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posted on 23 April 2017

Public Relations Nightmares

from Challenger Gray and Christmas

Recently, Pepsi pulled a controversial advertisement within 24 hours of its airing after strong, negative social media reaction. Meanwhile, United Airlines has been dealing with its own public relations nightmare. Both events have been widely reported in the media, and the negative backlash from the internet was instant.

Though Pepsi issued an apology admitting to “missing the mark," and United eventually rolled back its policy on “reaccommodating" fliers, many people began to question how these events could have happened in the first place, leading Saturday Night Live to skewer both controversies on recent episodes. These PR disasters, and many encountered by major companies, may have been avoided through open and honest communication between leadership and employees, according to one workplace authority. Says John A. Challenger, chief executive office of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.:

Some workplace cultures definitely experience a leadership bubble. Management can separate themselves from the actual problems impacting the organization and isolate themselves from employees who have solutions. This lack of communication can result in situations facing Pepsi and United.

Companies combat this lack of communication through climate surveys and feedback sessions. Unfortunately, these surveys are often anonymous, which hinders open communication. Some workplaces discourage reporting problems and whistle-blowing. If problems can only be reported anonymously, employees can feel open discussion is a risk to their employment.

Building a climate that supports open conversation allows leaders to curb problems before they arise or become detrimental to the company’s brand and reputation. The rewards are not only financial, but also include employee engagement, retention, and recruitment.


Reach out to employees personally to discuss situations going on in the company. A large reason people don express themselves is due to futility. By opening the door and expressing interest in their opinion they are more inclined to take a chance talking to you.

Create an environment where negative discussion can be supported. Though it is good to be positive in your work environment, saying what isn’t working is also important.

Express and make clear when the situation is open for discussion. There is a time to lecture and there is a time to talk as a group. Make sure the employees know you are looking for feedback no just applause.

Hold leadership seminars to inform other teams what is going on in the company. Developing a strategy to allow departments to communicate with each other also opens the door for more solutions.

Try to respond within a day or two to employee’s questions and concerns. Rapid response shows that you are not putting off employees because you think less of their opinions or questions.

MBWA, management by walking around. Take time to walk around and show your employees your presence and interest. When you make yourself available they can reach out in a more casual manner and productivity can increase.


Asses the risks of speaking up. Most people don’t get fired for raising awareness to a flawed policy or project. Think twice before speaking out against other employees, however, as this can have an impact on your position in a company. Document any issues you see arise and have a plan to move things forward.

Make sure that you have looked at this from every angle before speaking up. It is better to go into these discussions informed on every situation so as to be direct and assertive in your discussion.

Asses the location you have these discussions. Is this something that should be brought up privately with your manager or is this something you can throw out in a group discussion in front of other employees?

Make sure to express the underlying goal. Expressing that your goal is in line with the company’s goal and important to present in discussion.

Address the question by acknowledging that you are open to disagreement. Make clear that the discussion between you and your superior is your opinion not a fact and you are willing to hear another view.

Acknowledge their authority and that they will make the final decision. While you may disagree with how things operate, ultimately the decision is your boss’s to make.

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