Regardless of a public figure or a company’s forward-facing exposure—or the industry they operate in—sooner or later, they’ll need to explain something or proactively respond to a less-than-flattering message. The more prominent and successful they become, the more frequent this is likely to be.
Over the past year, we’ve seen several different kinds of responses to a variety of PR issues, and each instance offers lessons we can learn and apply to our own communication strategy.
WeWork makes a public statement
Few company leaders experienced a harder, faster fall than WeWork co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann. The primary cause of Neumann’s fall from grace was a badly managed IPO. In a prime case of “it wasn’t supposed to be that way,” the company was entertaining a $49 billion IPO, and then, just a few weeks later, publicly contemplating filing for bankruptcy protection.
Seemingly out of nowhere, multiple questions hammered the company, both in public and in private. Investors balked. There were reports of controversy related to Neumann that just wouldn’t go away, including nagging claims of conflict of interest. WeWork ousted Neumann, sending him off with a massive golden parachute, and then managed to attract a multi-billion-dollar bailout from a primary investor. The lesson? If the scandal is public enough, a major public response can be a good way to reset.
Facebook loses ground in fight against disinformation
After several tough PR years, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took another hit in 2019. While speaking about the cost and importance of free speech, Zuckerberg referenced famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., not once, but twice. This could have been a powerful “feel-good” moment—and that was clearly how it was meant—but Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, took the narrative in a different direction.
Tweeting back at Mr. Zuckerberg, Ms. King said it was “disinformation campaigns” that led, in part, to Dr. King’s assassination. Facebook, of course, has been fighting accusations of profiting from organized disinformation campaigns since prior to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. While Zuckerberg didn’t engage in a back-and-forth with King, the company has been fighting a losing battle against the persistent allegations of promoting political lies and profiting from so-called “election meddling.”
Wells Fargo tries going back to basics
Wells Fargo was still embroiled in a PR crisis that started when it was revealed that company employees had opened millions of fraudulent accounts, and reports surfaced that the corruption and fraud had spilled over into different additional divisions at the company.
In response, Wells Fargo launched a full-scale “back to basics” customer service PR campaign, touting the company’s longevity and promising to do better now and in the future. That wasn’t enough, as consumers really weren’t buying the campaign. Soon, CEO Tim Sloan, who’d taken over after John Stump resigned during the first scandal, was out of the job as well. This happened in March, and the company spent the rest of 2019 trying to find a way to reset from the top down.
McDonald’s stops a negative narrative
McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook resigned after media reports that he’d engaged in a “workplace relationship” that went against company policy. The board made this ruling, sending Easterbrook out the door. In response, the former CEO said he “made a mistake” and agreed that the relationship went against the “values of the company” which “made it time to move on.” All in all, it was a muted, though likely proper response, ending media scrutiny and stopping the story cold.
Musk gets a win
After an on and off year of headlines, Tesla CEO Elon Musk ended the year with a win, beating a defamation lawsuit filed by a British cave diver who had been openly critical of Musk during the internationally-covered rescue of a young soccer team trapped in flooded caves. Musk said he was pleased with the outcome, and then his company unveiled the futuristic Tesla pickup, reminding everyone that no one has a knack for grabbing headlines quite like Elon Musk.