Lesson Learned: PR Takeaways from the Biggest Headlines of 2022
It’s a wrap: 2022 is over, and oh boy, it was quite a year.
From ongoing war and domestic terrorism, to social media shining light on the realities of everything from chronic illness to abortion, 2022 has been a year with both its upsides and downsides. This year was the first since the start of the pandemic that broke us out of society’s perpetual isolation Groundhog Day. Yet, it was just as much the year where we had a reckoning with a ticking time bomb of a recession, judicial and legislative branch upheaval, and a pleasant resurgence in how much we like corn.
For many people around the globe, 2022 was a year like no other. While we finally seem to be putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror, for better or worse, there’s plenty both good and bad that the world collectively will have to learn from.
Here are some of the most infamous and celebrated news stories from the past year, and what valuable lessons they bring to leaders, brands, and individuals alike.
The Twitter Saga, Starring Elon Musk
When we talk about a CEO who went from hero to zero in 2022, it’s hard to conjure up an image of anyone other than Elon Musk. Once king of the Tesla empire, Musk hurled himself into the category of internet troll with too much money on his hands. If Musk is trying to destroy Twitter as quickly as possible, he seems to be succeeding. His takeover has seen keyboard warriors single-handedly sink company stock values for the small price of an $8 blue checkmark, a mass employee exodus, accusations of disastrous leadership, a toxic work environment, and even workplace violations, a futile attempt to take on Apple, and the proliferation of dangerous hate speech.
A study from the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University found that in the hours after Musk’s acquisition, Twitter became a more “vulgar and hostile” environment, with it experiencing an “immediate, visible, and measurable spike” in hate speech. Musk quickly walked back some of his “anything goes” proclamations, tweeting that Twitter “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” only for him to just as quickly walk back his walkback. Regardless of what he says from one minute to the next, it’s clear that users see Musk’s ownership as permission to “unleash the racial slurs” as one Twitter user put it. The result: some of Twitter’s biggest users announcing that they’ll be stepping away from the platform.
Beyond Twitter’s reputation potentially being forever tarnished by enabling hate speech, Twitter as a good place to work and even Musk’s persona as a self-professed great leader and savvy businessman are sinking further and further. If this continues, Twitter could not only lose its place as the communications town square, but it may not even survive.
The biggest lesson we can take away from Twitter is, no matter how rich and powerful you might be, that doesn’t make you invincible from the court of public opinion. Money may be able to buy power, it can apparently even buy you your own social media company, but it can’t buy respect. Musk’s reign as “World’s Richest Person” ended partially from the crisis he created on Twitter. It’s important for leaders to remember that they aren’t untouchable, and it’s always critical to be prepared in the time of a crisis. Especially as the world increasingly keeps a closer eye on the brands they associate with.
A Light in the Dark: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Now forever a horrific day cemented in world history, February 24, 2022 marked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Millions have been displaced due to the war, and thousands have died. Nearly a full year later, Ukranians are 10 months into a human rights crisis, with millions currently without power and drinking water.
In the face of the terror and atrocities that came with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stepped up with a display of exemplary leadership. Zelenskyy has acted with integrity and courage to do everything in his power to save his country. He’s the ray of hope in the storm and has continued fighting for his people when they needed him the most instead of abandoning them. This courage to stay and fight for Ukraine is contagious and has inspired his people to fight for themselves as well.
Zelenskyy leads from his heart. Even when the situation seems hopeless, he still managed to deliver a sense of perseverance while recognizing the needs of his people. By maintaining a sense of resiliency, Zelenskyy continuously inspires not just his country, but the world in the fight against Russia’s invasion.
Zelenskyy is an excellent example of how great leaders respond in times of crisis. He doesn’t use guilt to try to motivate people and instead allows the truth and facts to speak for themselves without any entitlement or pretense of grandeur. Zelenskyy connects with his people from the genuine sincerity he communicates, something every single leader can and should take note of.
I’ll Be Running Up That Hill, Just Not with Adidas
2022 was certainly a year of reckoning when it comes to how celebrity partnerships could impact a brand, and vice versa.
After Kanye West’s (Ye’s) not-so-subtle antisemetic remarks, brands such as the CAA, Balenciaga, and JPMorgan Chase ended their affiliation with the rapper immediately. However, one company that waited too long to act in this crisis was Adidas. Adidas’ first, unfortunate, misstep was choosing not to speak up sooner. This is always critical in a PR crisis, but is even more vital when dealing with dangerous rhetoric and hate speech, which not only present a reputation problem, but create a moral imperative as well. Beyond the extremely problematic and unethical nature of being associated with Kanye West’s dangerous, anti-semitic rhetoric, cancel culture is a very real part of our world now, and something Adidas should’ve been on top of. The company did eventually cut ties, but not soon enough to curb the reputational, and subsequently monetary, damage.
However, it wasn’t just Adidas that got hit from putting trust into the wrong partnership. Working with influencers and celebrities can pose a risk at times, and mistakes happen (we’re all human after all). Adidas was certainly the one to act the slowest, and not immediately incorporating and addressing negative feedback led it into a crisis. While quicker to act, Nike did lose money in ending its work with Kyrie Irving following his Tweet endorsing an antisemetic film. And with roles reversed, Kim Kardashian was urged to quickly make a statement after having just been featured in the Balenciaga fashion show on TV when the company put out the shocking ads referencing and normalizing child abuse that sparked controversy.
The big lesson here is this — act fast in times of crisis, and be careful who you work with. While there’s always an opportunity to speak up on a crisis, waiting too long can cause irreparable damage to a brand. Still, regardless of how fast you act, it’s also becoming clear that in the future, influencers and companies alike will need to improve the vetting process of who they choose to work with. While you can never be sure what action someone might suddenly take, you can try and prevent working with anything or anyone who isn’t in line with your brand values and poses a risk to your reputation.
Let’s Talk About Poop, Finally
Earlier this year, there was a phenomenon on TikTok and other social media platforms. Creators would come on the platform to talk about something seldom discussed before — poop. This didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Wellness brand BelliWelli created an LA billboard reading, “Hot Girls Have IBS.” The billboard blew up. Creators from everywhere rushed to make social media posts and videos about their experiences with IBS, finally addressing the stigma around the disease. It even led to more people talking publicly about other chronic illnesses, such as Crohn’s Disease and Diabetes.
Having a chronic illness can be debilitating and isolating, leading many with chronic illnesses to also struggle with mental health. Having an outlet to discuss chronic illness makes it so people are no longer suffering alone. Talking openly about an issue does a lot of work to destigmatize it. It can also allow for more discovery of treatment and discussions toward what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to coping with a disease. On TikTok, #chronicillness has over five billion views — that’s over five billion people who never before had access to resources for their illness, or never understood a certain illness, that now do.
What we can take away from this is that power comes with community. Coming together and taking action to help one another has incredible results. People, leaders, and companies that make this their mission will not just succeed, but will have a larger, positive impact on our global community. As a brand, you need exposure, and if that exposure comes with helping millions of others, that’s even better.
No Soup for Crypto
This year took crypto companies from Super Bowl Ads with bouncing QR codes and Larry David to bankruptcy, and a whole host of celebrities — including Jimmy Fallon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Justin Bieber — are being sued for fraud for their role in promoting NFTs.
The most infamous crypto fallout of the year though is FTX, with most users of the platform doubting they’ll ever see their funds again. The downfall of so many crypto companies had a ripple effect, with many now suffering unintended consequences.
Much of the issue stems from crypto companies making promises they couldn’t keep. The SEC is now probing many firms following potential misconduct in advertising. Influencers like Kim Kardashian are being fined for not properly disclosing payment for endorsements. At the same time, in conjunction with the investigation, FTX is being sued by investors for false advertising. Some crypto companies made many claims in ads that didn’t follow through, and to that effect, are now being targeted, not just by regulators, but by the investors those advertisements tricked.
Similarly, TurboTax was sued this year for deceptive advertising, and Juul for targeting teenagers in its marketing. It’s becoming clear that brands need to be more careful with what they put out there. While it may lead to a quick boost, deceptive marketing, advertising, and to some extent public relations will only work for so long before people figure out that they’ve been duped. And once they do, the company will have to pay for it, both monetarily, reputationally, and potentially legally. Again, it’s important to not underestimate the court of public opinion. Not being careful in company messaging can lead to both harmful misunderstandings and costly lawsuits.
The Good, the Bad, and the Kind of Okay Responses to Roe V. Wade
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade hit the country by storm. Overnight, millions of women and pregnant people across the country were impacted, suddenly losing their right to choose what happens to their bodies. Not only as it related to abortion — a vital, often life-saving procedure — but also in seeking any treatment that may be deemed abortifacient, including chemotherapy for cancer patients and critical medications for women who aren’t even pregnant, but could become pregnant. It cannot be overstated: the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the stripping away of bodily autonomy for millions of women was a malicious, cruel, deadly decision that will have long standing consequences. It demanded a response from anyone in any kind of position of power; some companies and business leaders rose to the occasion, many more did not.
A mere 8% of companies issued a public statement on the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And while many brands reap the benefits of appropriating feminism into their branding, many of those same organizations have been donating to anti-abortion groups for years, all while claiming to support abortion rights. Hypocrisy isn’t a good look.
Some companies such as Meta and J.P. Morgan Chase offered to cover travel costs for employees seeking an abortion, which some argue is the bare minimum when it comes to the fight for abortion rights. Not to mention that, at the same time, social media platforms, including Meta, struggled to come to a decision on the privacy and regulation of abortion-related content and posts. Meaning that there could come a time in some states where social media content related to abortion is restricted.
Though company responses weren’t all questionable. Twilio and DICK’s Sporting Goods put out well said, empathetic and informative statements. OKCupid went as far as to send a notification on its app telling users how they can reach elected officials regarding the ruling. Patagonia outlined in more detail than most other companies how it plans to support employees who require an abortion or general family planning assistance. Levi’s, Bath & Body Works, Madewell, and La Colombe have all donated company profits toward pro-choice organizations.
The word for the wise here is that silence can be deafening when it comes to major issues that affect millions of people, and hypocrisy is even worse. It influences how both consumers and employees see a brand, and in some cases, might make or break their decision to support a company. With major cases on affirmative action, student debt relief, and LGBTQ rights being heard by the Supreme Court in 2023, brands should prepare to not just speak on these issues thoughtfully, but avoid being performative and take actionable steps to bring about positive change.
We’ve seen plenty of the ups and the downs in 2022. Plenty of lessons learned, plenty of areas for improvement, and plenty of great steps toward incredible change that our world needs. That being said, the new year brings with it hope and potential for even more opportunities to learn, grow, and influence our reality for the better. 2023, here we come!
Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 41 years in the industry. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations — the industry-standard bestseller, PR for Dummies — as well as six other titles, including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOS.