Every year, a few public relations efforts blow up in the face of organizations.
Other crises are caused not by communicators, but by a product failure or shoot-yourself-in-the-foot comment by a chief executive that leaves a mess for PR pros to clean up.
Either way, as Thanksgiving approaches, we rounded up some of the top PR turkeys of 2015.
Citing the year’s PR flops, Robert Barrows, president of R.M. Barrows Advertising and Public Relations, reminds us that mistakes can be costly. He says he often asks clients whether they are looking for more coverage or less.
“If they want me to try to keep their names out of the news, that will cost them a lot more,” he says.
The following are a few suggestions we collected from communicators. We present them as cautionary tales, large and small, and in no particular order.
Volkswagen’s emissions scandal
When a company leader says “We’ve totally screwed up,” as a VW boss did, you know things are not going well. Volkswagen AG admitted that hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered vehicles engines sold in the U.S. since 2008 contain illegal “defeat devices” capable of gaming emissions tests. The group’s CEO resigned as a result of the scandal.
Robert Sax of Sax Public Relations adds, “It’s hard to top Volkswagen’s engine emissions cheating debacle for sheer brand-killing potential.”
The brand wasn’t doing very well in the U.S. anyway, and now company officials reportedly have admitted to cheating emissions tests in the U.S., Sax adds. “‘Das auto’ indeed!” he says.
Turing Pharmaceuticals’ 5,000 percent price hike
When Turing Pharmaceuticals boosted the price of a drug called Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill, Martin Shkreli, founder and CEP, posted prolifically—and, many argued, insensitively—on social media in defense of the action.
“Due to the sudden price hike, Shkreli, whose company only acquired Daraprim last month, has already dethroned the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion as the most-hated man in America,” The Daily Beast opined.
His image wasn’t helped when he flipped a middle finger at critics via an Eminem song in a tweet. Turing later backed off the price hike, but the outcry apparently drew the attention of the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Ed James, president of CHQ Media, cites these blunders (among others) by Shkreli:
- He showed no sense that he was stepping on a land mine.
- He doubled down on his original statement.
- He gave the media an easy “evil company” headline.
- Though understanding that it’s a business, he still failed to make it clear that he knew lives were at stake.
Starbucks ‘race together’
When Starbucks announced that its baristas would be writing “race together” on cups, the words were intended as an edgy invitation for customers to converse with its staff about race.
Social media, however, blew up. While some praised Starbucks’ good intentions, many mocked the notion that customers hurrying to catch a commuter train would eagerly wade into one of America’s socio-political minefields with employees of a company that “can’t even call a ‘small’ coffee a ‘small.’” The company also offered seemingly scolding “conversation starters,” among them this: “In my Facebook stream, ____ % are of a different race.”
As the backlash grew, Starbucks’ senior VP of communications deleted his Twitter account, saying he was being “personally attacked.” In the end, Starbucks backed off, and Eater.com summed it up, “Starbucks Nixes Its Terrible ‘Race Together’ Cup-Writing Campaign.”
— April (@ReignOfApril) March 17, 2015
Tennessee anti-DUI campaign
Taylor Hathorn, communications manager for Mary Beth West Communications, notes that the State of Tennessee was forced to apologize for a federally funded anti-drunken driving campaign that went awry.
The campaign—involving coasters, posters and table tents—sounded as if it had been drawn up after too many shots of Tennessee whisky, and it drew derision from as far afield as The Washington Post.
Among the more tin-eared messages: “After a few drinks the girls look hotter and the music sounds better. Just remember: If your judgement is impaired, so is your driving.”
“I’m all in favor of being snarky in a campaign, but you don’t have to be sexist to do that,” a Nashville marketing strategist told The Tennessean.
When I sought suggestions for this story, the New England Patriots’ “deflategate” scandal was on one Twitter user’s mind.
— Mass Ombudsman (@MassOmbudsman) November 20, 2015
In May, an NFL report found it “more probable than not” that two New England employees had deliberately released air from the team’s game balls at a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in January, making it easier for Patriots receivers to catch them. The league ruled that quarterback Tom Brady conspired with the ball handlers and tried to obstruct the league’s investigation.
A U.S. District judge, however, overruled Brady’s four-game suspension. Though the scandal may have worsened the Patriots’ reputation in the rest of the country, it’s unlikely that many diehard fans in New England switched their allegiance to the New York Jets over the issue.
Subway’s Jared Fogle
The scandal surrounding Jared Fogle, the Subway ex-spokesman convicted of paying for sex with underage girls, “demonstrates the importance of thoroughly vetting spokespeople that will hold the image of a company in their hands,” says Léo Newman, media relations specialist with Nurse Next Door Home Care Services.
“It’s also a reminder to have key crisis communications plan with multiple spokespeople ready to speak for situations that are even a remote possibility,” Newman says.
Billionaire withdraws gift to small college
How better to improve your reputation than to make a big, fat donation to a struggling college? Well, that holds true only if you don’t yank the gift back.
This year Wall Street billionaire Sanford I. Weill and his wife, Joan, offered $20 million to a struggling northern New York college, notes Doug Haney, founding partner at GreatRange. That donation was made, however, on the condition that the school change its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College, The New York Times reported. A judge ruled that this would run contrary to the will of the man who established the institution in memory of his father, and the Weills withdrew their offer.
Naturally, this list is only a beginning. Other suggestions for PR turkeys included Takata’s air bags scandal, the E.coli outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill and a rape scandal at Vanderbilt University.
What other turkeys are missing? In the comments section, please offer your nominees for PR moves that ran a-fowl of common wisdom.