Top 10 PR blunders of 2012

The NFL, Mountain Dew, Susan G. Komen, and other organizations earned themselves some shameful press this year. Here’s a recap.


The 18th annual “Top 10 PR Blunders List,” compiled by Fineman PR, features blunders by organizations that were impolitic, inappropriate, indelicate, insincere, ill-advised-and all preventable.

1. Susan G. Komen

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced its decision to end its longtime partnership with Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading breast cancer charity was widely criticized, particularly via social media. Many people alleged the organization cut funding due to pressure from anti-abortion groups and anti-abortion sentiment in the Komen executive ranks.

Meghan Casserly of Forbes reported on social media backlash from iconic women, such as author Judy Blume and U.S. Representative Jackie Speier. Speier tweeted that “Komen’s decision hurts women—it puts politics before women’s health.”

Faced with massive public outcry, the foundation apologized and reversed its decision within 72 hours of the initial announcement. But the damage to its image was already done. The New York Times cited a Harris Interactive study that showed Komen’s “brand health” score fell 21 percent from the year before.

2. Mountain Dew

Mountain Dew maker PepsiCo took a misstep in its defense against Illinois consumer Ronald Ball’s 2009 lawsuit over an alleged dead mouse in a can of its popular beverage.

Hoping to refute Ball’s allegations, the company insisted the soda would have reduced the mouse corpse to a “jelly-like substance,” as reported in numerous national media including the Huffington Post and Scientific American.

While experts cited studies indicating Mountain Dew’s unique formulation—including high levels of citric acid and controversial brominated vegetable oil—probably could jellify a mouse, the company’s inexplicably off-putting statement was a far cry from enticing consumers to “do the Dew.”

Eric Randall of The Atlantic Wire skewered PepsiCo, describing the company’s unusual defense as “a winning-the-battle-while-surrendering-the-war kind of strategy that hinges on the argument that Pepsi’s product is essentially a can of bright green/yellow battery acid.”

3. Boy Scouts of America

With 2012 marking its 100th anniversary, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) should have enjoyed a banner year. Instead, the organization self-righteously battled against the inclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders with widely covered incidents of organizational bigotry reported by numerous media, including ABC News, NBC News, NPR, CNN and the Associated Press.

The other shoe dropped, though, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the court-mandated release of BSA files detailing decades of sexual abuse incidents the organization documented internally, but never reported to police or properly investigated.

The confluence of these issues was too much for many Americans. Parents pulled their boys out of scouting, corporations such as United Parcel Service withheld donations, and adult Eagle Scouts returned their badges.

The editorial staff of The New York Times noted that “for an organization that extols trustworthiness, these files lay bare an appalling dissonance. The Boy Scouts battled to the Supreme Court to protect their right to purge gay and lesbian leaders and to exclude gay boys, insisting that openly gay people were bad role models. It bent to bigotry while hiding sexual predators.”

4. Progressive Insurance

Progressive Insurance insured Matt Fisher’s sister before she lost her life in a 2010 traffic accident. When Fisher appeared in court during the trial of the under-insured driver at fault, he didn’t expect to see a Progressive lawyer assisting the defense in an attempt to undermine his family’s claim on his sister’s policy.

Outraged, Fisher publicized the incident on his Tumblr page in a post entitled, “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Court,” in which he claimed “carrying Progressive insurance and getting into an accident does not entitle you to the value of your insurance policy. It just pisses off Progressive’s lawyers.”

The company said it did not represent the defendant in the case, but court documentation showed the company was granted permission to participate on the side of the defense.

According to CNNMoney, Progressive “didn’t handle the social media replies well.” It sent out “stiff-sounding statements,” including a clipped, repetitive tweet , instead of apologizing to the family.

While Progressive eventually reached a settlement with the Fishers, the damage to its image was done. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 1,000 Twitter users claimed the incident caused them to drop the insurer.

5. Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney starred in a secretly-taped video taken at a May 2012 fundraiser in which he said 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes and think of themselves as victims, and that he couldn’t care about them. Both the media and his political opposition savaged him.

Kasie Hunt of the Associated Press wrote that Romney’s statement “provided fodder to those who portray him as an out-of-touch millionaire oblivious to the lives of average Americans.” For weeks thereafter, Romney repeatedly defended his view, telling reporters it was “not elegantly stated.”

Not only was Romney’s statement inelegant, but fact-checking by CBS News and other media indicated it was incorrect and misleading.

Romney later admitted he was wrong, but to many that admission seemed disingenuous. Editorial staff at The Week noted “the fact that Romney made his ’47 percent’ remarks at a private fundraiser, unaware that he was being filmed surreptitiously, only bolstered the impression that these were his real views.”

Jon Gelberg of PR News summed up Romney’s blunder, writing “in our age of smartphones, all notions of private or off-the-record conversations should be tossed out the window.”

6. American Apparel and Gap

Social media sites erupted in outrage when both American Apparel and Gap urged consumers in states affected by Hurricane Sandy to shop online during the disaster. Adweek blasted the companies for “forgetting that death and loss make a poor springboard for promotional messaging.”

Gap quickly apologized, while American Apparel stood behind its misguided marketing. Remorseless CEO Dov Charney stated, “part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going.”

Charney also noted some consumers did use the discount, generating “tens of thousands of dollars.” But apparently not enough dollars. Charney later stated in an SEC disclosure that “we were blindsided by Sandy, and with greater New York being our largest market, we estimate we lost in excess of $1.5 million in retail sales due to the storm.”

Jessica Phelan of GlobalPost called it in advance, writing, “We wouldn’t be surprised if [American Apparel’s] sales figures-or possibly its marketing peeps-were Hurricane Sandy’s latest victims. Excuse us if we don’t feel too sorry for them.”

7. The NFL

After the National Football League (NFL) and its referees failed to come to an agreement, the NFL suffered through nearly four weeks of its regular season with some dubious replacements. They were high school and low-level college officials with no NFL experience, as well as—according to the sports site Deadspin—a crew of refs who were previously fired by the Lingerie Football League for incompetence.

Media nationwide, including The New York Times, reported numerous instances of replacement refs taking the field as fans rather than officials, and increasing incidences of poor, often game-changing, calls.

Both sides eventually reached an agreement and the NFL refs returned, but for many the crux of the issue was Commissioner Roger Goodell’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the game’s integrity—and irritate fans—over a relatively small amount of money.

Sports Illustrated writer Michael Rosenberg wrote that Goodell “could have ended this lockout weeks ago for roughly the amount of money that NFL executives spend on dry cleaning every year.” Fortune contributors Jack and Suzy Welch highlighted a lesson for Goodell: Despite the NFL’s “virtual monopoly … you can’t aggravate your customers.”

8. Papa John’s

In August 2012, wealthy pizza magnate “Papa John” Schnatter was widely criticized for his stance against the new Affordable Healthcare Act and his determination to circumvent it, as reported by ABC News, Politico and numerous other media.

His flamboyant and needlessly cold messaging seemed designed to alienate his customers and a pool of potential employees. The Naples News reported that Schnatter told a group of Florida college students “it was likely that some [Papa John’s] franchise owners would reduce employees’ hours in order to avoid having to cover them.”

Even Mad magazine got in on the action. Editors noted, “If you thought that the worst thing about Papa John’s Pizza was the pizza … the policies … will leave an even worse taste in your mouth!”

“A brand is just a collection of ideas,” Barbara Findlay Schenck, author of “Branding for Dummies,” told TODAY. “When suddenly the brand message shifted to political stances, bottom line prices, price increases and staff cutbacks, the inconsistency rocked brand strength, confidence, and preference.”

According to MSN.com, “the Twittersphere appears largely elated over news that Papa John seems to be eating his feisty political words post-election.” The news site awarded “top tweet” recognition to Twitter user @kimbersc when she slammed Schnatter, asking: “who’d the moron CEO think was eating that pizza? 1%ers?”

9. Popchips

Ashton Kutcher, Popchips’s “President of Pop Culture” according to Popchips marketing collateral, starred in an ill-advised online video campaign in which he wore stereotypical Bollywood attire—along with skin-darkening makeup—to impersonate an Indian character named Raj.

The video gained attention for the snack brand, but for all the wrong reasons. Tech entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash questioned the campaign’s direction, noting “if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 … to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course.”

Dash noted early on that “Kutcher’s apology would be the easiest and most obvious part” of addressing the brand’s blunder and Ling Woo Lee, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, agreed in an opinion piece for CNN writing, “I’m still waiting for Ashton Kutcher’s apology [and] I’m starting to lose patience.”

Nonetheless, while Popchips quickly issued an apology and pulled the offending video, Kutcher has not apologized.

10. Liberty Mutual

In early April of 2012, Boston Globe business reporter Todd Wallack reported that the Boston-based insurance giant Liberty Mutual was under scrutiny from the Massachusetts Division of Insurance after it discovered that longtime CEO Edmund F. “Ted” Kelly earned an average of $50 million a year from 2008 to 2010.

As a mutual insurance company owned by its policyholders, any extra money Liberty Mutual earns should go back to customers-not executives. About a month after Wallack’s article, the Globe’s Brian McGrory wrote that Liberty Mutual spent $4.5 million in 2011 to renovate incoming CEO David Long’s 1,335 square foot executive office suite, adding “woven silk wall coverings,” a private shower, exercise room and an automatic Lutron lighting system.

All this excess spending occurred in fall 2011 when unemployment was at 9.1 percent and the stock market was plunging. Liberty Mutual didn’t issue a single statement of regret in the month after the initial revelations, while Kelly explained his pay as “an accounting issue.”

As McGrory explained to Ed Cafasso of The Public Relations Strategist, “their lack of response made my job easier … the best thing they could have done was gotten enough of it out there earlier so the tips dried up.”

A version of this article originally appeared on FinemanPR.com.

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Topics: PR

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