It’s that time of year when we take a look back at the most egregious PR mishaps, disasters and catastrophes and ask, “What were they thinking?”
This year had no shortage, as the news seemed to be riddled with PR disasters. Some were a simple misstep or careless Tweet, while others seemed to be a litany of bad decisions that left us cringing.
Here are some of the best examples of the worst offenses from 2014.
Urban Outfitters is notorious for selling some wildly offensive merchandise.
Most recently, the clothing company sold a distressed Kent State sweatshirt that appeared to be stained in blood. The public was outraged by the insensitivity. Urban Outfitters later issued an apology, saying, “It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.”
This is not the first time Urban Outfitters has been on the hot seat, already having marketed shirts with the words “Eat Less” and another with “Depression,” making it much harder to excuse this Kent State mishap as unintentional.
One fateful day in September, DiGiorno pizza was looking to latch on to some trending hastags. The brand’s social media managers came across “#WhyIStayed” and posted “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.”
Had the managers taken the time to look at any of the other Tweets using the hashtag that day, they may have realized it was created as a way to spread awareness about domestic violence and show support for victims. DiGiorno deleted the tweet and apologized.
As General Motors rolled out more and more recalls of its vehicles through the first half of 2014, the company was forced to apologize when it accidentally sent recall notices to the families of people who died in crashes related to the ignition defect that prompted the recalls. A GM spokesman said the company was “deeply sorry” for the mistake.
As sexual assault accusations piled up late this year, Bill Cosby conducted an interview about an art exhibit with an AP reporter. When the reporter asked Cosby about the accusations, Cosby challenged his integrity and asked that the footage of those questions not be shown. The video instead was posted online and viewed by around 2 million people.
In the aftermath of two plane crashes that resulted in hundreds of deaths, the airline asked where people would want to travel before they die. It was called the “My Ultimate Bucket List.” Critics called the promotion a “sick joke.” The airline changed the name of the promotion to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines flight to Malaysia.”
South African Sprinter Oscar Pistorius became the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal and became a worldwide sensation. In February 2013, Pistorius fatally shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He maintained it was an accident. Pistorius hired a crisis PR specialist, who launched a Twitter account on his behalf.
It didn’t save him. In October, Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide and a concurrent three-year suspended prison sentence for a separate reckless endangerment conviction. Not only has the prison sentence sidelined Pistorius’ career, but it has also left a permanent scar on his record.
NASCAR Superstar Tony Stewart was in the media spotlight for a crash that killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in New York City.
Though Stewart claimed this was an accident and Ward acted recklessly, the video caused damage to the NASCAR favorite’s reputation, to the community and to NASCAR itself. He’s since been on an informal PR apology tour/PR campaign to repair his fractured image.
Former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling lost his team as a result of racist remarks that were caught on tape and spread on the Internet.
In April, the NBA announced that Sterling had been banned from the league for life and fined $2.5 million, the maximum fine allowed. He was stripped of virtually all of his authority over the Clippers, and banned him from entering any Clippers facility. He was also banned from attending any NBA games. The punishment was one of the most severe ever imposed on a professional sports owner.
Police departments in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland were thrust in the media spotlight after police-involved killings. Protests across the country are still active. Departments nationwide are on defense regarding the actions of their officers.
To make matters worse in Missouri, the city of Ferguson hired an entirely white PR firm to handle the racially charged issue. The city responded by hiring a black PR rep, Devin James, to help save face. As it turns out, James had been convicted of reckless homicide in 2006. That sparked another wave of outrage, eventually leading to his dismissal.
While the way Ferguson handled the media was far from the most upsetting about the entire incident, it only helped to fuel the flames and damage the public’s confidence in the city.
It is hard to find a worse PR fumble than the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
There are a few basic rules to crisis management, which include being as transparent as possible, admitting when you are wrong, and never underestimating or insulting the intelligence of your audience.
The NFL did it’s best to downplay video of Rice punching his then-fiancee, which was released and after Rice was slapped with a measly two-game suspension. After a second video was released, officials changed their tone and suspended Rice indefinitely. Makinthings The AP reported that the NFL had access to the second video months before to TMZ released it.
In what may be the most awkward press conference of 2014, Commissioner Roger Goodell promised change while failing to outline any actual plan or action steps the NFL would take. In early December, the NFL did release a new conduct policy.
Kimberly Eberl is the owner of Motion PR.