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Social Listening Reaches Critical Mass: How Failure Snowballed into Huge PR Misfires for Pepsi & United

Ulrik Bo LarsenBy Ulrik Bo Larsen, founder and CEO,

The past few weeks have seen PR crisis topping PR crisis, with the most viral ones coming from Pepsi and United Airlines. Although the situations differ greatly, these resulting PR misfires have one key commonality: both companies underestimated the power of social media in creating an echo chamber of outrage, and offered up tone-deaf responses that weren’t appropriate for the level of public backlash they were facing. However, if Pepsi and United had listened—using social listening tools—both companies could have better responded to their respective crises.

Two tone-deaf incidents

In Pepsi’s ad, model Kendall Jenner is seen posing in a blonde wig for a photo shoot as a peaceful protest passes by. She leaves the shoot, and ditches the wig, Pepsi in hand. She walks up to a police officer at the front of the crowd, hands him the Pepsi, and everyone cheers. The company described the video as “a short film about the moments when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion and nothing holds us back.” Apparently, few people on the internet agreed.

The ad was intended to reach Millennials, but Pepsi forgot how “woke” this demographic tends to be. Reactions on Twitter were swift and fierce, as critics accused Pepsi of appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement for profit. In just one example, Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted an image of her father mid-peaceful protest: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” It has since been retweeted almost 300,000 times. Pepsi ultimately pulled the ad, and issued an apology saying it “missed the mark,” but many consumers across social media are pledging to boycott Pepsi and its associated brands.

Just as the Pepsi controversy was dying down, United Airlines said “hold my beer” and experienced what was possibly the worst PR week in recent memory when it forcefully removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. The passenger, a doctor who was traveling to see patients, was violently removed from the plane and dragged along the aisle as dozens of other passengers livestreamed the altercation on Twitter and Facebook. The footage immediately went viral, and users questioned why United resorted to such extreme measures.

The United Airlines statement was clearly a rush job, since the company revised its apology at least twice. CEO Oscar Munoz initially apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” which many thought underestimated the situation and inspired a fresh wave of outrage. United has since revised its formal apology, but it hasn’t done much to reduce tensions.

Social listening—an underused tool

In both situations, the communications team failed to understand why people were upset and issue a response commensurate with the public opinion and outcry. This is where social listening tools would have been incredibly valuable.

Social listening is the process of monitoring what users online are saying about a company or brand to better inform communications and marketing strategies. It looks beyond @mentions or direct comments on a company’s social media profiles or website, and can track hashtags, keywords and phrases, and monitor public non-social sources such as blogs, forums, reviews and news outlets. Social listening tools can also incorporate sentiment analysis, also known as opinion mining, that assigns a positive, negative or neutral score to each mention found. This makes results easy to filter and can raise the alarm if negative sentiment begins to spike.

Pepsi and United Airlines are likely already using a social media tool capable of listening, but clearly didn’t align that with their PR department and crisis management employees well enough. Both companies would have seen their negative scores soar as online users reacted to the news. Even more ambiguous spikes in #united or #pepsi should have raised some alarm bells.

Marketers and communications pros across industries will be better equipped to know when online users are spreading news about the company—be it negative or positive—if they have access to, and the authority to act upon, insights from social listening tools. Have you used listening to inform a company decision in a time of crisis? If not, you still have the chance to try it with United; I hear they are hiring.

Ulrik Bo Larsen is founder and CEO of customer experience management platform,

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