Every year, a few organizations break free from the din of online noise and distinguish themselves with public relations bonanzas.
This year, the successes proved once again that a wide range of organizations can reap goodwill through the right kind of stunt, outreach or framing of an issue.
Many PR and communications pros we contacted cited Nike’s use of controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a pitchman.
“A brand at Nike’s level has to be willing to make bold moves in order to reap rewards,” adds Lori Teranishi, principal at iQ 360. “And the company definitely offended some consumers, igniting calls for boycotts and leading people to destroy their Nike apparel. However, the rewards outweighed the risks.”
Here are the winners cited by industry pros we heard from:
1. Payless and Dunkin’ win kudos posing as upscale brands.
Dan Brennan, vice president of Shift Communications, sees a Payless Shoes campaign as the biggest PR win of the year. “They developed a fake pop-up shop called Palessi and invited a bunch of influencers to come and check out the fancy designer shoes,” Brennan says.
Not only did this make people laugh, but it demonstrated Payless’ high-fashion chops and shifted the public’s eye off the brand’s 2017 bankruptcy, agrees Maria Gonzalez of the Gonzberg Agency. This made Payless relevant to “a new generation of consumers—one that uses social media differently than millennials—as well as other target audiences, and reinforced their current target’s brand loyalty,” she says.
As Forbes reported:
All the trappings of luxe were there: the fawning fashionistas, the camera crews, the velvet ropes. And the shoes: Payless models that usually sell for less than $40 had price tags as high as $600 for the occasion. Sure enough, unsuspecting shoeaholics shelled out $3,000 for the drastically overpriced footwear during the two-night scam. But there was a happy ending. They got their money back after the fact, along with the chance to be paid to appear in a Payless spot extolling the shoes.
In a similar vein, Dunkin’ (which in 2018 also shunted aside “Donuts” from its branding) broadened awareness of the quality of its new espresso drinks by packaging the experience as an upscale coffee shop in the foodie haven of Portland, Maine, Gonzalez says. Besides livening up Dunkin’s image, the gambit also reinforced the brand loyalty of its current customer base, even if snobbish foodies reject the doughnut maker.
“The ah-ha moment produced here could get consumers who are more flexible to think differently about, and perhaps try, their new offerings,” Gonzalez says.
2. High school shooting survivors.
As we noted midyear, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in which 17 people died, sparked a nationwide student movement that included school walkouts in support of stricter gun control laws. Survivors David Hogg and Emma González became “the new faces of gun reform,” successfully pressuring organizations to end relationships with the National Rifle Association.
“Judging by the volume of coverage for the school walkouts this week across the nation to protest gun violence,” Forbes reported, “this may turn into one of the most successful public relations campaigns in recent memory.
Teranishi adds, “I believe the Parkland students will continue be catalysts for change in the gun control debate and have remarkably outmaneuvered the NRA and seasoned political operatives at every turn.”
There were Stoneman students on the right as well. Shut out by some journalists seeking an anti-gun narrative, survivor Kyle Kashuv took his pro-Second Amendment message into the Oval Office, where he met with the president and first lady. He also supported the “Stop School Violence Act.”
3. Nike scores with a risky endorsement by a controversial quarterback.
Nike’s campaign featuring controversial ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew praise from a number of PR pros we consulted.
In 2018, audiences continued to be more receptive of organizations such as Nike who demonstrated with authenticity that they care about more than just the bottom line, says Dee Donavanik, vice president of Scott Circle Communications.
She adds that Nike made the right move to appeal to its customer base. Ad Age reported a jump in sales, she says, “especially among millennials, who as a demographic have shown that corporate socially responsibility matters to them.”
Adds Teranishi, “A brand at Nike’s level has to be willing to make bold moves in order to reap rewards.”
Nike contributed to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights charity to deter criticism that it was trying to make a buck off social justice, she notes.
The protests struck a chord culturally, spreading all the way to high school games and assemblies.
Even as Nike’s sales spiked, the NFL took a reputational hit as many Joe Lunchbucket types evidently showed little sympathy with the politicization of sports by multimillionaire athletes whose stadium admission tickets are priced beyond the reach of most fans.
4. Tesla downs a bracing gulp of PR firewater.
Elon Musk is a master of keeping himself relevant and piquing interest by generating a layer of continuous PR, says Gonzalez. Whether or not he does produce Teslaquila, simply by seeking to trademark the name, he achieved his goal of generating media coverage about himself, Tesla and anything new he dreams up, she says.
Though some of the news media coverage—such as opposition from Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council—appeared negative, it all “serves to shore up Musk’s own personal brand as a disruptor, as well as that of his companies,” she says.
And hey, as the Verge stated (approvingly), “Only Elon Musk could run a car company that sells booze.”
5. Disney fires Roseanne.
“From tweet to termination took less than 12 hours,” Rick says. “This allowed the company to frame the narrative, to contain the damage, and to move on.”
6. With wit, D.C. Red Hen fends off a crisis.
After White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that she had been booted out of a Virginia restaurant called Red Hen, the Twitter mob descended on an unaffiliated Washington, D.C., eatery 180 miles away, notes writer and PR consultant Michelle Garrett.
And Red Hen was a situation that was deftly handled by the PR manager in a case of mistaken identity (could’ve been MUCH worse): https://t.co/MIVp2jCXtR
— Michelle Garrett (@PRisUs) December 3, 2018
The D.C. Red Hen’s responses ranged from humorous to straightforward, offering hope for those who wake in cold sweats, fearing a Twitter tantrum.
Businesses in DC are prohibited from discriminating against people for political affiliation because we are a federal district. We have patrons from both sides of the aisle. https://t.co/IOmNmYqoj5 pic.twitter.com/xfkff7t4B0
— The Red Hen (@RedHenDC) June 24, 2018
7. Starbucks demonstrates commitment to fighting racism.
America’s most ubiquitous bulk coffee buyer was in the news again this year, and many PR and crisis management pros praised the company for the way it dealt with an eruption of bad press.
As we reported, the management of a Starbucks store called the police on two African-American men who sat in a store without ordering anything and then asked to use the restroom. (They said they were waiting for a friend.) The cops arrested the men. Starbucks apologized and closed its 8,000 stores in the United States for a day to conduct anti-bias training.
Starbucks faced a terrible situation of its own making, Rick says. Still, the company handled it boldly, losing income for the sake of a principle, he says.
The good news for the rest of us is that we are now welcome to use Starbucks Wi-Fi and bathrooms without making a purchase, as one wag demonstrated by eating Chick-fil-A and ordering rival Black Rifle Coffee online at his favorite Starbucks.
8. Amazon shrugs off Trump tweets.
Many organizations have struggled to respond to @RealDonaldTrump’s Twitter harpoons. It’s not every day, however, that doing nothing wins you praise in PR circles. Rick hails Amazon’s measured response as it ignored repeated Twitter barbs from Trump.
Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2017
The strategy was smart—and a break from the company’s past practices, Rick says. Feuding with Trump would be a losing proposition. (Of note, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is principal owner of The Washington Post.)
“Instead, Amazon has chosen to advance its interests through a quiet yet formidable lobbying machine,” Rick says. “Sometimes, it’s better to find common ground than it is to play tit for tat.”
9. Stephen Curry nimbly responds to a girl’s plea.
Those who take a stance on social issues and act according to their declared values continue to prove their authenticity to the public, Donavanik says. She cites NBA star Stephen Curry, who has been a vocal supporter and advocate for women.
When a letter from a young fan went viral, asking why his sneakers weren’t available in girls’ sizes, Curry responded with a handwritten letter addressing the issue and remedying the situation.
“What quickly could have become a PR nightmare for Curry turned into a win, thanks to a timely and authentic response,” Donavanik says.
10. B2B victory: Cybereason launches a hero documentary.
Cybersecurity trade publications are filled with bad news about threat actors, breaches and incidents, says Frank Strong, founder and president of Sword and the Script Media. Cybereason created a long-form video lionizing the “The Defenders”—the security pros you never hear about—who keep organizations safe every day. Cybereason had a voice in the documentary, but there was zero promotion, says Strong, who has written about it.
“Video is expensive, and making a long one without a strong call to action to sell something is very risky as far as internal politics go,” Strong says, “yet Cybereason pulled this off magnificently. It rolled out the film at the RSA Conference, one of the largest in the industry. Its show booth looked like a movie theater, complete with popcorn and an aroma that circulates throughout a giant tradeshow floor.”