28.05.2015 Bus-iness as usual: Our top tips for recovering from a PR disaster

A bus company that made global headlines for all the wrong reasons has attempted to put the brakes on the scandal (excuse the pun) by poking fun at the very faux pas that landed them in hot water in the first place.

When Cardiff Bay-based New Adventure Travel (NAT) launched ten new cross-city routes earlier this month, they needed an ad campaign that was memorable and conveyed their core message of affordable travel. The campaign they plumped for sparked international debate, and set social media alight with outrage. Why?

Because they’d opted for a campaign that featured a half-naked woman holding a sign saying “Ride me all day for £3”. Yes, you read that correctly.

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What occurred to our team as soon as we saw the ad is that somebody in a meeting either agreed that this was a genius creative route, or they chickened out of pointing out its quite obvious flaw. Either way, it could arguably be seen as an epic fail on the part of the company, its ad agency and anybody else who nodded along with the campaign, emperor’s new clothes style.

To be fair, there was a male version of the poster too, but the strategy was as risky as it was risqué. Predictably it took the good people of Twitter about a nanosecond to explode with rage as soon as the campaign was spotted on the streets. The backlash was kick-started by campaigning powerhouse Miss Charlotte Church who immediately expressed her dismay at the ad, followed by thousands of other dissenting voices from across the capital city and beyond:

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As is so often the case these days, traditional media quickly picked up on the sexist bus ad social media storm. The story then spread like wildfire from the pages of the Western Mail to the Daily Mail and as far afield as the Herald Sun in Australia, with word such as “appalling” “sexist” and “unacceptable” used in most of the coverage. So far, so textbook PR crisis. 45 complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency later, the company promised to remove all offending ads within 24 hours.

From our perspective, it’s hard to believe that a group of people sat around a table planning this campaign without a single person considering that this strategy was high risk. This led some to speculate that it was a deliberate strategy aimed at provoking the sort of outrage that takes a brand onto editorial pages it could never afford to buy as ad space.

Regardless of whether the scandal was as engineered as a finely tuned automobile engine, a few weeks is a long time in the fast-moving world of internet-based outrage. The fuss had long died down, when NAT decided to remind us all of why they upset so many people in the first place.

The firm clearly decided against the usual PR crisis recovery wisdom – which is to draw a line under your mistake and move on. Preferably at 70 MPH. Oh no. Nothing that pedestrian for these public transport mavericks. The firm has now unveiled an ad campaign that references the notoriety of the original campaign. The new poster simply reads: “for anyone in the world that missed it, it’s £3 to ride this bus all day”.

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It’s hard to know if NAT deliberately decided to rip up the crisis communications rulebook, or just neglected to read it in the first place. Their original campaign became so notorious, maybe they saw some virtue in a tongue-in-cheek reference; on the other hand, they’re now reminding people who hated the original campaign just how much they hated it and why.

When it comes to recovering from a PR crisis, there are three golden rules to remember. Follow these and you’ll find yourself navigating more cleanly out of a tight spot than the decision makers at NAT seem to have.

1. Admit your mistake

The first crucial step in any PR crisis is to acknowledge your mistake. If that mistake if subjective but it’s clear you have upset/offended/harmed people as a result of you organisation’s actions, it’s still important to put your hands up and say “it’s a fair cop guv”. Fudging the issue or accusing people of being politically correct or hysterical won’t help you any. Neither will tarrying. Fessing up and fessing up fast will stand you in good stead as you look to recover your reputation. The recent Thomas Cook PR disaster shows what happens when you fail to apologise in a sincere and timely fashion. Be human, and show the public you understand them.

2. Move On

Once you’ve admitted your mistake, immediately stop what you were doing wrong and move on. Consider any damage to your reputation as a short-term loss, and take steps now to improve your brand perception in the longer run. This means a clean slate, and improving whatever led to the crisis in the first place. What’s also important here is to show the public exactly what decisive action you are taking to address the initial issue. In the case of NAT this may have been sacking the ad agency, or announcing new (gender balanced, natch!) focus groups for future ads. They seem to have skipped this step though, opting to remind people of how ill-judged the original ad was instead. Oops.

3. Pick one thing

When you’re trying to recover from a PR disaster, don’t expect to get on top of everything at once. There’ll be a lot going on, resources will be stretched and trying to be brilliant at everything overnight will be too much to handle. Identify the one thing you’re great at that can give you a competitive advantage, and really focus your efforts on that. In NAT’s case, price is obviously their key differentiator. So in its defence, at least the new ad focuses on the low price point.

4. Be patient

Finally, don’t expect to recover your reputation overnight. Time is always necessary to heal the wounds, no matter how superficial they may be. In guiding your organisation through a PR crisis, the steps above provide a roadmap for heading in the right direction. But it’s important to understand that you must be patient because people don’t forget easily.

In many ways, despite the importance of acting quickly, recovery from a PR crisis is like standing on a city suburb bus stop; it might take a while, but as long as you have the right change and know where you’re going, the way forward will present itself eventually.

PS – Open note to the guys at NAT: we’re happy to share these nuggets of wisdom to you free. We’re good like that. But if you need more great advice where that came from, we’re only a phone call away. Wink.