Best and worst crisis management in 2021

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In a world where the reputations of politicians and celebrities can turn on a dime thanks to the power of social media, here’s a look at some of the most notable PR saves and fails of the year.

Savvy public figures who successfully weathered crisis public relations storms in 2021 left nothing to chance, defended their reputations and took control of their narratives fast. Such strategic crisis management moves are the building blocks of effective reputation management and the reason why these A-listers were able to survive and thrive despite challenges.

Inversely, gaslighting the public, denying the facts and refusing to accept responsibility for errors of judgment are colossal crisis management missteps that led to tarnished reputations for some high-profile persons this year. 

Here’s a review of the best and worst of high-stakes crisis management in 2021.

The Best Crisis PR

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — Love them or hate them, these riveting royals took control of the narrative and turned the tide in their favor during their bombshell-laden interview with media maven Oprah Winfrey last March. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, and her husband, Prince Harry, tackled a range of ugly accusations in an interview that took the high road — and came out looking stronger for it.

Their Oprah interview was a meticulously engineered production, from the way the shots were framed to the participants’ flawless clothing, hair and makeup. It was a masterclass in preparedness: Oprah knew what to ask and how to ask it, while Harry and Meghan came out looking like the “good guys.”

The media-savvy couple proved they know how to use the modern media, unlike the royal family, whose PR operation is antiquated. The young royals’ Q&A effectively shifted the PR crisis and blame upon the royal family.

Cardi B — This outspoken rapper came under fire for allegedly trash-talking fellow rappers on Instagram, but quickly debunked attempts to “cancel” her on Twitter by hitting back at haters head-on. She didn’t wait for the crisis to spin out of control to set the record straight, knowing that time is of the essence and it’s either sink or swim. 

She took charge again when backlash broke out in March over an X-rated song. Rather than sidestepping, Cardi B continued her fight for free speech, performed the song widely, and noted that her music is not meant for children. Her actions illustrated that Cardi B can have a positive influence on women in general, is unapologetically herself, works hard to cultivate a relatable brand and is very open about staying in her marriage, despite challenges. Cardi B scored extra crisis PR points by participating in a Thanksgiving cooking show that clearly showed her baby bump and portrayed her as sweet, funny and vulnerable.

Mackenzie Scott — The philanthropist ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, provided an excellent example of successful crisis management in 2021, scoring high points for everything from the collegial way she handled her very public divorce to donating nearly $6 billion to charities after being named the fourth richest woman in the world.

She publicly acknowledged how the pandemic has harmed disadvantaged groups while increasing the wealth of billionaires. Scott then used her money and media savvy to secure good press coverage by donating millions of dollars to the often-ignored colleges and universities that tend to serve regional, minority and lower-income students.

She also handled her very public divorce with Jeff Bezos with class and grace, announcing the terms of their divorce on Twitter and noting that they are co-parents and friends, effectively sidestepping a tabloid feeding frenzy had it gone another way.

Britney Spears — After nearly 14 years, Spears’ conservatorship was terminated in November in court. Britney won crisis PR points by repeatedly thanking her loyal fans for starting the “Free Britney” movement, which drew attention to her case and kept it in the spotlight.

The pop singer and performer’s painful experience helped to shine a light on mental health, conservatorships, and guardianships. In fact, her positive handling of what had been a simmering crisis for more than a decade, garnered such positive momentum in the press that outlets seem to be rooting for her again after years of being a media punching bag.

The Worst Crisis PR

Mark Zuckerberg | Facebook | Meta
—The social media CEO took some major heat this year, especially during Congressional hearings which led some lawmakers to call for the dissolution of Zuckerberg’s growing social media empire.

When Facebook employees and whistleblowers accused Facebook of operating in bad faith and suppressing evidence that its platforms harm kids, Zuckerberg failed to address their concerns and dug in even deeper, a clear violation of crisis management 101: Never ignore a brewing crisis.

Zuckerberg resolutely avoided taking responsibility, instead largely blaming the press for deliberately conducting a smear campaign, which predictably brought him even more negative attention.

Rebranding Facebook during the throes of its PR crisis was seen by many as an attempt to distract during a time of mass media focus as calls grow louder on Capitol Hill to break up the internet giant’s “monopoly.”
 
Travis Scott — The Travis Scott Astroworld concert disaster is an epic example of failed crisis management. Ten fans died and more than 300 were injured in a crowd crush. The popular rapper apologized for the pandemonium, but his words rang hollow for many considering the performer’s well-publicized reputation for encouraging mayhem at his events.

He is now the target of more than 300 lawsuits that have been filed in the wake of the deadly November concert in Houston. And despite cries from concertgoers to “stop the show,” the concert proceeded for nearly another hour, fueling the criticism that the organizers did not do enough to take proper precautions and Scott did too little to mitigate the disaster while it was unfolding.

Alec Baldwin — This A-lister’s ABC interview about the fatal shooting that occurred on the set of ‘Rust’ was supposed to be a defining moment that set the record straight; instead, it was a textbook example of what not to do when a crisis occurs.

Baldwin, who accidentally shot and killed Director of Photography Halyna Hutchins on-set in October, declined to take responsibility for her death, blamed the gun, and claimed that he did not pull the trigger.

Baldwin and others involved are now the targets of numerous lawsuits claiming the incident was the result of an overall culture of negligence during production. And while social media can work well to get information out fast and mitigate reputation crises, Baldwin and his wife stayed active on social media far too long and shared content that invited even more criticism.

Era of critical crisis response

As 2021 comes to an end and we reflect on the crisis communication wins and losses of the year, it bears mentioning that cancel culture remains on the rise, and the world is unfortunately sure to see another mixed bag of crisis response in 2022.

What should we take away from 2021? That our society is more fractured, hyper-partisan and quick to condemn than ever before. Lawmakers, social influencers and leaders of all types should tread lightly during the year to come if they want to avoid blistering attacks in the form of Twitter mobs and internet outrage.

Americans of all political persuasions and backgrounds would do well to keep this in mind: We are one nation, united by so much more than what divides us. Our fellow countrymen are not the enemy, and we all must strive for a renewed commitment to treating each other with civility and respect. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.

Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm. He is also author of “Crisis Averted: PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line.”

Tags Alec Baldwin Britney Spears Cardi B crisis management Duchess of Sussex Jeff Bezos Mackenzie Scott Mark Zuckerberg Meghan Markle messaging Oprah Winfrey Prince Harry Public relations reputation Social media Travis Scott

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