Rebuilding a Brand’s Reputation

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


These 10 brands attempted, some more successfully than others, to bounce back from potentially game-ending disasters. Here's what you can learn from them.

During an ice storm at New York's JFK airport, JetBlue made the regrettable decision to keep passengers aboard a plane on the runway while food supplies dwindled and outrage grew. The situation erupted in a media frenzy, and JetBlue's response perhaps drew more fans than it lost during the maelstrom: it created a "Passengers Bill of Rights," a tongue-in-cheek policy "dedicated to bringing humanity back to air travel." The company CEO, David Neeleman, appeared on David Letterman later that week to diffuse the situation even further.

In November 2009, word got out that Tiger Woods was a cheater; not on the golf course, but in his personal life. He admitted to having nearly 120 affairs during his marriage. The salacious news caused a variety of his sponsors to pull out of deals, including Gillette, Accenture, and AT&T—which cost Woods a reported $20 million, according to Sports Illustrated. After a quick, tearful apology to his fans on national television, Tiger's method of averting a disaster was to try his best to slink out of the public eye. Woods announced that he would not play in any tournaments for the rest of 2009.

In October of 2010, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Facebook was unwittingly feeding information about its users to third-party app developers and advertisers. The report came after months, if not years, of scrutiny over concerns about Facebook's relatively lax security controls, so the news struck a serious chord among the company's most vocal privacy critics. In response, the company admitted the error, and amended its privacy policy. The company also partnered with TRUSTe, a Web start-up that offers privacy compliance certification.

In April of 2010, the world watched, horrified, as oil spewed nonstop into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. Thousands of birds, fish, and other wildlife were killed, not to mention the thousands of small businesses along the coast forced to close or relocate. More than 350 lawsuits were filed against the company. In response, BP set up a $20 billion damages fund, which company lawyers argued "far exceeded" the legal requirement, and mobilized 48,000 people, 6,500 vessels, and deployed 2,500 miles of boom to contain or absorb the oil. It even set up a YouTube channel dedicated to documenting the clean-up.

When Martha Stewart went to prison after being convicted of lying to government officials about a stock sale in 2005, she made the best of her situation. According to her biography, she requested a job in the prison kitchen, and planted fresh vegetables in the prison garden to improve the prison meals. Stewart's method for averting disaster is clear: just keep going. Since her release, she has "designed new homes, forged a slew of merchandise deals, completed a 750-page book, and launched her 24-hour radio channel," according to a recent BusinessWeek article.

Ever since Michael Vick was arrested, convicted, and served prison time for his involvement in dog fighting, he's turned a complete 180. After numerous public apologies, the Philadelphia Eagles QB became a spokesperson for animal rights, and has toured the country speaking out against dog fighting in the offseason. The Associated Press named Vick the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

When news reports surfaced in 2005 that a Wendy's customer found a finger in her chili, people were stunned—and a bit disgusted, no doubt. Company officials scrambled, offering a $100,000 reward for the "owner" of the finger and suffered an estimated $15 million loss in sales, not to mention being the butt of countless late-night jokes. When it came out that the woman planted the finger in the chili in order to extort a settlement from the company, Wendy's CEO was adamant that he believed it was a hoax to begin with, telling USA Today: "My first response was 'I cannot believe it.' And I said, 'This is a hoax. And we have to get to the bottom of it.'"

The "Chicago Tylenol Murders" is a 1982 reference to when cyanide was slipped into several packages of Tylenol, killing seven people. The company responded swiftly, offering a $100,000 reward for the capture of the person responsible, though the reward was never claimed. The company also moved quickly to recall all bottles from store shelves nationwide and set up hotlines for concerned customers, earning praise from The Washington Post, which noted "the company is candid, contrite, and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public."

After a video of rats scurrying around the floor of a KFC/Taco Bell in New York hit YouTube, the stock of Yum Brands, which owns the fast food chains, fell nearly two percent in one day. The company issued a press release stating that "nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers" and that this was an "isolated incident at a single restaurant at 331 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York, and it is totally unacceptable." Still, plenty of PR experts were critical of the response. One, Jim Prevor, noted: "Yum Brands didn't fight back. It didn't buy ads on search engines and web sites so that when consumers went looking for information they would get a positive story. It didn't use its own websites to present an alternative narrative."

As it unravels, Murdoch's News of the World scandal, in which employees are accused of phone hacking and police bribery, offers fresh perspective on how a company should comport itself during a crisis. On Saturday, July 16th, Murdoch decided on a bold route: The newspaper magnate took a full-page ad in every newspaper in England with a giant title saying, "We are sorry."

Radhika Sivadi