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May 24, 2020 | 5 min read

Making Lemonade from Lemons: 5 Brands that Bounced Back from Major PR Disasters

Thought Leadership

Brands come and go, but some have more staying power than others.

There’s bad PR, and then there’s really bad PR. Whether businesses are the focus of an ethics scandal or their products have a habit of spontaneously combusting, highly publicized scrutiny can wreak havoc on consumers’ perception of brands and shareholder confidence.

However, negative attention doesn’t have to send companies into a death spiral. With strategic planning and a commitment to improvement, it’s possible to bounce back from the edge. Wondering how that’s possible? Check out these five companies that managed to make a comeback after major PR disasters.

1. Samsung

When Samsung first unveiled the Galaxy Note 7, techies the world over were prepared for a smartphone head-to-head between the Korean electronics giant and Apple. There was only one problem: the phone’s batteries kept catching on fire.

Posing a particular hazard on planes, the model was pulled off the market. Unfortunately for the brand, the recall happened to coincide with a related, ongoing bribery scandal involving Lee Jae-young, the company’s billionaire chairman, that ultimately led to the resignation of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president. The company’s chairman has since been arrested in connection with that bribery case, but remarkably, this negative publicity hasn’t dealt a death blow to the brand.

Buoyed by the release of the Galaxy Note 8, Samsung has seen surging stock values over the last year. With its highest operating profit ever, it’s clear that delivering an improved product — i.e., one that doesn’t explode — has guided South Korea’s largest conglomerate out of the PR wilderness.

2. Chick-fil-A

Americans have a penchant for consumer activism, and that’s landed Chick-fil-A in hot water more than once. Because the fast-food company has contributed to political advocacy groups that oppose gay marriage, it’s found itself the subject of numerous boycotts — not to mention anti-boycotts in which opponents of gay marriage promised to eat at the fried chicken chain on a regular basis. Powerful, no?

Ultimately, Chick-fil-A redirected most of its charitable donations to less controversial organizations. And while the chain continues to direct some funding to questionable causes, it continues to see sustained growth — and revenue in the billions.

3. Volkswagen

Back in 2015, the EPA charged Volkswagen with cheating on emissions tests. Using illegal software that could detect when vehicles were being monitored and subsequently adjusting their performance to meet regulatory standards, the German automaker was slapped with billions of dollars in fines, and declining sales around the world as a result.

Since then, the company has promised to compensate customers for damages, fix affected vehicles, or buy them back entirely — an ongoing process that so far has incurred a price tag of $6.4 billion. Although Volkswagen is only beginning the process of brand rehabilitation, sales are beginning to rise again, and for the first time, the company’s stock has surpassed its pre-scandal value.

4. Korean Air

Sometimes bad PR is beyond a brand’s immediate control; take Korean Air as an example. The daughters of the company’s CEO have become notorious for their outsized tantrums: one daughter went into a “nut rage” in 2014 over the snacks she was served in her first class cabin and demanded that the plane return to its gate, while the other daughter became notorious this year for her own “water rage” incident, during which she threw water in an executive’s face.

While the family struggles through investigations over potential customs violations, the CEO has taken the extraordinary step of firing his own daughters. Although the tantrums have become infamous in South Korea, the public reaction to the terminations has thus far been positive.

5. Pepsi

While some PR disasters are the result of clear ethics violations (see Volkswagen), others are the byproduct of good intentions gone wrong. When Pepsi decided to put Kendall Jenner in a commercial in which she effectively diffuses a protest by giving a police officer an ice cold can of soda — it’s that easy, kids! — they may have thought they were zeroing in on the anti-establishment zeitgeist of Millennials and Generation Z. Instead, the ad inspired such a sustained outburst of public anger that it was unclear how the company would respond.

Wisely, Pepsi pulled the ad almost immediately and apologized for using what many saw as Black Lives Matter symbolism to promote their brand. By responding to consumer complaints responsibly rather than digging in their heels, the company has been able to avoid long-term fallout from the ill-advised campaign.

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