What companies can learn from #PeelGate, Samsung's latest PR disaster

How to avoid a product's reputation from being ruined pre-launch.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

By now, everyone knows about Samsung’s latest PR calamity: the Galaxy Fold. Journalists have reported that the screen of the $2,000 device, which can transform from tablet to phone through a unique folding mechanism, has failed after just a day or two of use, disconnecting entirely or flashing on and off. Some have attributed the issue to a protective film that appears to be easily peeled off, which destroys the phone. Hence, #PeelGate.

On Monday, word broke that the phone’s launch has been delayed indefinitely. Business Insider wrote that it's a potential fiasco that threatens the company's fragile reputation, and The Next Web said Samsung has another PR disaster on its hands. News outlets have also reported that Samsung’s Q1 profit could be down 60%.

This is no isolated incident. In 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 became the butt of late-night talk-show jokes after it was banned from all commercial flights due to its...explosive performance. This year, Samsung recalled almost 3 million washing machines with a tendency to "violently break apart" during the spin cycle. There have been recalls of refrigerators, microwaves and more products in recent years, as well.

Every massive company such as Samsung is going to occasionally have product issues. It is unavoidable when working on such a large scale. Yet the Galaxy Fold situation is unlike any I can recall for one simple reason.

These issues didn’t occur once the product was in stores and subject to use and abuse by millions of consumers. These negative reports are coming from a small group of hand-selected professional journalists who are testing the device. For example, The Verge wrote that "my screen broke after just a day." Bloomberg reported that the screen is unusable just two days in. The Wall Street Journal’s video review simply concluded: Don't buy this. And don't fold this.

From 2011 to 2013, I was director of PR for Samsung America, overseeing hundreds of product launches. While I couldn’t control the quality of the products, part of my job was to try to minimize negative press reviews. Of course, a negative review lives forever on the internet, even if the product is fixed later, so it’s essential that early reviews are as positive as possible. Here are some of the recommendations that any company can implement to avoid situations like this one:

  1. Test it before they test it. Companies such as Samsung do tremendous amounts of product testing. Samsung even used robots to test the Galaxy Fold and released a cool video of it. But this testing was likely all done in house. I recommend that products be tested first by external labs to reveal any usability issues that those who live and breathe the product might miss. As the WSJ curtly headlined, "We are not your beta testers."

  1. Create a reviewer’s guide. Many of the reviewers who encountered issues with the Galaxy Fold did so because they inadvertently removed a protective film that the device requires for proper operation. To add to the confusion, other Samsung phones do come with protective films that are meant to be removed. Had Samsung realized that people would do this, which external testing would have quickly made clear, it could have made this known to journalists via a reviewer’s guide. This document typically goes beyond the phone’s user manual to include additional, more detailed instructions to journalists to ensure they understand the phone’s features and limitations. 

  1. Engage and be responsive. A product-review program isn’t simply about sending the products to journalists and then sitting back and waiting for the review. To be successful, its essential to remain in touch with the journalist throughout the review and send quick responses to any questions or issues that arise. The Verge reported that after reaching out to Samsung about this issue, it took more than 24 hours to provide a statement. If elite journalists take this long to get answers, what experience can ordinary consumers look forward to?

  1. Combine reviews with desksides. For run-of-the-mill products, it’s fine to just send them out with a reviewer’s guide. However, the Galaxy Fold represents an entirely new product category, so journalists need a bit more hand-holding. Companies kicking off product-review programs for devices like this should send reps to personally drop off devices and spend a few minutes in person with journalists to walk them through the product and its features. Doing so will pay off with better, more informed and more positive reviews.

  2. Just skip or postpone the review program. It has been well documented that Samsung raced the Galaxy Fold to market to get ahead of folding phones from Motorola, Huawei and others. However, to make a review program happen, Samsung needed to put the phones in the hands of journalists even earlier. Doing so might not have allowed enough time to perfect that experience for journalists, which clearly backfired. Companies launching products on a tight timeline may want to simply put all their focus on delivering the best possible consumer experience and not putting resources into a review program. Truly exciting products will get plenty of attention. Why rush it and risk everything?

The story of the Galaxy Fold is just beginning; not one consumer has had a chance to try it. However, the reputation of this device may have been ruined before it ever got a chance to launch. #PeelGate was entirely avoidable. Other companies should watch carefully and learn a lesson from Samsung’s experience.

Jordan Peele was not available for comment.

Ethan Rasiel is cofounder and CEO of Lightspeed PR. Previously, he was director of communications for Samsung Electronics North America.

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