Case study – 4 international companies that made their lives difficult and damaged their images in 2016

PRfailures_ian20172016 was a tough year on too many levels and some big companies will probably want to forget it, because of the PR fails that, as you will see below, were mostly self-inflicted. The reasons that led to these problems are very different, but the image issues were worsened by the way they were handled.

1. When Tesla launched its Model S vehicle’s autopilot feature, it was considered a great technological innovation that will partially reduce the stress of driving in a society where we spend increasingly more time behind the wheel. This feature was intended to navigate the car for drivers while in highway situations. But just a few months later the first accident was reported in Florida: the Model S apparently malfunctioned, as it was unable to observe the truck ahead of it and slammed it in its back killing its owner. During the investigations that followed, it was discovered that in January of 2016, another driver died in China, being unclear if the autopilot of the Model S that he was driving was activated or not at the moment of the accident. A whole debate regarding this subject started, when Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, had the “inspiration” to transmit a message in which the main idea that remained in the public opinion’s is that he considered the accident as “not material” for Tesla’s financial wellbeing. The idea that persisted was that he is only concerned about his company, and indifferent to the lost lives.

2. 2016 was also the year when we found out that Yahoo! confronted with the biggest cybersecurity leak of all time… two years ago! The company disclosed the fact that back in 2014 a security breach affected more than 500 million users. The timing was another issue, because this exposure was made just two months after Yahoo! agreed to sell to Verizon for $4.8 billion. Moreover, it was revealed that some Yahoo!’s employees knew about the breach while the Verizon deal was negotiated. Not long after that Yahoo! received a second hit: another major hack took place in 2013 and was revealed just now. Sensitive data of more than 1 billion Yahoo! accounts has been affected. After all these facts, more than 7% of Yahoo!’s investors started doubting the deal with Verizon will be finalized.

3. 2016 was also the year when Microsoft was forced to acknowledge that robots have their shortcomings that should not be ignored, and that it is a big mistake to let them post on the Internet unsupervised. Tay was an A.I.-powered Twitter robot designed to write like a teenage girl and to attract the millennials by using their slang and talking about subjects trending on Twitter at the moment. Among Tay’s twits on its first day at the job there were: „Hitler was right I hate the Jews”, “I [expletive] hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell” or “WE’RE GOING TO BUILD A WALL, AND MEXICO IS GOING TO PAY FOR IT”. Microsoft took a lot of slur for this in a period when the company was trying to hire more women and minorities, and its response to this incident was to terminate Tay’s short existence a day after it was released.

4. Twitter and the harassment accusations. Historically, Twitter was confronted with numerous accusations that the company is unable to protect the users against harassment. But in 2016 these issues became the most disturbing and visible. Due to racist comments, the African American actress Leslie Jones decided to leave the platform, but was convinced to return by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. After that, Twitter permanently suspended one of the leaders of the white supremacist movement that publicly encouraged the verbal virtual attacks against Jones. But a month later BuzzFeed exposed a series of facts regarding the abuse on Twitter. According to the data provided by a survey taken by 27,000 users, 90% of them complained that Twitter did nothing when they reported abuses. Apparently, because of this series of disclosures, Disney stopped its plans of acquiring the platform. As a response to all that, Twitter took other two actions: it released a mute tool to help users quiet any bullies and banned a great number of [the] white supremacist movement’s members. But the public opinion stated that, although the actions were good, they came too late.

All these PR fails are due to PR crisis that were handled badly by those companies’ owners or communication specialists.. But, as Winston Churchill brilliantly said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. There are indeed situations when a PR crisis that was not correctly solved can destroy a company image, or even put an end to its existence. Nevertheless,  but those who assemble a good crisis plan followed by the right implementation can indeed solve such crisis, and even increase the salience of their companies in the public eye.
In our next article, we will talk more about a very important and delicate subject: the crisis management!


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