How four major brands navigated reputational crisis

Access to the right data can help comms teams act swiftly and smartly.
5.17.23 / 5 min read

The sheer speed at which information travels these days puts brands facing a reputational crisis in a precarious position. What is the best course of action when a company is facing public backlash? The reality is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But given the right insights, communications leaders are empowered to make informed decisions to strategically manage their next moves.

Signal AI’s External Intelligence Platform extracts insights from more than five million news, social, blog, broadcast, and regulatory documents each day, empowering decision-makers with the data needed to successfully navigate crises. Read on for mini-case studies on how four global brands — WeWork, Spotify, Nike, and Balencagia — managed their reputations after finding themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion. 

WeWork: Shifting the Narrative

From the moment WeWork opened its first coworking space in downtown Manhattan in 2010, the tech startup, founded by Adam Neumann, was on the fast track to success … that is until details of mismanagement by Neumann — among many other things — led the company to a spectacularly public downfall in 2019 and 2020. The New York Times described it as “an implosion unlike any other in the history of start-ups,” and endless articles and podcasts dove into the story, which often focused on Neumann’s missteps. Apple TV+ even turned the debacle into an eight episode miniseries starring Jared Leto as the eccentric CEO. Although Neumann stepped down, his name was intrinsically tied to WeWork — as were his antics.

Fast-forward to the present, and WeWork is still being talked about in the press, but for totally different reasons. As illustrated in the chart below, only about a third of WeWork’s coverage mentions Neumann at all. Instead, the company is being positioned as a thought leader on topics like the Future of Work and Office/Workspace Design, with current coverage featuring the expertise of executives like Sandeep Mathrani and Peter Greenspan.

Of course, WeWork’s communications leaders can’t control whether Neumann will be mentioned in a story about the company, let alone control the context of any reference. But if a story referencing historical elements of the brand’s history does come out,  their comms team has the data to surface those mentions and work with those publications to course-correct the narrative. This same data also helps WeWork leadership shape the company’s position as experts in topics like Flexible Workplaces, Hybrid Work, and Return to Office, all of which are incredibly relevant subjects as companies begin to implement in-office mandates.

Spotify: Authentic, Transparent Response

In early 2022, Spotify found itself in a PR nightmare: Joe Rogan, host of The Joe Rogan Experience, which streams exclusively on Spotify, was under fire for using the N-word on a number of podcasts. The controversial host was also accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Musicians pulled their music from the service in protest, and public discussion about the company’s ethics was pervasive on social media and in the news. 

Spotify took quick action and seventy episodes of the podcast were pulled from the service. CEO Daniel Ek formally apologized to staff and announced the formation of a “Safety and Advisory Council” to “help Spotify evolve its policies and products in a safe way while making sure we respect creator expression.” That group was formed just a few months later, in June of 2022, and featured a list of heavy-hitters from respected organizations addressing hate speech, disinformation, extremism and other problematic areas.

To understand how Spotify’s public perception has changed, compare brand sentiment in the first three months of 2022 to the first three months of 2023. The contrast is stark: the streaming service has significantly distanced itself from the Rogan controversy. Stories this year might still mention what happened in passing, but it’s no longer the most prominent story.

Nike & Kyrie Irving: Too Little, Too Late

In October of 2022, NBA-player Kyrie Irving posted anti-semitic content on his Twitter account. Initially, he refused to apologize or take it down. On November 3, 2022, his team, the Brooklyn Nets, suspended him indefinitely (Irving was asked to work through a series of apologies and educational experiences; his first game back was November 20th). The next day, Nike also suspended their deal with the superstar, which dated back to 2014, stating that they were delaying the release of the Kyrie 8, the athlete’s namesake shoe. It wasn’t until a month later, on December 5, 2022, that Nike officially terminated the deal.

 That one-month delay in action turned out to have a sizable impact on public perception. Data shows that the general sentiment put Nike in a bad light. Additionally, the Kyrie situation was adding fuel to other non-positive stories about the sportswear company, including resurfacing issues around racism, discussing other problematic athletes the brand has worked with, and even more general issues like pandemic-related supply chain issues.

Balenciaga: Embrace the Outrage

Balenciaga’s Holiday 2022-’23 ad campaign featured children holding stuffed animals in BDSM gear. The public was not happy and the outcries were immediate and loud. The hashtag #cancelbalenciaga trended and became a central topic of digital conversation — but not for long. The end of 2022 was a wild time — remember Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars? Or the backlash to Dave Chappell’s Netflix specials? The Balenciaga storyline was able to fade into the background, not to appear again until the beginning of March 2023, when the fashion house showed their first collection since the scandal. Here’s the twist: rather than shy away from the issue, the brand coached their creative director, Demna, to address it head-on. The result was that almost no media outside the typical fashion outlets picked up the story.

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