A Look Back on 2017’s Public Relations Winners and Losers

It’s that time of year again! Was it really only a year ago that we were talking about Leslie Jones and the Ghostbusters movie, Pokemon Go, and Samsung’s exploding phone? 2017 has felt like a lifetime. And in that lifetime (as one would expect), a lot has happened. Let’s take a look!

The NFL

One of the most contentious stories of the past two years has been the ongoing “take a knee” protests popularized by Colin Kaepernik (who was on last year’s list) and their resulting backlash. The protests, an attempt to call attention to victimization of black men and women in America by police forces across the country, quickly became a cultural flashpoint, with critics claiming the protesters were “disrespecting” America’s veterans who had fought under that flag. Whatever side you fell on, the NFL (and its independent franchisees) were in a no-win scenario; condemn the protest and alienate vast swathes of your audience, or support them to the exact same outcome. The choice to ultimately do and say nothing on the matter simply punted the ball to individual franchise owners whose ongoing disputes over the issue merely kept it in the news – exactly where the NFL didn’t want it.

VERDICT: Loser

The fact that there wasn’t a win scenario here doesn’t mean the NFL hasn’t paid for it. The president has been turning his wrath toward it, players and fans are at each other’s throats, and America’s default national pastime has become hopelessly politicized. While the NFL itself never asked for this problem, it’s place at the center of American leisure culture meant that eventually it was going to get caught in the same vociferous left-right divide that’s affecting everything else, and it handled it about as badly as anyone could.

Hollywood

In early October, the story broke out into the open of myriad sexual assaults by Harvey Weinstein, formerly of the Weinstein Company. Since then, it’s been an unbroken string of accusations that have felled some of the most prominent and once-beloved people in Hollywood, ranging from Kevin Spacey to Louis CK. This ongoing reckoning has become a scathing indictment of Hollywood culture, and nobody looks good: not the abusers, not the studios that enabled them, not the system of reprisals that kept more people from speaking out about wide-open secrets.

VERDICT: Loser

It’s been a slaughterhouse, ugly and unending. Hollywood looks about as bad as Hollywood ever has, and now with men like Matt Damon speaking out against this process and known predators still in powerful positions, it’s not looking any better than it had before. There have been more articles critical of the film and entertainment industry’s powerful boys’ club than ever before, an object of denunciation and shame. It’s frankly hard to imagine Hollywood at a lower point – and yet many of its most powerful men still don’t seem to get it.

The #MeToo Movement

A grassroots effort founded by Tarana Burke that’s been a decade in the making, the #MeToo movement has done more to frontline the conversation about the harassment and abuse women have to endure on a daily basis than perhaps anything else, and it’s served as the major catalyst behind the unmasking of Hollywood’s scandalous state. While it has been facing somewhat of a backlash in recent weeks, it’s been a powerful moment for women that has already begun to effect real change, while taking charge of the national conversation.

VERDICT: Winner

Easily a winner; no backlash can begin to overwhelm the incredibly positive response this movement has received, and the unwavering support of vast swathes of the population. “The Silence Breakers” were named TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year”. And while there has been some pushback (it’s not really surprising that many men still feel the need to chime in with “not all men”) , this movement has proven both powerful, effective, and broadly popular in a year when many women felt overwhelmed and fed up. It’s a clear response to the time we find ourselves in (one in which even the president has been accused of sexual assault), and it certainly feels like this is only the beginning of a long overdue reckoning.

Uber

Uber started 2017 in the pits; Travis Kalanick, the company’s embattled former CEO, was coming under fire for abusive behavior towards his own employees and drivers, and the company he founded was increasingly regarded as engaging in predatory and unethical practices, including price-gouging in times of crisis and breaking strikes. But Kalanick was ousted earlier this year, and his successor, Dara Khosrowshahi, has been navigating the process of restoring the company to its previous status atop the rideshare heap amidst a series of breaking stories, scandals, and cover-ups, including news that under Kalanick the company paid hackers to conceal a massive data breach. In other words, the company still isn’t looking good.

VERDICT: Mixed

Khosrowshahi is doing his damndest to minimize the fallout, and all told, he’s not doing a bad job; his biggest problem is that there’s only so long that one man can possibly sustain a successful apology tour. But his attempts to roll back Uber’s toxic culture, whether successful or not, are working to help rehabilitate the company’s image. If it fails, it is only because the hill is too steep, and the boulder too large, for Sisyphus to successfully crest the peak.

United Airlines

It was probably the most unnecessary, pointless scandal of the year. As I wrote at the time, “United has a big, stupid, obvious mess on its hands. Big because it dragged a bloodied, ticketed passenger off a plane for the simple crime of wanting to go where he paid to go. Stupid, because it was entirely avoidable. Obvious, because for all our shock, nobody was particularly floored to learn that a major airline had mistreated a paying customer in such a ridiculously over-the-top way.”

VERDICT: Loser

American air travel has never been popular, but it’s been years since someone owned that fact as thoroughly as United does today; the old adage that “Delta” stood for “Don’t Expect Luggage To Arrive” has long since been overshadowed by a company that famously couldn’t avoid bad news this year. “Come Fly the Friendly Skies” seems in 2017 more like an ironic jab or a veiled threat than a promise of courteous service, and it may have some time yet before it lives that down. The best thing it could do is keep its head down and focus on improving basic service. Will it? Time will tell.

Twitter

The promise of Twitter from its founding was the creation of a neutral, unmoderated arena where anyone could say anything. Initially hailed for providing a platform where political dissidents could organize against oppressive regimes – Twitter played heavily in the first swell of the Arab Spring and 2009’s aborted Iranian instability – the service has come under fire of late for…providing a platform where political dissidents (in this case actual Nazis) could organize right here in the United States. Twitter has been a major player in the success of the so-called “alt-right” and the mainstreaming of Nazism in modern America and has been called on to take a more active role in policing hate speech, something many feel is antithetical to Twitter’s core “hardline pro-free speech” stance.

VERDICT: Mixed

Twitter’s reluctance to police content may be in line with its basic mission statement – but it’s also alienating users, which are the fundamental unit that drives the company’s value. To that end, Twitter has tried to shore up its user base by creating system improvements – expanding the character limit, adding thread functionality, and more – but has only found itself with angry users who aren’t going to be mollified by longer tweets. Although long overdue, Twitter recently announced new policies and the mass-banning of white supremacist accounts, but there’s no way to know for sure if it’s going to work.

Donald Trump

Trump is the Schrodinger’s Cat of news, simultaneously up and down depending not only on who you ask or what day it is, but by the sheer force of his own will. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed, perfectly encapsulated by an SNL sketch from this past May, which skewered an interview he had with NBC News anchor Lester Holt. After Trump seemingly admits to obstruction of Justice, Holt (played by Weekend Update anchor Michael Che) turns to the camera and said “That’s it, right? We’ve got him? No? Nothing matters anymore? Okay,” and resumes the interview. I can think of no better way to describe the perfect storm of news and scandal that swirls around him: nothing matters.

The upshot of this is that, despite the constant drumbeat of sexual harassment allegations and the Russia investigation, he is consistently able to refocus the story somewhere more favorable to himself due to the existence of pliant media organs and a stubborn refusal to even be held accountable.

VERDICT: Both Simultaneously

Against all odds, it’s working – but only to a point. He can’t evade Russia forever, and his attempts to refocus blow up in his face as often as not. He’s not so much Teflon as thoroughly greased to the point that additional grease doesn’t make much of an impression, and since half the population doesn’t expect better of him and the other believes he can do no wrong, each new scandal leaves us more or less where we already were. But how long can he keep it up?

#Onward and #Upward!

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