one its flights, called the episode “truly horrific” and promised a review.

The continuing fallout includes calls for a boycott of United flights, particularly from Chinese websites as the passenger was of Chinese descent.

At least nobody died, which probably means that our very own BP Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion still rules supreme for turning a disaster into a PR crisis.

The then BP chief executive Tony Hayward apologised for the accident in which 11 people died but then added: “There is no-one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

This did not play well with the relatives of the dead.

The decision by Sir Philip Dilley, former chairman of the Environment Agency, to linger overlong at his second home in the Caribbean while the people of the North West of England suffered the Christmas floods of 2015, is also up there with the all-time greats.

Meanwhile it has been a good week for whistle-blowers and leakers after new revelations about the fixing of Libor - the rate at which banks lend to each other.

A leaked conversation implies that senior officials may have leaned on the Bank of England to keep Libor rates low during the financial crisis. If true it would be a serious matter for everyone involved.

No one doubts the power of the social media to help expose injustice and malfeasance but the time is long overdue when they should look into their own failings, particularly when they hoovered up £10 billion in the UK alone last year.

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