The Wilbert Group Blog

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Review of Q1’s Worst PR Performances



The old Clint Eastwood movie was whirling through my brain as I recalled some of the first quarter’s biggest public relations crises – and analyzed how they were handled. Instead of a buried cache of Confederate gold (that’s what Clint was after in the 1966 film), I found mostly disappointment in how companies and organizations responded during a big crisis.

But let me start with the good – as in good PR response – before unloading my guns on the bad and the ugly.

The Good

General Mills: The maker of Cheerios recently illustrated what happens when you do a good thing that gets criticized, then do another good thing by responding in the best manner possible. The first good thing was the company’s novel marketing campaign for Honey Nut Cheerios to save the honey bee population by (1) removing the famous mascot BuzzBee from its boxes and (2) distributing 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to people across the U.S.

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 2.35.04 PM

What could be wrong with that? Well, a lot, according to some ecologists. They contended the seeds could cause harm if planted outside their native regions. Criticism came from everywhere, such as this comment on “. . . they are sending free packets of wildflower seeds to people all over the country – and some of the flowers included are invasive species that, in some areas, you should probably not plant.”

The second good thing was General Mills’ response on social media. Taking to Twitter and Facebook, where much of the criticism was being leveled, the company pointed out repeatedly – but calmly – that the seed varieties in the mix “are not considered invasive,” were selected for their flowers which produce nectar and pollen that are attractive to bees and other pollinators, and are the same as those consumers will find in seed racks at major national home store chains.

At last, the crisis subsided. And the Cheerios-inspired flowers blossomed.

The Bad

United Airlines: What happens when you prevent two teenagers from boarding a flight because they’re wearing leggings? A huge blowback on traditional and social media – and an unnecessary PR crisis.

That is the lesson United Airlines has learned from its March decision to thwart the legging-clad girls who were traveling on employee passes. Turns out their wardrobe violated United’s passenger dress code.

Twitter did not agree with the decision or policy. Celebrities, feminists and others roundly criticized United, many using the new #LeggingsGate hashtag. Delta Air Lines seized the opportunity to mock its rival, tweeting: “Flying Delta means comfort. (That means you can wear your leggings.)”


The airline’s initial response was speedy but burdened by too much explanation, going on and on about what travelers on buddy passes are expected to wear. As PR pros often say, when you’re explaining, you’re probably losing. Instead, it’s typically much better to investigate, fix the problem, then explain yourself.

Even the company’s global communications director said the carrier should have taken a more thoughtful approach to responding to the dress-code controversy. And it would probably be wise for United to reevaluate what seems like an outdated dress code.

PricewaterhouseCoopers: Never have the Oscars had this much drama. The wrong winner for best film was announced – sorry La La Land, the real winner is Moonlight – and the accounting firm PwC suddenly was an international laughingstock.

The London-based firm did swiftly apologize and promise to investigate the error, stating, “We sincerely apologise to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture.”

Some might argue that short of not making the mistake, there isn’t much PwC could do to mitigate the harm. I’m probably alone on this, but I think infusing some humor in a subsequent response might be useful. I don’t equate handing Warren Beatty the wrong envelope with auditing knee-deep corporate financial records, so why not poke a little fun at yourself?

Regardless, it seems PwC will survive. Last week, the Academy Awards announced it was keeping its accounting firm of 84 years.

Samsung: It doesn’t get much worse than one of your signature products’ batteries catching fire and your next leader getting swept up in a government scandal that brings down the nation’s president. But that has been the Samsung story thus far in 2017.

It was heartening to see the company apologize for the Galaxy Note 7 battery problems at a January press conference, where the company took responsibility for its “failure to ultimately identify and verify the issues” with its batteries. But when you have to issue a second apology a couple months later – as Samsung did in late March – it undermines the first apology.

The second apology, from Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun to shareholders, again referenced the Note 7 debacle as well as the company’ involvement in scandals that led to the ouster of South Korea’s president. In fact, Jay Lee, next in line to run Samsung, remains jailed on embezzlement and bribery charges – never good for your corporate reputation.

My advice to Samsung: Stop doing stupid things so you don’t have to issue any more apologies. And get back to reminding us of the innovation that made you a global tech leader.

The Ugly

Uber: The grand disrupter of the taxi industry steered its way into oncoming PR crises at almost every turn in the first quarter. In no particular order, the company (1) was accused of sexual harassment and discrimination, (2) came under attack from a #deleteuber movement in response to CEO Travis Kalanick’s role on an advisory panel to President Donald Trump in the wake of Trump’s travel ban, (3) watched in horror a video published by Bloomberg of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver who had complained about pay and (4) picked a fight with Google.

How do you deal with these rolling crises? Well, (1) Kalanick issued a heartfelt apology – at times with tears in his eyes, according to one report – for the company’s lack of diversity and promised to do better, (2) Uber released a statement criticizing President Trump’s travel ban, and shortly after Kalanick resigned from the advisory panel (3) Kalanick apologized, again, for venting on the taxi driver and stated he needed to change as leader and “grow up” and (4) the fight with Google is ongoing over whether the head of Uber’s self-driving unit stole trade secrets from Google.

The most promising response has been Kalanick admitting he needs to grow as a leader and get C-Suite help at Uber. Additionally, Ariana Huffington, Uber’s only female board member, has taken on a larger role at the company. Young, entrepreneurial companies often face growing pains and bouts of immaturity. But Uber also needs to clamp down on its CEO and try to keep him out of the news for the rest of the year, if possible.

USA Gymnastics: When a news article starts like this, you’ve got a full-blown PR crisis on your hands.

“Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.”

Sadly, before and after the Indianapolis Star’s December report that revealed that more than 368 gymnasts had alleged abuse by coaches and other authority figures over two decades, USA Gymnastics did not respond appropriately. Instead, what response there has been has been slow, less than transparent, and without an apology.

USA Gymnastics logo

The only positive step was the forced resignation of Steve Penny, the organization’s longtime president. But that came months – if not years – too late.

Following the Star’s revelations came additional reporting by the likes of 60 Minutes, hearings before Congress (although USA Gymnastics declined to send anyone to testify before the Senate – not wise), new allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of coaches and doctors, and withering criticism, including from Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, who called for Penny’s resignation and an apology from the board.

Yet USA Gymnastics has continued to rely on canned, cold video and written statements to defend itself. It also has battled over the past year to block the release of court documents regarding sexual misconduct. And its attempts at an apology have been weakly worded and severely lacking.

In the end, the organization leaves the impression it cares more about its reputation and legal defenses than the welfare of its athletes.