9 PR blunders of 2018

Some were botches, missteps and Twitter misfires. Others indicated far deeper institutional problems. We mean you, Facebook.

PR blunders of the year

No year is complete without its public relations blunders—the campaigns gone awry, the social media goofs, the burger promos featuring tragic imagery.

Anno Domini 2018 is no exception, and, without schadenfreude, we present some of the year’s worst gaffes.

Some lessons of 2018 are mere goofs. One PR pro we consulted called out Cheesecake Factory for a free-slice promotion that drew the wrong kind of press. Other PR sins seem to relate to deeper, ongoing problems, such as Facebook’s multiple fails.

Following up on our midyear listing, we sounded out PR pros for what they saw as the blunders of the year. Here are the more memorable examples:

1. Z-Burger falls flat with meme about slain journo.

Next time you’re promoting a product and your social media person says, “Let’s do it with a meme involving a journalist murdered by the Islamic State,” you’ll now know to say, “Let’s not.”

This was the lesson learned by Z-Burger when, as The Washington Post put it, “Z-Burger apologizes for ‘callous’ Twitter ad depicting American journalist executed in the Middle East.”

This PR goof, nominated for the 2018 Hall of Shame by PR consultant and writer Michelle Garrett, left the company scrambling to explain that the meme was the unapproved work of a social media guy. The Post reported:

The Z-Burger hamburger chain is facing criticism after it says a social media contractor posted an ad on Twitter depicting an American freelance journalist who was executed in the Middle East.

The incident unfolded over the weekend after a tweet for the Z-Burger chain showed a photo of James Foley, who was kidnapped in 2012 and beheaded by the Islamic State in 2014, with an image of a hamburger. According to Washingtonian, the ad read, “When you say you want a burger and someone says okay let’s hit McDonalds.” Under a picture of Foley was the message “You disgrace me.”

Speaking of burgers, PR pros gave us mixed reviews of IHOP (a.k.a., International House of Pancakes) for announcing it was changing its name and expanding its burger offerings on the menu, flipping the P upside down to make it IHOb. That’s b for burgers. See what they did there?

Some considered it among the top blunders of the first half of 2018; others called it a clever stunt. We split the baby and included it in both lists.

2. Facebook faceplants.

“Just name it,” says Maria Gonzalez of the Gonzberg Agency in noting the array of bungles by the social media platform.

Just this month Bloomberg reported that “Internal Facebook documents released by a U.K. parliamentary committee offer the clearest evidence yet that the social network has used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways designed to keep its users in the dark.”

Facebook also faceplanted earlier in the year amid an outcry about how user data was harvested for political purposes. Investors dumped its stock because of the risk the scandal posed to its business, as CNN reported.

Facebook also got caught in data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including one that’s close to the Chinese government.

And more keeps popping up. “In effect, Facebook’s ongoing controversies reinforce to the world that what the leadership says isn’t trustworthy, especially since they are applying tactics it bans users from implementing, such as what it calls ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior,’” Gonzalez says.

Things got so bad that TechRepublic published a Facebook data privacy scandal cheat sheet.

“Read about the saga of Facebook’s failures in ensuring privacy for user data, including how it relates to Cambridge Analytica, the GDPR, the Brexit campaign, and the 2016 US presidential election,” the tech zine offered.

None of which inspires confidence in the company that so many trust with their data.

3. PETA takes the flower by the thorns.

Eagle-eyed Ragan.com editor Robby Brumberg has a bone to pick with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Though its campaign to protect animals from abuse is much needed, the organization has been known to overdo it a mite. This year PETA ruffled feathers by projecting an image of humorless fanaticism when it had a cow over certain animal clichés.

Stop saying, “Kill two birds with one stone,” PETA urged. Instead, how about, “Feed two birds with one scone.”

You guessed it. The public went ape and responded with a horselaugh.

PETA seemed to catch it from its own side when a Twitter user carped, “Birds probably shouldn’t eat scones either!”

Hey, PETA. When it comes to politically incorrect language, we’re already walking on eggs. Don’t try to teach an old dog new tricks.

4. Cheesecake Factory bakes up a free-slice fiasco.

Gonzalez cites “an example of not thinking things through.” One headline says it all: “Cheesecake Factory’s free cheesecake promotion goes awry, one person arrested.”

The cheesecake makers underestimated the popularity of the promotion and the potential for disruption and creating conflict at the restaurants, Gonzalez says.

“Besides the fights that broke out at the restaurants, making great media fodder, the company also angered their online and in-store customers, who took to social media to vent,” she says. “People devoted to an offering like this—food or otherwise—tend to feel put out if they can’t take part and will voice their displeasure.”

5. Papa John caught up in N-word scandal.

John Schnatter, founder of Papa John’s, was ousted after using a racial slur on a conference call with investors, notes Simon Dance, CEO at Interact. Dance notes that Schnatter then launched his own website called SavePapaJohns.com to communicate with former employees.

“This put employees in the middle of a PR tug of war, which lasted far too long without proper internal communication around the issue,” says Dance. “Good internal communication could’ve helped hasten the distribution of important information to employees and could’ve also provided a way to quickly collect information from staff on whether or not they had been contacted.”

Gonzalez had a different take, calling the fracas “an example of hiring a PR agency more concerned about burnishing its halo than doing the hard work of getting the primary client spokesperson in line and helping them get ahead of bad press.”

She says Schnatter provided a “historically based context during that conference call—a PR training session with his agency—for uttering the N-word. (He did not use it as a slur.)”

Gonzalez says the agency’s leadership capitulated to employees on the call who were offended, rather than using the situation to train employees and the client. Then the agency went to Forbes, she says, leading to a plethora of coverage that ignored the apology and the context.

We have asked the agency for a comment and will include it if they respond.

6. The University of Maryland stumbles in aftermath of football player’s death.

The University of Maryland committed an egregiously self-inflicted error this year, says Jonathan Rick of the Jonathan Rick Group. Reinstating two executives who oversaw the avoidable death of a 19-year-old football player was terrible from a PR perspective, he says.

“But the board of regents made a bad situation even worse when it forced its popular president to take the fall,” he says. “Predictably, the backlash was fast and furious.”

The president announced his resignation, the football coach was fired (walking away with $5.5 million), and the chairman of the board resigned. Now the university’s accreditation is under review for alleged ethical issues.

“The crisis at UMD is a perfect example of why PR is so important,” Rick says. “Any PR pro would have known that the board’s tone-deaf decision would have been a bombshell. Instead, the board was grossly unprepared, and the largest university in the Washington, D.C., area is now suffering the consequences.”

7. NFL yellow-flagged for domestic violence.

What really hurts is when organizations claiming to hold certain values convey the contrary through campaigns or actions, says Dee Donavanik, vice president of Scott Circle Communications.

The NFL insists it is committed to doing more to solve issues regarding players and domestic and sexual violence, but it appears to be more interested in conducting damage control in cases involving Kareem Hunt, Reuben Foster and others, Donavanik says.

“Audiences can tell when organizations are being inauthentic,” she says, “and they’re smart enough to know when a resulting response or action is only taking place purely in the self-interest of the company.”

8. Hawaii blares erroneous missile alert.

We reported this one in our midyear roundup, but causing a panic about nuclear war deserves a repeat in the year-ender. The idea of sending emergency alerts to warn mobile phone users and news outlets about an incoming ballistic missile was meant to keep people safe, not to terrify them with fake news.

Nevertheless, at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea, Hawaiians received emergency alerts on their cellphones saying, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Sirens went off. Citizens panicked and phoned loved ones to say farewell. Turned out someone had pushed the wrong button.

One crisis averted, another begun.

9. Fowl-mouthed KFC runs out of chicken.

When your primary menu item is fried chicken, you had better not run out of chicken, as PR Daily noted earlier this year. Logistical problems caused KFC to face a poultry shortage across the U.K. and Ireland, unleashing jokes and dismay on social media. It highlighted the risks of making major changes to a global supply chain.

KFC responded with a full-page ad that scrambled its initials with a fowl-mouthed (and controversial) “‘FCK, We’re Sorry,” making clear just how the chicken chain felt about the goof. They caught our attention, anyway.

Topics: PR

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