7 PR tactics that hurt more than they help

A stunt intended to grab headlines can result in the wrong kind of publicity if communicators don’t take precautions. Here are some common gaffes—and tips on how to avoid them.  

7 PR mistakes

Though public relations techniques are meant to get attention, some become news for the wrong reasons.

Here are seven examples illustrating how PR gambits can become costly blunders:

1. The corny, horny news release

“Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and whether you’re planning on smashing bae’s junk to smithereens or making out with a pint of Phish Food…”

That was the sentence that began the lead paragraph of a news release distributed in early February 2019 to promote Meghan Trainor’s new EP, “The Love Train.”

The media and online buzz was mixed. Reporters and bloggers found it either hilarious or distasteful. Regardless of one’s opinion, this explicit teaser became the story for its highly unusual approach and surprisingly sexual content. This news release is bound to live on in social and traditional media and eventually become fodder for textbook case studies and “what-not-to-do” sidebars.

2. From Russia, with an op-ed

“A Plea for Caution from Russia” was the title of a New York Times op-ed by Vladimir Putin in 2013. The Russian president outlined strategies for diplomacy, instead of military intervention, after claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

The controversial op-ed resulted in an ethics debate in the industry, media and blogs worldwide. Some praised and many criticized the role of a U.S.-based agency for placing and “editing” (the agency claims it only pitched it to the NYT) an op-ed from an adversarial foreign leader, telling the Obama administration what to do.

3. Once a retweet, always a retweet

Twitter etiquette also applies to personal tweets, not just tweets for clients or organizations.

Unfortunately, a senior director of corporate communications at IAC forgot about this while boarding a long flight to South Africa in 2014. Her tweet, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!,” went viral worldwide, with the trending hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. When Justine Sacco arrived hours later in Cape Town, she became an ex-employee and was vilified worldwide.

Though she claimed the tweet was meant to be humorous, the angered twitterverse called it racist. Communicators should remember that one can delete tweets, but not retweets.

Where is she now? In 2018, she was hired back at IAC’s Match Group, promoting Match.com, Tinder and other online dating sites, as vice president communications.

4. Soundbites of ineptitude

Being interviewed during a crisis is an essential part of the PR job.

Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum, found out the hard way in 2010 while carping during an on-camera interview, ”I want my life back,” after 11 people died when an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and marine life was dying and the fishing industry was gasping from the oil spill. Although Hayward’s interview included sensitive messages, his crass five-word quote epitomized an inept response to a crisis.

A few month later, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg visited the White House and attempted to express more sympathy about the Gulf Coast oil spill, stating “We care about the small people.” The Swedish chairman was unaware of the condescending way “small people” could be construed in the U.S. Both executives apologized profusely, but their insensitive quotes were widely covered in traditional and social media.

5. The fake blog—or “flog”

“Wal-marting Across America” was the name of a blog co-written by a young couple parking their RV at Walmart stores while traveling across the states in 2006. They extolled the virtues of the RV-friendly Walmart as the perfect place to park one’s recreation vehicle for free and also interviewed happy employees at the stores.

Was this blog for real? Absolutely not. The rosy stories were created by a writer-photographer team compensated by the retailer. The floggers did help reinforce the term “flog” and sparked a dialogue on why fake blogs should not be a tactic for any PR campaign.

6. Creating a witness

Back in 1990, a U.S.-based PR agency representing the government of Kuwait created “Citizens for A Free Kuwait” less than two weeks after Iraq’s army under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, which later led to a U.S. military assault in Iraq and against Iraqi troops in Kuwait.

The multifaceted, multimillion-dollar campaign’s goal was to gain positive sympathy for Kuwait and support for the U.S. military involvement. One of the most touching witnesses against Iraq was a Kuwaiti teenager named Nayirah, who gave heartbreaking testimony at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She claimed to be a volunteer at a hospital where she witnessed gun-laden Iraqi soldiers grabbing over 300 babies out of incubators and leaving them on cold floors to perish. Her horrible encounters were read, seen and heard on print and broadcast outlets repeatedly.

Who was Nayirah? She was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S. who was coached to give false testimony. Ethical issues abound on many levels with this entire campaign.

7. When the air is let out of your showstopper

In this case, a prop to promote a new movie deflated. You may remember the top of the Empire State Building scene from “King Kong,” with the namesake giant ape cradling his ladylove in his hand while batting at planes with the other. Back in 1983, King Kong returned to the Manhattan landmark to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film classic. This time, an eight-story inflatable of King Kong grabbed the tower.

When New Yorkers and visitors stretched their necks to see the legend on the Empire State Building, they instead saw a black blob looking like a giant garbage bag draping the building above the Observation Deck. Poor King Kong’s replica could not combat the strong winds that gashed him in a few places. This fiasco didn’t stop Harry and Leona Helmsley (the then owners of the building) from celebrating with a gala and arranging for biplanes to fly around the steeple as in the movie.

For PR pros who are planning a special occasion, always account for the weather.

What PR mistakes would you add to the list?

Arhlene Flowers is associate professor of Integrated Marketing Communications at Ithaca College.

Topics: PR


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