Communication is Key: How Pepsi and United Airlines Failed to Save their Reputations

Over the past few weeks, national focus has shifted away from political drama to put the spotlight on the questionable actions of some of the largest brands in the country, Pepsi and United Airlines.

Both companies made mistakes that went viral, and consequently stirred national conversations that damaged their reputations. Intentional or not, mistakes happen. What is most important after a mistake is made, though, is how these large companies react to their missteps.

Media coverage of a “scandal” will focus on every detail, including how the company attempts to resolve or justify their actions. The media also jump on every opportunity to sensationalize issues to boost clicks and ratings, which can cause serious issues for the subjects involved.

The journalistic mentality of “if it bleeds, it leads” does wonders for media outlets as they captivate their audiences; but it can end up making issues worse than they actually are.


In an attempt to both sell their product and promote global unity, Pepsi released an ad that did more harm than good. The two-and-a-half minute video features supermodel and reality television star, Kendall Jenner, joining a protest and ending police-protester tension by simply handing a police officer a can of Pepsi.

The ad received immediate backlash by viewers, who criticized Pepsi for a long list of faux paus, particularly by suggesting that social unrest can be eased by a can of soda.

Pepsi is not the first beverage company to suggest that their product can unify the world– this is a direct tactic from its competitor, Coca Cola, who frequently uses its product and brand to suggest world unity and peace, as seen in its 1971 ‘Hilltop’ ad and 2014 ‘America the Beautiful’ SuperBowl ad.

With the recent focus on police brutality in the United States, many viewers saw the Pepsi ad as a mocking of prominent social justice groups, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Scenes from the ad seem to parallel the iconic photo of Leshia Evans facing police during violent protests in Baton Rouge:

Jonathan Bachman (R) / You Tube/Reuters

Furthermore, the ad has been criticized for using a white model as the peacemaker. Pepsi’s casting of Kendall Jenner particularly has been a point of contention. The model is a member of the Kardashian family, known for their notorious fame, wealth, and cultural appropriation in fashion. Jenner’s role as a representative of social unrest didn’t translate as well as Pepsi may have hoped.

The discussion of Pepsi’s error carried through social media platforms, leading to the creation of memes, endless jokes and critical comparisons of the commercial to historic protests that were not (but maybe could have been!) resolved by handing police cans of Pepsi.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, joined the conversation, posting this tweet:

The widespread criticism of the ad caused Pepsi to remove the ad and recall future advertisements with their “Live for Now Moments” campaign, making a statement on Twitter:

This apology, too, became the subject of media backlash. Critics question how Pepsi could have thought their ad did not directly mirror many social issues, and how their creative team could have put such a “tone-deaf” campaign together.

As the backlash unfolded online, news outlets began to pick apart the advertisement, criticizing Pepsi’s creative team and executives, and Kendall Jenner. While this advertisement was clearly not perceived as Pepsi intended it to be, the media amplified the coverage and outrage by only playing select clips of the ad on air– particularly the scene of Jenner giving the police a Pepsi. By only showing clips, rather than the full ad (especially after Pepsi pulled the video) the media controlled the narrative and increased the criticism of Pepsi.

Pepsi’s reaction to the criticism was to give in and apologize. If Pepsi had tried to defend their actions, the scandal most likely would have been much more drawn out. In the future, Pepsi will need to re-evaluate their communication plans and figure out a better way to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.”

United Airlines

Just a few days later, United Airlines was able to one-up Pepsi in public relations scandals when it forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight just weeks after facing criticism for barring two girls from its flight for wearing leggings.

The scene was recorded by several passengers, all of whom witnessed the removal of a randomly selected passenger who refused to give up his seat, ending with the passenger being physically dragged down the aisle of the plane.

Videos of the removal went viral. The scene brought up familiar conversations of police brutality, and the video of 69-year-old physician, David Dao, was on repeat throughout the week.

This event was the perfect news package– a dramatic, graphic video that impacts an industry that nearly everyone is a customer of at some point. It is undoubtedly an event that needed to be exposed; however, the excessive media coverage made matters worse for both United and the Dao family.

Following the event, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

However, this apology was not enough for Dao or for the public.

Munoz then made a letter to his employees public, highlighting the point that they will “do better,” and that “it is never too late to do the right thing.”

Munoz later appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to apologize again and later promised to refund every passenger on the flight and Dr. Dao’s lawyers and his daughter, Crystal Dao Pepper, held a press conference outlining Dr. Dao’s injuries sustained during the incident.

As a result, United customers have threatened to boycott the airline and United stocks dropped significantly. The outrage spread to China, where claims spread that Dao was kicked off because he is Asian.

Media outlets picked up on the potential for racial motivation, although the airline operated within its rights to conduct a random selection process for removing customers. Three other customers who were asked to leave complied.

Dao’s lawyers say there will be a lawsuit, which will continue to develop in the coming weeks.

If that wasn’t enough controversy for United, a passenger on a separate flight was stung by a scorpion on the same day that Dao was dragged off the plane.

Media outlets have followed this controversy step by step. Perhaps most disturbing is the frequency with which the clip of Dao being dragged was played, with the audio of him screaming. The video was played throughout the week, even as the story developed far past the scene on the flight.

While United should be exposed and criticized for its actions, Dr. Dao’s privacy should be considered and respected. It’s bad enough that he became the victim in this incident and replaying it consistently certainly does not make it easier for his family and lawyers to proceed in resolving and recovering from this issue.

Both Pepsi and United have garnered significant media attention as their respective scandals have unfolded. The media has hopped on every development to continue the dramatic narratives, constantly replaying clips and headlines to fill the 24-hour news cycle and sparking global outrage.

As these companies continue to receive backlash for their mistakes, and how they respond to them, the media will continue the conversation. Although these public companies seem to be out of touch with public opinion, media outlets have provided a medium for these discussions to unfold. However, the media must be conscious of overdoing their dramatic reporting of these scandals and prioritize the facts as each scenario unfolds.

Pepsi, United, and other companies will hopefully learn from these mistakes and begin public relations campaigns that actually unify, rather than divide. Meanwhile, the media should cautiously approach each new scandal, avoiding sensationalized headlines and accusations and focusing on the facts. We will have to wait and see, though, if the saying “any news is good news” holds.

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