Airbnb: When PR Goes Wrong

airbnb pr


When you pioneer not just a new brand but an entirely new type of industry, it really pays to get your consumer public relations right. After all, the “old established” businesses hate successful upstarts, so your only allies are your happy customers. This is a lesson Airbnb learned the hard way recently.

The online DIY home rental company tried to get cute and creative with its latest ad campaign … and things did not go as planned.

Airbnb produced a series of adverts essentially bragging about the amount of taxes it pays to the city of San Francisco. One such ad read: “Dear Public Library System, we hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.”

airbnb san francisco ad

Because the ads were placed without any discernible context, some people were confused. Others believed the company was bragging about paying taxes. No one really landed on the actual mindset and motivation for the campaign, which, according to Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty, “The intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month.”

In an interview with VICE News, Nulty added an apology to the explanation. “It was the wrong tone, and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately.”

It’s a cinch, pretty much any time you end up apologizing after a campaign, something went terribly wrong. In most cases, the mistake is entirely avoidable if you ask a few common sense PR questions ahead of time. In this case, the first question is: “will the audience understand.”

This is a key question because, when you are too close to a particular situation, it can be easy to forget not everyone has all the information – or is as familiar with that information – as you. If a person or company wants to comment in a “clever” way about a situation, they need to be certain the context is not so “inside” as to exclude their target audience.

In this case, the audience outside the context would be pretty much anyone who never thinks about how much Airbnb pays in taxes … in other words, pretty much everybody who is not Airbnb … and a fair few folks who actually do work for them.

Because the audience was not “in” on the “joke,” the ad campaign was roundly and harshly lampooned across both traditional and digital media. So much so that Airbnb was shamed into pulling it. It will be interesting to see what they do to recover.

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