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Rebrands, bans, and vaccines: The PR wins and sins of 2021

As many of us looked to put 2020 behind us, 2021 posed further turmoil to daily lives. Despite the pandemic, some organisations managed to win us over while others caused a stir in their big PR sins.

The PR sins of 2021

Coon rebrands to Cheer

Early this year, Coon embarked on a name change — a significant investment for any organisation, particularly one with a long heritage.

The Coon rebrand highlights the challenge iconic brands face as they evolve into new generations and societal norms. While the brand was said to be named after its American founder, Edward William Coon, who patented the ripening process used in manufacturing the cheddar, activists encouraged the name change. In the era of Indigenous awareness and cultural inclusivity, the company attempted to identify a name that wouldn’t be contentious.

Today brands really are challenged to please everyone. It really is a judgement call to determine what adaptations brands make and there is a risk that by pleasing one pool, you divide another. The new name did not bring cheer to anyone, even the very community it sought to please, with many questioning the lacklustre decision, along with 2021 being anything but cheerful for many.

Perhaps undertaking a public vote would have resulted in a more inclusive decision.

Facebook’s news ban

In February, Facebook ‘defriended’ Australia by temporarily withdrawing all news content from its platform. The timing amid a pandemic and ahead of the vaccine rollout was mistimed. Many organisations were inadvertently caught up in the blackout, including hospitals, health departments, community organisations and many small businesses.

The act was undertaken ahead of the proposed media bargaining code being passed the lower house, forcing payment to news publishers for content. The decision was reversed within a week following discussions with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and key media companies.

For all public serving organisations, decisions like these can be harmful, and the wider community effects should be anticipated and protected.

The federal government’s response to Brittany Higgins’ treatment in Parliament

Earlier this year, Brittany Higgins highlighted the predatory behaviour that exists in Parliament House, following with her allegation of rape by a colleague. The incident was seriously mishandled by the government and parliamentary authorities. The allegations have added to persistent calls for sweeping changes to workplace culture, and there’s no doubt the political office environment where legislation is born and upheld should be the very workplace that leads by example. The complaints process, leadership and wellbeing of Brittany were paramount here.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was criticised for his response to the extent of the allegations when he responded in delay and from the lens of a father. While it is natural to relate experiences to your own circumstance, when it comes to statistics into male-led violence that has penetrated so many homes here in Australia, the zero-tolerance stance is one everyone should make regardless of their experience as a husband or father.

Donald Trump’s social media ban

The social media giants finally trumped Donald in 2021, muting him following attacks on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Free speech and encouraging open dialogue is the very foundation of these social platforms. However, the risk is huge for these media giants, which means it is essential for them to moderate content and contain the effects of their channels. These events demonstrate how easily the conversations online can escalate to harmful physical acts.

Any brand creating content and housing online communities is also responsible for the behaviour and messaging that occurs in these channels. It is vital that brands closely monitor and act swiftly to ensure brand’s community upholds its values and ethos. 

COVID-19 vaccine rollout

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was a PR disaster, with the federal government failing to own the narrative and communicate effectively with key groups, including CALD persons, the elderly and those in Indigenous communities.

As a result, uptake was slow, with many people hesitant and worried about short- and long-term health effects. When executing a serious health message that needs to reach the entire population, it is essential that a change assessment is undertaken, stakeholders are identified and nurtured, communication is adapted for all key audiences and executed in a variety of forms and key influencers and leaders own the communication messaging.

Peloton’s ‘And Just Like That’ response

Peloton shares plunged 11% following the reboot of Sex and The City, where the key character played by Chris Noth died in a scene following exercise on its bike. The company responded immediately, including by issuing the following statement from a cardiologist: “These lifestyle choices and perhaps even his family history, which often is a significant factor, were the likely cause of his death. Riding his Peloton bike may have even helped delay his cardiac event.”

Adding salt to the brand wound, the company then had to withdraw an ad featuring the actor following sexual assault allegations. Despite this, paid social ads are still promoting Peloton gear, with social sentiment all relating the brand to the episode of death.

Product placement is a favourable strategy in public relations for its endorsement and positioning values. However, it’s essential companies understand the exact nature their product will be featured and used in order to make informed decisions and avoid any fallout.

The PR wins of 2021

The vaccine became a social cause

On the flipside of the vaccine fallout, we witnessed the power of social cause with the rise of the vaccine selfie, which influenced the adoption of this health measure. Hamish Blake, Hugh Jackman, Ada Nicodemou, Isla Fisher and Sylvia Jeffreys are just some of the faces we saw trending the vaccine selfie.

While it is often vigorously recommended that celebrities steer away from taking a political or medical stance and stick to what they’re known for the sake of their personal image, having people with a profile influencing the community became an important element to elevating people’s trust and uptake.

In addition, we saw organisations offering incentives to be vaccinated, including via the Million Dollar Vax campaign that was established at the start of October by a group of philanthropists — mostly anonymous — in an attempt to kickstart the vaccine rollout.

Mr Yum’s platform adaptation

This year saw businesses once again needing to adapt to new operating conditions due to the pandemic. Mr Yum, a menu viewing, order and payment tool, quickly pivoted to accommodate the COVID-19 restrictions in place. The team launched a delivery and pick-up solution for its venues, with the big incentive of avoiding the hefty commission fee of other delivery companies. Success led the startup to launch in the US and UK this year, raise $89 million to fund its growth and take home the Rising Star Award in this year’s Smart50.

Next year will be sure to see the pandemic influencing staffing and operations for many businesses. It’s essential that a transient culture exists and contingency planning is undertaken to support varying market conditions.

Fashion sector moves towards a living wage

The Oxfam 2021 Naughty or Nice list is about brand progress towards paying a living wage. Those announced last month on the ‘nice’ list included Best&Less, Big W, Bonds, City Chic, Cotton On, Country Road, Dangerfield, David Jones, Forever New, Gorman, H&M, Kmart, Mosaic brands (including Rivers and Katies), and Target.

Consumers are more educated and actively seek information on the origins of their product choices across a range of sectors from fashion to food. All organisations are encouraged to be mindful of their practices and maintain transparency and diligence in their operations. 

The police force’s efforts to find Cleo and Anthony Elfalak 

When a child goes missing, many Australians are left anxiously following the news and social sites all hoping for a positive ending. In these two high-profile cases, the police made appeals to the public to help. The ongoing press interviews and coverage, and of course the hard work of the police departments in charge of the investigations, led to the safe return of these children.

While many organisations are hesitant to explore media exposure, these stories demonstrate the power of media in bringing communities together to support a common goal.

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Nicole Reaney, Director of InsideOut PR and founder of influencer agency, #AsSeenOn . Nicole has extensive experience in corporate and consumer PR and Communications and is available to comment on topics.

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