Part III: Crisis at the Podium
By Nick Guadagnino
It was a long, tiring week. First, people endured the tone-deaf Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner. Then came the “re-accommodation” of Dr. Dao aboard United Airlines Flight 3411. So by April 11, people were exhausted. And when I say people, I mean me. Watching two PR crises unfold takes a lot out of you, especially for someone who makes a living in the PR industry. But hindsight is 20/20, and I should’ve known this was no ordinary week. To cap it all off, we now turn to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
April 11, 2017
In his daily press briefing, Spicer issued a statement regarding the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack that took place one week earlier in Syria. After denouncing Russia’s support of the Syrian government, Spicer went on to discuss the Assad regime, making a comparison that was simultaneously offensive and woefully inaccurate.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
History shows that this statement is false, as hydrogen cyanide, the active component in Zyklon B which was used by the Nazis in gas chambers, was officially declared a chemical weapon in 1993.
Okay, so Spicer made a mistake. There’s still time in the press conference to apologize and own up to the remarks. Shortly after his initial comment was made, a reporter asked him to clarify his statement, giving him the prime opportunity to apologize.
But if he had, chances are I wouldn’t be writing about it now.
Instead, while attempting to clarify his statement, he dug himself into a deeper hole, defending his remarks and referring to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.” To add insult to injury, these remarks coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Calls for his resignation flooded both the Internet and Capitol Hill. Fortunately, Spicer regrouped and appeared on CNN the following morning to make the following apology:
“I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison. For that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”
The lessons learned from Sean Spicer’s mistake, other than refraining from mentioning Hitler and the Holocaust altogether, can be applied to the Pepsi and United Airlines incidents. In short, it’s as simple as owning up to your mistake. The wrongdoing can’t be undone, so the sooner you get in front of the story, the better off you’ll be. But before you make a statement, make sure it’s genuine. The public will see right through any and all corporate speak, making it more difficult to get back into their good graces.
It was one long week, but also one filled with case studies that will be taught in public relations courses for years to come. So maybe it was all worth it in the long run? Although, I’m sure Pepsi, United Airlines, and Sean Spicer would disagree.