The first rule of heading off negative publicity is to get ahead of it and turn the conversation in your favor. The second rule is to not compound the problem by saying the wrong thing. Here are 10 public relations nightmares so spectacular you’d think they were done on purpose.
Coca-Cola might have wanted to teach the world to sing, but when Pepsi tried to one up the sentiment it was more a record scratch. The infamous Kendall Jenner ad wherein a political protest is diffused by a can of soda was so poorly received that the company apologized to Jenner first, then the public later. Only one thing saved them from the internet’s ire…
The “Friendly Skies” were anything but when an overbooked flight led to a passenger’s beating and removal — all caught on cell phone camera — just a week after the Pepsi ad fiasco. United’s chief Oscar Munoz chose to keep mum instead of getting ahead of the news, and when he eventually commented, on Twitter, he seemed more concerned on how the company was affected than the victim.
All you need to know is that “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” is a late night cartoon, and a marketing company wanted to hype the movie version back in 2007. Their solution was to create LED signs of the Mooninite characters and randomly place them around a city. However, the city was Boston, and having random boxes with batteries and wires sticking out show up overnight at a time of increasing terror threats around the world was the least brilliant idea ever. Boston PD took heat for its response, which was to call out the bomb squad. The cartoon fans found it hilarious.
For a bank that’s “too big to fail” they seem pretty adept at it. From a scheme to open extra accounts and credit cards for existing customers, then charging and collecting fees for those accounts, the company was hit with a $185 million settlement and two execs had to return over $75 million in compensation. That was last year. This year, a computer glitch kept people from accessing their money for days. Their PR solution was, again, a halfhearted shrug.
How do you kill a company on the brink of greatness? By misjudging your audience’s wants. In 2011, Netflix, which had built its business on DVD rentals, began streaming services. Deciding that this was the future, their CEO announced that their DVD offerings would be spun off into another company, Qwikster, and that subscribers would have to pay separately for both services. While Wall Street loved the idea, subscribers did not, and three months later Netflix announced that they had changed their minds… only after Netflix’s stock had lost about half its value. They’ve gotten better since then.
Abercrombie and Fitch
Another good PR rule is to not bite the hand that feeds you, or buys your things. When A&F asked “The Situation” from Jersey Shore to stop wearing their clothes—because they didn’t want the association—it was his fans that retaliated. Shares fell by 15% as the frat boy fans who wanted to look like the Sitch kicked the label to the curb, and the label has yet to recover.
After the documentary “Blackfish,” chronicling the plight of killer whales in captivity, drove their attendance rates down, Seaworld tried to get ahead of the story by taking to social media. Under the hashtag #askSeaWorld they hoped to steer the conversation but instead people used the hashtag to ask questions about the documentary… and brought even more attention to the park’s care of their animals, which is what they didn’t want to talk about in the first place.
In the midst of a terrible accident, don’t make it about yourself. That’s the lesson BP CEO Tony Hayward learned when, in a moment of lapsed judgment during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he whined, “I’d like my life back.” Keep in mind the incident cost 11 lives and cost over $61 billion (with a B) to clean up the millions of gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. That, and the revelation that in the midst of the crisis Hayward went sailing on his yacht to relax, brought the company so much bad press that Hayward was voted off the company island post-haste.
The House of Windsor
No, it’s not a company. The actual British Royal Family had a massive PR disaster on their hands when, on the death of Princess Diana, there came no statement from the Queen for several days and she stayed in Scotland rather than returning to London. Public opinion had soured very quickly on what was perceived as a snub, and nothing that came from any other official channel could quell it. The repercussions have lasted well into the present, only because of a concerted effort by Buckingham Palace to repair the damage.
This classic PR trainwreck is a master class of fail. Gerald Ratner had a family-run jewelry company of 900 stores, which tanked overnight when he claimed at a business dinner that their earrings were cheaper than “a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer” and furthermore, the sandwich would last longer. It might have been a joke but it cost Ratner his job and lost the company nearly a billion (with a B) dollars. The company no longer carries the family name and Ratner himself has a new gig… as a motivational speaker.