Brand disasters of 2022: what we’ve learned from Optus, Qantas and Splendour in the Grass

Brand strategist Nikki Weaver writes on how Optus, Qantas and the Splendour in the Grass Festival all provided us with great case studies on how not to handle a PR catastrophe. 

It’s been a tough year for big brands, and despite having entire PR teams at their disposal, many of them seem unable to effectively manage a brand crisis.

Sure, big budgets and high profiles bring bigger risk and larger, more public mistakes but this year, Optus, Qantas and the Splendour in the Grass Festival all provided us with great case studies on how not to handle a PR catastrophe.

It’s too early to say whether Optus will ever recover their credibility after the data leak scandal, however my guess would be that such a serious matter won’t be easily forgotten by the public, especially those whose safety was compromised.

Meanwhile, Qantas and Splenour are already showing signs of permanent brand damage.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce publicly apologised in August, offering customers $50 discount vouchers for putting up with months of delays, cancellations and mishandled baggage, but it seemed it was too little too late to buy forgiveness.

In July, the airline’s reputation crashed and burned after a series of mishaps pushed them into the limelight, then the organisers of Splendour struggled to keep their heads above water with some rather appalling mishandling of their event, resulting in wet weather chaos.

The ability to handle PR problems can make or break a brand and at that level, you have to ask yourself what on earth their PR teams were doing?

As Australia watches these formerly well-regarded brands lose all credibility, it begs the question, how do you deal with a brand disaster?

If a multi-million dollar company like Qantas; a long standing brand like Optus; or a well-established event like Splendour can’t get it right with their big PR budgets, what hope does a small businesses have of avoiding damage to their brand?

Let’s talk about Splendour and set aside the seeming lack of foresight by the organisers, let alone their failure to conduct basic project risk assessments or create contingency plans as the day drew nearer.

Although they couldn’t control the weather, they should have identified it as a potential risk and taken measures to work around it in the days leading up to the event. That’s Project Management 101, and it’s 100% on them. If they lack the ability to do basic event planning they shouldn’t be in the business.

But fault aside, there were much better ways that Splendour could have handled the situation, and the same goes for the other two companies.

Never forget, how you interact with the public in the wake of a major PR disaster matters.

All companies were responsible for the issues that occurred, but rather than stepping up with integrity to face the public, they failed to take any level of responsibility, laying blame on external causes and in some cases, even blaming their customers.

Their respective management (or mismanagement), of their situations was brand suicide, which is great in a way, because it illustrates how important PR actually is in business and allows the rest of us to learn from their mistakes.

These are the five golden rules for handling a PR crisis:

  1. The customer is always right, even when they’re wrong – never publicly attack or blame your customers for mistakes, it can deter potential customers and make you look unprofessional.
  2. Don’t respond in the heat of the moment – It can be easy to take things personally, especially when you’ve done everything right, but it’s important to remain calm and objective. Take a moment to breathe, and tell the client that you understand their concerns and you need some time to investigate and/or respond.
  3. Acceptance, not avoidance – if someone leaves a bad review or lodges a complaint, don’t ignore it. Get in touch to understand exactly what the problem was and address it. Most the time, people just want to be heard.
  4. Get ahead of the game – if something has gone wrong, don’t wait for your customer to complain, get in there and own it, and give them a solution to rectify it.
  5. Listen and learn – often mistakes can be good growth moments, so be receptive to the idea that perhaps there’s room for improvement. If you take the time to honestly review your service, process or product, you may find that there are things you could tweak to avoid the same issue in future.

Mistakes happen and they happen to everyone. After all, we’re only human, but how we respond to them is the most important part of the equation and the difference between a customer staying loyal to you.

Integrity is everything when it comes to public perception, so it’s up to you to maintain your brand’s reputation.

Nikki Weaver, brand strategist and small business owner


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