Airbnb: When PR Goes Wrong

2015-11-03 by Ronn Torossian

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.

Ronn Torossian: Insights from a Native New Yorker and CEO of 5WPR

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 250 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, and a recipient of Crain’s New York 2021 Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities