Even if they won’t admit it, people love scandals. Drama is entertaining, and there are plenty of folks out there that love nothing more than piling on criticism when a person or brand is caught doing something they shouldn’t.
Whether it’s an eco-friendly brand committing crimes against the environment, immoral behavior from an executive, or a deceitful marketing practice being unearthed by a whistleblower, perceived misconduct can sink a brand in days — even if it took years to build.
Customers, legacy media outlets, and social media users can all jump on a brand scandal as soon as it appears, and quickly turn it into a PR nightmare. Once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s almost impossible to put it back in — especially online, where the internet never forgets.
Outrage causes clicks, and money talks, so there’s always an appetite for it. Unfortunately for brand managers, it means that if something goes wrong, you have to act quickly, decisively, and honestly if you want to salvage your reputation alongside the goodwill you’ve worked so hard to build.
That said, before you learn how to deal with one, it’s important to know what makes a scandal. What better way to understand them than taking a walk down the hall of fame of past brand scandals?
What is Considered a Brand Scandal?
A brand scandal is any event that can cause significant long-term damage to the public perception of a company.
It’s all about how people see the brand. Perceived wrongdoings can lead to an unfavorable view from the public, threatening your brand's current strength, and jeopardizing its future — if you don’t have a good crisis management plan.
Most of the biggest global brands have dealt with public relations crises at one point or another. The bigger the brand, the bigger the financial effect of a scandal can be. That said, some brands are big and powerful enough to take a hit and shrug off all but the most serious of PR disasters — while smaller firms in a growth stage can sink before hitting the critical mass they need to survive scandals.
If any brand is synonymous with “brand scandal”, it's Uber.
In recent years, Uber has been plagued by a steady stream of scandals and negative publicity, including revelations of questionable spy programs, a high-stakes technology lawsuit, sexual harassment and discrimination claims, and embarrassing leaks about executive conduct.
Business Insider published a stunning list of Uber’s 49 biggest scandals (the title implying that there are more than 49!) just after their IPO in 2019, and it’s a heck of a read.
This, of course, is a company that has a market cap of $73 billion, which shows it’s going to take something almighty to bring them down.
But giant brands aren’t always safe from the sheer power of negative publicity. When Kendall Jenner appeared in a controversial Pepsi ad in 2017, it caused a scandal that took months to recover from.
In the commercial, Kendall handed a can of Pepsi to a police officer in an attempt to end a protest. Many fans slammed the ad for seemingly making light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Commentators on social media also accused Pepsi of appropriating imagery from serious protests to sell its product, while minimizing the danger that protesters encounter.
While the drinks brand certainly didn’t disappear, it did suffer nine months of its lowest brand perception levels seen in almost a decade, having a clear negative effect on sales of its drink.
Despite this, Uber, Pepsi, and other giant brands have survived such PR crises and still thrive today. But big brands and start-ups alike can face a scandal, and if you’re at the helm of a brand that’s going through some negative press, it’s crucial that you act quickly and appropriately. Otherwise, the flames might reach a tipping point and burn down everything you’ve built so far.
How Your Brand Can Recover After a Scandal
Branding and marketing teams are mainly responsible for driving the public perception of brands. But despite their efforts, processes, and structures, a scandal can erupt unexpectedly; during a product launch, a tweet taken out of context, a failure in internal processes, an employee's misconduct.
The list of things that can go wrong is pretty long, and you won’t be able to make a concrete plan for every single one of them.
The recovery journey from a brand scandal isn’t linear, either — there’s no definitive playbook as no two brands are the same or share the same circumstances. But although the dynamics and approach may be different, the overarching strategies for dealing with a brand scandal can be applied in different situations.
Here are some of the actions that can be taken to help your brand get back on its feet.
1. Identify the hot zones first
A brand scandal is similar to the breakout of a fire. When a fire breaks out, firefighters get on the scene immediately and identify what needs to be dealt with first.
Despite the flames of tension, it’s the job of the brand or marketing manager to assess the situation and act swiftly. Can the situation be resolved with a public statement? Will it need an investigation? Does an employee need to be suspended?
Just like wildfire, scandals spread quickly, and the quicker you get to it, the quicker it can be controlled. The job of the chief firefighter — in this case, the branding or marketing manager — is to ensure that the flames don’t become unmanageable.
Sometimes, this involves making recommendations to other company executives on what to do internally. Either way, do what you can now, and set things in motion that address the root cause of what’s happened.
2. Tell people what you’re doing about it
Nothing looks worse than a prolonged period of silence following a scandal. Some brands do choose this, but what firefighter just sits around waiting for the fire to go out? Rightly or wrongly, the public can link this refusal to comment with a guilty conscience — so it’s rarely a smart play.
A communication gap can be filled with misinterpretation, fear, and dread. The first step should be a public statement. You need to let the public know you’re looking into what happened to show you care, even if it’s going to take a while to resolve.
Clear and robust communication across various platforms for as long as the fire lasts is better than keeping quiet. Addressing the crisis promptly shows both the public and your employees that the company takes the issue seriously, and is committed to resolving the crisis. This is the foundation for rebuilding the reputation of your brand.
3. Focus on rebuilding trust
Whoever heard of a firefighter that keeps apologizing about the fire damage without actually putting it out?
After a brand scandal, you can divide your audience into three buckets:
People who are still loyal to the brand
People who will never patronize the brand's products or services again
People who are open to changing their minds about the brand.
As a brand or marketing manager, you should nurture the first group, accept the second, and focus efforts on the third.
Visible commitment to transparency and the rebuilding of trust among the first and third groups can incite positive, long-term changes in public perception and outlook of your brand — and might even earn the forgiveness of the second group.
Your brand’s ability to move on from a scandal is critical to it achieving renewed traction in the market. This is by deliberate action — as we can see in the example of Samsung. While the global recall of the dangerously defective Note 7 device is said to have cost the Samsung brand the better part of $6 billion, the company rebounded quickly with the significant success of its Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus.
In a world where consumers always want to know what’s next, the brands that can bounce back from adversity and present new, exciting and popular follow-ups will quickly win back the confidence and interest of consumers.
4. Put structures in place
Once you go through a brand crisis once, you won’t want to have to do it again. But it is a possibility, so it’s time to learn from the experience and put processes in place — both short-term and long-term.
This has to include listening to what people are saying about the brand online (social listening) and using brand tracking to get direct, measurable insights into people’s perception of your brand.
It’s also wise to make a crisis playbook for your company to deal with issues like this, addressing questions like:
Who has final sign-off on public statements addressing a crisis?
Do we have a PR agency ready to help at short notice?
Are we documenting issues as they happen, or sweeping them under the rug?
How do we deal internally with scandals involving misconduct?
Who do we consult for legal advice when it’s necessary?
Systems and structures will help your brand cope with the difficulties of a scandal, and stop you from running around like headless chickens when things go wrong.
For your brand to make a comeback from a scandal, it must admit its mistake openly with concern for those affected. A crisis plan that puts reputation as a priority must be in place and enforced efficiently. All “firefighters” must be on standby to listen to media coverage and customer perception and respond appropriately.
While it might initially seem like all hell has broken loose, remember that other brands have walked this difficult road and survived. Use the incident as an opportunity to grow and learn.
Setbacks from brand scandals can be turned into stepping stones to make the company behind the brand more robust in the long term. It’s an opportunity to grow, get better, root out the problematic parts of your business — and rebound with a better sense of ethics and responsibility.
However strict the court of public opinion is, most people love a good comeback and will often root for a fallen brand that is making an honest attempt at earning the public’s trust again. A successful comeback can turn a scandal into a memory. It won't happen overnight, but with consistent messaging and deliberate action, any brand can make a successful comeback.