The Anatomy of a Social Media “Riot”

By the time police arrived, Union Square was severely overcrowded. Within the park’s nine acres, thousands of young onlookers had gathered for what was supposed to be a gift giveaway hosted by Twitch-personality Kai Cenat. Drawn by the promise of free Play Stations and the chance to meet a social media celebrity, thousands of teenagers had traveled to the park. 

When the crowd, predominantly an audience of youthful teenage boys, clashed with police, things escalated quickly. In dozens of videos shared across YouTube and other social media platforms, police collar the young attendees. One video captures a police officer slamming a teenage boy through a taxi cab’s back window. By the end of the day, several people were seriously injured, 60+ people were arrested and Union Square Park sustained over $55,000 in property damage. Cenat, the influencer who had sparked the gathering with posts made on Twitch days before, was charged by police with “unlawful gathering” and “inciting a riot.”

As police investigate this incident further and Cenat faces a court date, it’s worth considering the broader context of social media relationships and the unpredictable power of influencers to catalyze mass action in physical reality. In an age defined by Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and dozens of other social networks, what role do social media personalities have in driving people to action? What can happen when an influencer with a cult following asks their followers to do something? To answer the latter, we must first understand the phenomena known as parasocial relationships. 

Defined as “a one-sided relationship where one person creates an emotional attachment and invests their time and energy, while the other party doesn’t know of the other person’s existence,” parasocial relationships are a hallmark of social media users, especially younger users post-pandemic.

In a recent study by Wellesley College’s Youth Media and Well-Being Research Lab, researchers found that 90 percent of kids have social media by the time they turn 12 (7th grade for context). With the advent of coronavirus, lockdown and the implementation of remote learning in 2020, millions of teenagers leaned harder on social media to maintain physically distanced relationships and monitor ever-evolving news. In the process, many gravitated to familiar faces, screentime soared and the popularity of specialized, social media personalities rose with it. 

These relationships are built on constant content, frequent user interaction and intensely personal exchanges occurring several times a day. Intimacy is key. 

Most influencers cultivate a following over time, then use these followers to secure lucrative brand deals and partnerships. While encouraging your fans to buy a product or use a service is commonplace, the power of influencers to mobilize fans in real life beyond just buying a product, to encourage them to go somewhere and do something, is still unpredictable and relatively immeasurable.

In the case of Cenat, he unwittingly baited followers to do something dangerous. What was meant to be a good time, short giveaway and brief interaction, became something much more serious. Another interesting element here, the gathering was sparked by a relatively small medium.

If you’re unfamiliar with Twitch, it’s a social media platform best known for live-streaming events, including video game tournaments and product reviews. The platform hosts approximately 140M active monthly users. For context, that’s 1/3 of X’s (formerly Twitter) monthly audience, less than 1/4 of Tiktok’s and barely 1/20 of Meta’s. Cenat, the influencer at the heart of this scandal, is one of Twitch’s most followed creators. To date, he has over 6.5M subscribers and he posts content daily. 

This “riot” resulted from a perfect storm of circumstances. Post-pandemic teens, a diligently followed social media personality, the rise of parasocial relationships, the promise of a free, coveted product, a general lack of awareness about and unpredictability of calls to action on social media – these all melded together to create a moment New York City was unprepared for, yet one we can learn from. As communicators who often partner with influencers like Cenat or work with clients including city departments or public policymakers, we must be prepared. 

It is important that we understand how to predict, understand and measure the power these online figures have to mobilize their followers. Frankly, we must acknowledge this power exists in the first place. Most importantly, we must work towards ensuring and encouraging online personalities to use their influence for good. 

The Surge of ‘Woke-Washing’ in the Advertising Landscape 

Last month New Yorkers found themselves immersed in a thought-provoking ad campaign that’s been taking over subway stations throughout Manhattan. Dove, renowned for its commitment to challenging conventional beauty standards, is at the forefront of this advertising endeavor with its “The Pits of New York” and #FreeThePits campaign, strategically launched just in time for the fashion week.  

The campaign’s underlying message intended to resonate with women, shedding light on the impact of underarm insecurities, particularly in relation to clothing choices and social activities. Dove’s 2022 Underarm Confidence Survey further reveals a reality that a significant number of women feel subjected to judgment based on their underarms. Society’s fixation on promoting an ‘ideal’ underarm—one that’s hairless, smooth, odorless and evenly toned—adds to this issue. 

However, despite campaigns like Dove’s seemingly heralding a positive shift in today’s advertising landscape, they have not been exempt from controversy. A notable instance was their 2017 Facebook ad for body wash, which depicted a Black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman. This ad drew immediate criticism from thousands of viewers who perceived it as having racist undertones. While Dove promptly responded and issued an apology on social media, the incident raised concerns about their approval procedures and whether a diverse group of individuals had the opportunity to review the ad before it went live. 

PR practitioners, well-acquainted with the challenges of managing public perception, have found themselves at the forefront of these debates when things go awry. A recent case in point is Bud Light, which faced a barrage of criticism due to its association with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. In an attempt to salvage its image, the brand resorted to using a meme on social media, ironically mocking its own handling of the controversy. This approach backfired, drawing criticism from both PR experts and consumers alike. It further solidified the perception that the brand was mishandling the situation and jeopardizing its relationships with its customer base and the LGBTQ+ community. Bud Light’s experience is far from unique in the realm of poorly executed campaigns. The infamous 2017 Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner is another example of a brand missing the mark on social activism.  

Dove’s recent campaigns, although well-intentioned, underscore the importance of scrutiny and diverse perspectives. In today’s age of “woke-washing,” brands face the challenge of finding the right balance between impactful messaging and avoiding harm. PR practitioners play a pivotal role in guiding these brands toward authentic connections with their audiences. In this era of heightened social awareness, the lessons drawn from both successful and misguided campaigns serve as valuable guidance for advertisers aiming to create a positive impact. 

From PR to Planet: Why greenwashing won’t save the earth

The WHO announced in 2019 that they expect 250,000 more deaths per year from climate change through malnutrition, malaria, and heat stress between 2030 and 2050. As we get closer to irreversible climate damage, we can clearly see the effect it will have on our everyday lives. For example, just weeks ago, New York experienced the worst air quality ever in U.S. history. This is just one of many events, such as the California wildfires and the 2014 Midwest Polar Vortex, that illustrate the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on the U.S. As we continue to see drastic changes to our environment, there has been a consistent shift in public attention towards the climate crisis. As it becomes more of a social issue, corporations have taken to the media to maintain their image and so-called “commitment” to environmental safety. 

Household names from Starbucks to JP Morgan Chase to H&M all boast “climate consciousness” and take advantage of the many positive PR opportunities associated with taking a stand for the environment. This is known as greenwashing, a tactic in which big organizations win over customers by creating an image of being environmentally friendly.  

Five years ago, Starbucks released their popular “straw-less lid” to reduce plastic waste and improve the safety of aquatic life, mainly sea turtles. Though this new lid reduced the number of plastic straws in circulation, it used greater amounts of plastic than the previous straw-based design. Starbucks representatives rebutted outcries around this by claiming that the new polypropylene material is a more commonly accepted form of recyclable plastic, though critics identified that only 9% of plastic is recycled globally. Starbucks capitalized on a PR opportunity to “save the turtles” but traded one form of the plastic for another.  

H&M is among many clothing and fashion brands that take part in greenwashing as well.  It has been shown that only 20% of textiles are reused or recycled. The remaining 80% are incinerated or given a lifetime sentence in a landfill. H&M has recently released its “Conscious” line that contains a selection of sustainable clothing, though this is mere marketing terminology as there is no “sustainable” standard to be followed. H&M has not provided sufficient data to back its sustainability statement and has been publicly criticized by the Norwegian Customer Authority. 

These two examples exemplify the marketing manipulation corporations undertake to meet consumer demands of eco-consciousness. However, there is yet another story to be told on the monetary front. Billion-dollar banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, are some of the many banks that have issued green investment protocols in support of opportunities that combat the climate crisis. Despite these protocols, these same banks are major funders of the industries that most negatively impact climate change such as fossil fuels and deforestation. These banks and corporations attempt to paint themselves as leaders of the go-green transition in the eyes of the public, though, in the depths of their operations, they act otherwise. 

Corporations want to look good in the media and are willing to do so by any means necessary. They will prioritize a good PR opportunity over making an impact. We often fail to read between the lines and hold these companies to the standard they publicly set for themselves.  

Here are three ways that we, as PR practitioners, can hold these companies accountable, develop quality campaigns, and be agents for change: 

  1. Only act from an informed place. To avoid having to backtrack, only create a plan of action once you have a comprehensive set of information. For example, if Starbucks genuinely wanted to reduce plastic use, they could have used seaweed or paper straws – a much more sustainable option. Talk to experts in the field and develop a plan that would produce real change, while also making for a relevant story. There is a way to marry both parties, with substance always being the most important part of your campaign.  
  2. Be a leader – or even better, a trendsetter. People will want to follow companies who are in tune with current events. Create initiatives that draw consumers in just by engaging with the issues that matter. Focus on the long-term goals, rather than the short-term gains. 
  3. Create transparent, authentic campaigns. It is important to build a level of trust between you and your consumers. Start with a transparent, authentic approach. Pure intentions that are clearly communicated to your audience will solidify your relationship with your customer base and stakeholders and ultimately help support your brand reputation. 

Billion-dollar corporations have consistently used loopholes to push campaigns that look good in the media, while still maintaining practices that are inconsistent with their supposed values. This then translates into the public assuming they are climate positive, but it is often just a façade to generate good press and business. As PR professionals we must hold our clients to a moral standard and ensure that through the campaigns we help create, the result is purposeful and well-educated. By following these three tactics and learning from other mistakes, we can work alongside these larger corporations to make a real impact on our climate.  


Ohio Train Derailment: Public Relations in Holding Institutions Accountable

On February 3, 2023, the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio resulted in dismaying amounts of toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere and subsequent evacuation orders. In a town where residents were already facing socioeconomic obstacles, this disaster exacerbated safety and quality of life concerns.

Almost three months later, residents are still in disarray with many staying in motels due to valid fears of returning or official prohibition as a result of ongoing cleanup. Those that have returned are still extremely concerned about the air, water and soil quality.

Property value reduction, long-term health ailments and mental health issues are just a few causes of distress for residents. This incident sickened and displaced many in the community. It catalyzed previous conversations about safety precautions and the location of such railroads which are disproportionately placed in lower-income, often Indigenous, communities of color.

While derailments have decreased by more than three quarters since the 1970’s according to federal data, large freight railroads have seen an increase in derailments in five of the last seven years. Large freight railroad companies began introducing precision-scheduled railroading in 2016 to enhance efficiency by running fewer trains on tighter schedules. With a goal of cutting expenses, trains tend to be longer and heavier in an effort to transport as much cargo as possible. Tighter scheduling to cut costs could arguably be the cause of increased human error, equipment and track failure.

Despite historic activist outcry regarding train route placement in marginalized communities, industry leaders say that most derailments occur within the confines of rail yards and make public statements focusing on train safety in comparison to other modes of transportation such as driving. This deliberate disregard for ostracized community concerns is unfortunately common practice by many corporations and public officials.

The Biden Administration made a statement committing to visit East Palestine but has not followed through and has continued to defend its response to this toxic freight train derailment, even as local leaders demand increased efforts and clarity around the long-term effects of the disaster.

When disasters happen as a result of corporations’ carelessness, PR is often thought of only in terms of damage control for the company responsible. But PR practitioners are also responsible for utilizing their expertise to aid the communities impacted by such tragedies.

PR professionals play an enormous role in the dissemination of information concerning the initial and long-term response to such calamities. During the initial phases of such an event, PR professionals must work with journalists and their clients to galvanize public awareness and financial contributions. Long-term responses involve recognizing the reality that our world today is afflicted by a plethora of problems that deserve attention and require resources and thus doing our part to ensure that those affected are not forgotten.

In the case of the train derailment in East Palestine where the long-term health implications of this event are largely unknown, pushing for thorough monitoring of the water and air quality is indispensable. Long-term coverage and media attention and connecting media to those on the ground who can tell their stories is paramount to holding Norfolk Southern Corporation accountable for the promises they have made to remedy this situation, and for putting pressure on government officials to enact better safety regulations and to address the socioeconomic implications. A primary responsibility in this response must also be to encourage continued research into health hazards associated with spilled chemicals such as vinyl chloride and phosgene.

The issue of train derailments has been a historic point of contention, often affecting communities already facing additional deprivation and disparity. PR for situations intertwined with oppression such as this involves amplifying community voices, extending our resources, connecting with our audiences to encourage additional assistance and monitoring media and social platforms for the vocalized needs of those impacted.

As we move forward, we must keep those affected a priority by encouraging our clients to contribute when appropriate. All the while, no initiative should merely be intended for press opportunities. As with the PR tactics surrounding any tragedy, the intention must be to benefit those impacted by raising awareness and resources, magnifying the needs of the affected community and educating the public on ways to prevent similar events.

How the #PSL Became a Cultural Icon

Nothing is more seasonally relevant to the marketing world than the pumpkin spice latte, commonly referred to as the “PSL.” Once the leaves start turning orange and the weather gets chilly, coffee shops from big chains like Starbucks to local cafes have pumpkin spice flavored coffee blends and syrups for their customers to enjoy in their drinks. No other food or flavor has gripped the nation so strongly, with not even peppermint comparing to the fall favorite.

Although the pumpkin spice latte is an icon within the food and beverage industry, it has ascended as a cultural symbol, and even personality for some, due to an incredible social media and public relations strategy. 

While the fall favorite drink has been popular ever since it was created in 2003, it started to blow up on social media in the early 2010s.When Starbucks created, @therealPSL, a personification of its pumpkin spice latte, the “PSL” really became a fall beverage of choice and identity for some. The way in which Starbucks engaged with its audience on Twitter and Instagram through the @therealPSL introduced a cultural movement. The coffee conglomerate originally created the fun character as a PR strategy to remind everyone they had conceptualized the hype behind the fall beverage, but ended up building something even bigger than a reminder. 

By creating a personality for the beverage, consumers began to see the latte as a symbol for fall. The social media account was carefree, and despite promoting its brand to its followers, it felt less like a business and more like a movement. By personifying the drink and replying to consumers as the character, it created a relationship with its audience and an enticing story that only increased the interest in #PSLs.

Despite the pumpkin spice craze, the media reception was not always positive. During the time #PSLs went viral on social media, a negative stereotype about the drink popped up, identifying it as a part of “basic culture.” The idea of “basic culture” essentially meant that the latte was no longer unique to its audience and was just another flavor of coffee. 

However, the brand never alienated its audience because it never directly addressed the negative connotation. Instead, Starbucks embraced the “basic culture” and stood its ground by poking fun at the stereotype through indirect captions such as “hitting up a yoga retreat.” In response, the audience also leaned into the stereotype by referring to themselves as “basic” in captions with the popular hashtag. 

The way the coffee conglomerate embraced the negative critiques and turned it into positive commentary is a great example of how a brand can utilize negative publicity to uplift its reputation.

The drink has become such a fall staple that Starbucks has sold over 600 million pumpkin spice lattes since it introduced it to customers in 2003. The seasonal drink is popular not just in terms of physical sales or monetary value, with an estimated revenue of $2.6 billion, but is also consistently viral on social media. In fact, during the fall #PSL is tweeted about 3,000 times a day. 

The secret to Starbucks’ success in creating a cultural symbol out of its product is through engagement with its audience on social media. While it would be difficult, or even impossible, to ensure the creation of an iconic symbol out of a product, brands can definitely learn useful tips for reputation management and media-relationship building through the example of the #PSL.


Daily Harvest’s Failed Response And What Crisis Professionals Can Learn From It

Just as social media built the company’s reputation, it also destroyed it. Daily Harvest knew how to use social media and influencers to market its products, but failed to use the outlets for crisis management.  

Daily Harvest is a meal delivery service that specializes in healthy plant-based food. The company focuses on convenience. Made for the busy person, Daily Harvest meals are either ready to eat or require minimal preparation. Grain bowls, soups and smoothies aim to make clean eating more accessible. 

TikTok influencer Abby Silverman received a PR package from Daily Harvest in May that contained French lentil and leek crumbles. After consuming them, she reported severe stomach pain, leading to two visits to the ER. She posted a two minute Tik Tok video about her experience that went viral with more than 1 million views and almost 4,000 comments. This post was a catalyst of conversation which forced Daily Harvest to take action. 

In June of 2022, Daily Harvest voluntarily recalled their French lentil and leek crumbles. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the meals caused sickness in 500 people and sent 113 people to the hospital. Those who consumed the crumbles claimed to experience symptoms such as stomach pain, liver problems, jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, back pain and shoulder pain. A lawyer representing a number of victims reported that over 25 of his clients had to get their gallbladders removed. 

Daily Harvest claims they took immediate and proper action in a statement published on their website. The company explained that as soon as they received reports of the contaminated French lentil and leek crumbles they motioned a recall. Customers who received the product were notified and an investigation was launched with the FDA. 

Considering that Daily Harvest acquired most of their business on social media, they should have also used it as a platform to spread information on the French lentil and leek crumbles recall. Daily Harvest failed when it came to keeping their customers informed and victims found themselves looking to Reddit forums for answers and guidance. 

Their first Instagram post on the issue aimed to advertise a different product while leading people to a link in their bio for concerns on the French lentil and leek crumbles recall. Burying information while customers’ health was at risk was unprofessional and inappropriate. Daily Harvest had an obligation to keep their customers informed and failed to take the situation seriously enough.

From a PR standpoint, there are numerous ways this crisis could have been handled better. Daily Harvest was slow to report to their customers on the facts they needed. They neglected to post on social media, portraying a lack of accountability. Customers lost trust in the company based on their response to the issue. A crisis on any scale can sometimes be unavoidable, yet what the company can control is an appropriate PR response that can mend the relationship between consumer and business. 


Public relations in times of war

The Russia-Ukraine war is front and center in the media and the minds of many Americans. As events continue to unfold, companies are getting involved to show their support of Ukraine, from Airbnb announcing free, temporary housing for up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to Apple pausing product sales in and exports to Russia. As measures like these continue, companies across the board will inquire about how they can engage. As PR professionals, we must be prepared to advise on what a thoughtful, genuine response looks like – or if one is warranted at all. Here are a few guideposts to consider in managing client queries.

Fervently advise against any self-promotion of products or services

Companies self-promoting during a time of conflict, especially if they stand to gain monetarily from that promotion, may aggravate reporters and pose a reputational risk to the company. A Buzzfeed article highlighted how some of the responses to the Russia-Ukraine war were “cringe-worthy” and “insensitive” at best, including an author urging people to buy his book. Reporters will do their due diligence and highlight any discrepancies. As advisors, we must do the same. Consider going through a risk-assessment exercise that outlines any concerns.

 Encourage them to stay in their lane

As a general rule of thumb, we should encourage clients to not put a tangential spin on political discourse, which is very different from voicing humanitarian support for Ukraine. Proactively pitching clients who have no real insight to offer to speak on the issue when most reporters are looking for specific expertise in politics or foreign affairs can reflect poorly on the brand. We should recommend not inserting the company in conversations that have yet to ask for their input.

 Discuss standards for supporting causes

 The continuous coverage of the war is driven by both America’s interest in ensuring democracy and concern for international human rights. There are also currently 30+ ongoing wars and conflicts happening all over the world. As an NPR article said, “It’s a fact of modern life that some wars get more attention than others. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has captured the public’s attention in the West in a way that other recent wars — like those in Yemen or Ethiopia — simply haven’t.” While the client has no control over what conflicts are prioritized in the media, candid conversations on the standard for engaging in political and social discussions should be had. For example, clients who “ban” such discussions on human rights and penalize staff for activism in some matters but then take public stances on this particular conflict may be putting themselves at risk of being called out for double standards. By creating and setting guidelines proactively – and then sticking to those guidelines – the client is much less likely to suffer reputational damage.

PR Nightmares and How to Avoid Them

With Halloween just around the corner, there is no better time for us to revisit every communications professional’s worst fear: PR nightmares. Whether it be cringe-worthy performative activism (think Kendall Jenner’s 2017 Pepsi ad) or failure to be transparent with consumers, PR nightmares can take many forms and require communications professionals to quickly shift gears into crisis mode to protect their client’s image. Despite increasing corporate social responsibility among companies and brands, this year had no shortage of PR nightmares.

  • Tropicana
    • Back in December 2020, Tropicana launched its #TakeAMimoment social media campaign which encouraged parents to share how they take breaks amid the struggles of pandemic parenting. The company insinuated that one way parents can relax during their downtime is by enjoying a Tropicana mimosa. While intended to be a light-hearted nod to how having children at home 24/7 drove many parents up the wall during school closures, the campaign offended many consumers who found it extremely insensitive given the dramatic increase in alcoholism during the pandemic. For example, Klen&Sobr, a recovery pod organization, tweeted: “FWIW, the campaign didn’t “imply” alcohol was the answer… it was *explicit* in demonstrating that hiding from one’s family —including leaving young children unsupervised— to drink alone was the answer. I’m gonna need to #TakeAMimoment to process your weak apology.” The company apologized shortly after the backlash stating that it had not meant to “imply that alcohol is the answer.
  • McKinsey & Company
    • Renowned global consultancy McKinsey faced widespread backlash after it was revealed that the group had aided Purdue Pharma in driving sales of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription pain killer and a key driver of the opioid epidemic, which has contributed to the deaths of more than 450,000 people over the last two decades. When it later came out that top consultants at the firm had discussed destroying documents related to their work with Purdue, the outrage only intensified. McKinsey received public criticism from top politicians such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as well as from former employees. The company issued a brief apology statement on its website, something it has rarely done in the past. Despite McKinsey’s half-hearted attempt to escape accountability for its actions, the company ultimately settled out of court for nearly $600 million for its involvement in the marketing of OxyContin. Given that McKinsey’s annual revenue is estimated at a whopping $10 billion by Fortune, one might argue that the settlement is not true accountability.
  • Governor Cuomo’s Resignation
    • Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation in August 2021 after 10 years in office amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and a sexual harassment report from the attorney general’s office which found most, if not all, of these allegations to be true. In his last press conference, the former governor failed to take responsibility for his actions by insisting that he never intended to do any harm and suggesting that the allegations were “politically motivated.” Similar to the case of McKinsey, Cuomo’s attempt to evade accountability for his actions was received very negatively by the public, costing him his career and reputation. Cuomo’s fall from grace was especially jarring to the public due to his leadership during the pandemic – he won the country over by portraying himself as a man of integrity and transparency only for it to be revealed that the image he had carefully cultivated for himself was an illusion designed to conceal an abusive work culture and predatory behavior. A large part of the backlash Cuomo received from the public stemmed in part from a feeling of betrayal that he was not the upstanding leader he had convinced the country he was.

These three crises are all very different in nature. McKinsey and Andrew Cuomo’s crisis situations resulted in very real harm to those involved. Tropicana’s poorly worded advertisement was distasteful at best and offensive at worst. Interestingly enough, Tropicana’s crisis held the least consequences for the public, yet it was the only actor in all three cases to issue a genuine apology. This is largely due to the fact that admitting wrongdoing in both McKinsey and Cuomo’s cases would result in legal and financial consequences in addition to reputational consequences. It is also in part due to the fact that the bigger the mistake is the more difficult the apology. So how can companies and individuals avoid making these dire mistakes that harm so many?

  • Clear Communication
    • Leaders and organizations should always be sure to communicate openly and honestly with the public. This means using intentional language in advertisements and on social media and being thoughtful about the repercussions of the messaging being communicated to the public.
  • Transparency
    • Companies and public figures should never hide pertinent information about their product or platform from the company. However, in the event that something was hidden comes to light, it is essential that the involved individuals and brands come clean as soon as possible rather than attempting to further cover up past mistakes. Lying to the public will only cause more damage to the brand or individuals’ reputation and its victims.
  • Accountability
    • When caught in a crisis, it’s imperative that organizations and individuals respond swiftly, taking accountability for their actions and apologizing accordingly.

At the end of the day, the best way to avoid PR nightmares is for brands and individuals to prioritize the wellbeing of the consumers and audiences they serve.

Dear CEOs, media relations isn’t a DIY job…and you don’t want it to be

Recently, news broke that Blade, an aviation startup similar to a ride-sharing app offering helicopter rides, invented a person – their spokesperson.

For three years, Blade maintained the existence of an invented staff member named Simon McLaren. He regularly spoke on behalf of the company in outlets including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, occasionally even speaking with reporters over the phone. In reality, on the other end of reporters’ questions was Blade’s CEO, Rob Wiesenthal. The company claims everything on record attributed to McLaren is factually accurate.

Oddly enough, the company’s spokesperson McLaren soon took on a life outside of traditional media relations, even penning a blog that explored his experience throughout the pandemic and writing a regular newsletter. Blade also released a letter, supposedly written by McLaren, announcing his departure. After years of deceit, Wiesenthal came clean in an interview with Business Insider.
As an explanation for this bizarre behavior, Wiesenthal told reporters that, “When it was appropriate for a spokesperson to respond to a press inquiry rather than the CEO, given that we did not have a spokesperson, we used the pseudonym . . .”

There’s real value in having a firewall in the form of a spokesperson – sometimes CEOs don’t want to be in the line of fire and/or need to keep their distance from a crisis situation. They should have an actual spokesperson. In other words, Wiesenthal’s reasoning is valid, but the way he went about it was all wrong. Faking a PR person impacts brand integrity and image, creating mistrust and raising a lot of questions about a brand’s values and ethics.

While it’s understandable that as a startup the company likely didn’t have the resources to maintain a full-time spokesperson, we have to wonder why, as the company grew, they didn’t look to experienced communications and media professionals to support their brand’s reputation. If they had, they could have saved themselves from becoming synonymous with this strange scandal.

We know CEOs want to be in-the-know about all things related to their brand, and especially want to keep tabs on the perception of their company in the general public. Their primary interests are to protect their business, support its growth and build brand reputation. But media relations is not a part-time job, and it’s definitely not one that can be handled by an invented person or a busy CEO. While Blade clearly understood the value of a spokesperson and a communications team, they didn’t understand the value of having an experienced or even real one.

Media relations is a craft mastered over years and requires extensive experience. Having a team specialized in media relations, either internally or as a third-party partner, allows a CEO to stay in the know while their team deftly builds media relationships, shares a company’s mission and values and insulates a brand from crises.

Without a proper communications team in place, your company not only suffers from inattention, but it can also be at risk for a potential crisis and/or end up being misrepresented in the media. A communications team is also essential in growing a business from day one, as we’ve discussed in our blog about PR for startups.

A developed communications operation enables a company to grow and reach new customers and investors. Experienced PR professionals understand what your stakeholders are interested in and the most valuable story your brand has to tell. Most importantly, they can tell you when your actions, as well-intentioned as they may be, could land you in hot water, rather than in the hearts of your audiences and potential investors.

No matter the stage your company is in, invest in communications. It can only help, from growing your market share to giving you a better sense of what your brand really is.

Blade has since hired a PR agency, something a seasoned professional would have told them to do long ago.

Apology PR for Brands

November 9, 2020

Whether it be the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad or Peleton’s 2019 Christmas campaign, out-of-touch marketing from brands and corporations is all too common and frequently misses the mark, offending consumers. With social media making it easier than ever before for consumers to hold brands accountable for missteps, it is essential that companies own and publicly address their mistakes and familiarize themselves with issuing apologies.

Although apologizing seems like an obvious and straightforward approach to preserving a brand’s image, many companies still get it wrong. Botched corporate apologies often come as a result of a failure to admit wrongdoing or an attempt to assign blame externally. Insincere apologies will only create more damage to brand image and make ensuing apologies less impactful.

To survive in the era of smartphones, online reviews and social media, having a plan in place to own and correct mistakes is critical. Below are some key components of a successful high-profile apology.

Denial Has No Place in an Apology – Take Accountability

Refusing to take accountability is a defensive mechanism and is simply human nature. But, this impulse is what often leads brands astray when issuing public apology statements. Brands that respond to consumer backlash with denial and excuses appear to be redirecting blame, which often causes further controversy and damage to company image.

Instead of getting defensive, brands should respect the feelings of their consumers and take accountability for the harm they’ve caused. Everyone can relate to how difficult a sincere apology can be, and consumers will appreciate a company’s willingness to accept blame and appear vulnerable in an extremely public setting.

Choose Your Words Wisely

Another critical aspect of a successful brand apology is sounding human instead of like a corporation. Companies should avoid using overly conservative professional language or jargon when issuing public statements, as this will come across as disingenuous and calculated.

Simple language is always better in these cases because it sounds more sincere. Saying “I’m sorry if I offended anyone,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” comes off as deflective.

For example, after Peloton received backlash over its 2019 Christmas campaign, the company issued a statement that said: “While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.” Unsurprisingly, the company continued to be criticized and ridiculed on social media following the statement.

A straight-forward “I’m sorry” will always go a lot farther than a backhanded apology.

Make a Plan – And Stick to It

Last but not least, actions speak louder than words. A crucial component of any brand apology is a promise to do better in the future. Consumers want to see that the company apologizing has reflected on its mistake and come up with a thoughtful and action-oriented plan to prevent future missteps.

However, the work must continue after the apology statement has been issued. Brands must make good on their promise to do better and actively demonstrate to their consumers that they are committing to the plan they set for themselves to become a more responsible organization. Failing to do so will likely result in, well, another apology.

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