Pepsi, United and Trump

A take-no-prisoners media strategy isn’t working out so well for American companies

photo by @chrismelberger

Over the past week, two massive American corporations found themselves ensnared in PR nightmares entirely of their own making. Instead of owning up to their mistakes and apologizing, their first instinct was to double down and blame the victim.

Call it the Trump Strategy: deflect, lie and bully your way to glory. This is unfortunately what passes for “leadership” nowadays. Corporate America has watched an outsider businessman ascend to the highest office in the land by conning the public and refusing to back down — and whether they realize it or not, executives across the nation seem to be somehow absorbing these unorthodox media relations techniques, to their own detriment.

The thing is, that while gaslighting may have worked for Trump — a master manipulator encircled by so many dumpster fires that it’s impossible to extinguish them all — it’s shaping up to be a disastrous strategy for everybody else.

Twitter blew up last week after Pepsi released an epically tone-deaf ad, exploiting the iconography of the Black Lives Matter movement while stripping it of all political meaning. It must have required serious effort to produce something so asinine, and the company’s official statement following the social media outcry was (almost) equally stupid.

“This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an import [sic] message to convey,” Pepsi said in an official statement that was sent to the press with a typo in it.

What Pepsi meant was “sorry you were offended, but you obviously didn’t get our message,” without understanding that if nobody was getting the message, it’s entirely Pepsi’s fault. The company’s response was weirdly reminiscent of the White House’s reaction following concerns that Trump failed to mention the primary victims of the Holocaust — a.k.a. the Jews — in his press release on Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

“Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered,” White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks told CNN.

Even in the face of criticism from organizations such as the the Anti-Defamation League and the Anne Frank Center, the White House didn’t back down from its claim that, like Pepsi, they were just trying to be inclusive. White House press secretary Sean Spicer went so far as to call critics of the president’s statement “pathetic” and said they should be happy that Trump went out of his way to acknowledge the Holocaust at all. There were no apologies or corrections or clarifications or amplifications. Exasperated, the media moved on to the next crisis.

But for Pepsi, the double-down strategy wound up prolonging its pain. Following the official statement that the ad was merely celebrating diversity, the ad continued to go viral and, in a time of great political polarization, wound up bringing people of all walks of life together — not so much in harmony, but rather in universal condemnation of its ridiculously offensive two-minute message. Quite possibly the only thing that liberals and conservatives have been able to agree upon since November 9th is the fact that the Pepsi ad sucked.

A few hours later, Pepsi realized that perhaps the company was alone in thinking that the ad illustrated the “spirit of harmony” and decided to apologize and pull it from YouTube. The company released a second statement agreeing with critics that it “missed the mark” — a bit of an understatement, but O.K. — and added that “we did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

As a final insult, Pepsi reserved a specific apology, not to the Black Lives Matter organizers, or all the other people they offended with their milquetoast cultural appropriation, but to Kendall Jenner, the famous model who probably earned at few million dollars for a couple of minutes of work on the ad.

Just as the Pepsi crisis was blowing over on Sunday following a brilliant SNL parody, another company signed on as the architect of its own misery. After a video of a beaten and bloodied passenger getting dragged off of an oversold United Airlines flight went viral on Sunday, the company stuck to the same Trumpian blame-the-victim strategy.

First, a United spokesperson released a statement saying that the customer, Dr. David Dao, “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily,” leading to some serious head-scratching over the meaning of “volunteering.” Even Merriam-Webster weighed in on Twitter, saying that a volunteer is “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” (In other words, Dr. Dao was not a volunteer. He was volun-TOLD.)

United CEO Oscar Muñoz released a statement euphemistically apologizing “for having to re-accommodate these passengers,” leaving us all to wonder about the meaning of “re-accommodate.” (Like, that time Mike Tyson had to “re-accommodate” Evander Holyfield’s ear, wrote journalist David Shuster.)

In a subsequent letter to employees, Muñoz took a stronger tone, doubling down on the victim blaming by calling Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and arguing that the police had no choice but to forcibly remove him from the aircraft.

Anybody who has seen the video footage, like the hundreds of millions of people who watched it in China, would dispute this assessment of the situation. Then, media reports of this passenger’s trouble with the law started emerging — hmmm, I wonder who tipped reporters off with the timely oppo research — as if having a felony conviction from 2005 has anything to do with what happened on the plane on a Sunday in 2017.

It took a full three days, not to mention the specter of a lawsuit, for Muñoz to do what he should have done on Sunday: apologize fully and without reservations. Appearing on Good Morning America on Wednesday, when Dr. Dao was still in the hospital recovering from a concussion, broken nose and missing teeth, Muñoz finally said: “The first thing that I think is important to say is to apologize to Dr. Dao, his family, the passengers on that flight, our customers, our employees — that is not who our family at United is,” and adding that people “saw us at a bad moment.”

A well-known CEO I was fortunate enough to get to know when I was writing for the Wall Street Journal often liked to say “the fish stinks from the head.” The first time I heard him use this phrase was back in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis. What he meant was that ultimately, a leader is to blame for anything bad that may happen on his or her watch. That is the job.

I couldn’t stop thinking of that quote this week, and how quaint it seems, as executives deflect responsibility and blame their customers. Then I think about the big “fish” in the White House from whom they’re probably taking their moral leadership cues.

The smell is getting worse and worse every day.