Year in Review: Winners and losers in communications - Part Two

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Earlier this week, we highlighted some of the impressive home runs in communications in 2018. Today it’s time to run down some of the pitiful strikeouts. Some of these misses are proof positive that the communications field is in need of more innovative, agile and pro-active thinkers, while others show how a smart crisis management strategy can mitigate reputational damage.

It’s hard to know where to even begin with Facebook. Every day, we learn of yet another personal friend or high-profile celebrity deleting their accounts in disgust. Every week brings grim new headlines about the utter disregard Facebook still has for its users’ privacy, and its role in helping Russian trolls elect Donald Trump by handing over the data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s apologies and various efforts to mend fences with the public, the negative headlines don’t quit: The New York Times just reported that Facebook had failed to disclose it permitted companies like Netflix and Spotify to read user’s private messages, and shared other private data with Microsoft and Amazon. Rather than embracing full transparency as the first scandals erupted, Facebook’s communications strategy has consistently been secretive, opaque and dishonest. The result? A steadily declining stock price and a looming lawsuit.

Apple, meantime, got some rare bad press following years of fawning media attention prior to every product launch. The tech giant spent early 2018 dealing with the fallout after it was revealed that it throttled iPhone performance in order to maximize battery life. It was a sneaky move, kept under wraps, and it angered consumers who suspected it was aimed at forcing them to upgrade to newer, more expensive phones. The company finally apologized, though not before issuing a defensive explanation, and offered a cheap battery replacement for older phones. But it left a sour taste in the mouths of smartphone users and resulted in a sea of stories questioning Apple’s integrity.

H&M is a Swedish retail clothing chain popular around the world. So it’s hard to fathom why anyone in the company’s marketing department believed that putting a black boy in a hoodie emblazoned with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” for an ad campaign was a good idea. And yet, it did. The backlash was swift and furious, with celebrities like Canada’s The Weeknd cutting ties. H&M immediately withdrew the ad and apologized for it, and participated in an anti-racism conference in South Africa in November to discuss the measures it has since taken to raise awareness about race issues at the company. But how, or why, the ad wasn’t spiked the very first time it was proposed is a mystery. It suggests a disturbing, company-wide lack of diversity and sensitivity, and you have to pity the communications people who had to deal with the fallout of such a dumb and offensive ad campaign.

Some companies, however, clutched victory out of the jaws of defeat in 2018. KFC ran out of chicken at most of its 900 U.K. locations as the year kicked off due to switching delivery partners. It’s hard to imagine a bigger blunder for a well-established brand. Customers were miffed, and KFC responded not only with full transparency about what had gone wrong and why, but it came out with a brilliant play on the KFC name with its FCK, We’re Sorry print advertisement that subsequently won an advertising award. It featured this hilariously British and understated line: “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” Using transparency, humour and humility, KFC recovered well -- a good lesson for any company in crisis.

Finally, Starbucks too dealt deftly with a public relations disaster when it was revealed that two black customers in Philadelphia were arrested when employees accused them of trespassing and not buying anything. In fact, they were awaiting the arrival of a colleague for a business meeting. The company faced protests and widespread scrutiny about how it handled the incident, and then did the right thing: It ordered North American stores closed to train thousands of employees on the phenomenon of unconscious racial bias. As Provident’s founder and managing partner Wojtek Dabrowski told Strategy Magazine: “From giving heft to the issue to showing your customer that this is absolutely core to the values and to the meaning of what it means to be a good corporate citizen, I think Starbucks gets an A plus for the move.” A shame such training wasn’t already in place, however, considering Starbuck’s presence in many of the most diverse cities in the world.