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The Top Public Relations Mistakes of 2014, Part 3

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by Mark Braykovich

No year would be complete without revisiting the biggest PR debacles, and 2014 was kind enough to supply several examples of companies doing and/or saying the wrong thing. No industry was immune to PR miscues, as our list is a Who’s Who of famous companies that includes an automaker, a big box retailer, a disease-fighter, a disease reporter, two technology giants and one city you probably never heard of until 2014 rolled around.

And in a show of digital awareness and inclusiveness, we’ve also included a few hashtags from hell.

The Wilbert Group’s Crisis PR and Issues Management team takes no joy in chronicling these mishaps throughout the year, of course. We simply track them and try to learn from them so that we and our clients don’t repeat them.

We’ve been counting down these mistakes all this week and will continue over the next few days. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

That City You Never Heard of Until 2014

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Photo: New York Times.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Photo: New York Times.

Ferguson’s Belated Apology. More than six weeks after the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked violent protests and a national debate about race relations, the city’s police chief publicly apologized. “I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son,” Chief Thomas Jackson said in a prepared statement. Attorneys for the victim, Michael Brown, described the apology as too little too late. “We feel that the apology comes at a time when the trust and the confidence in the chief has already reached an all-time and irreversible low,” said one attorney. “Dynamite, much less an apology, will do little to move anyone off their opinions at this point.” The videotaped apology also had an unprofessional look, with the chief holding the prepared statement in his hands, frequently referring to it, robbing the moment of much-needed sincerity.

Ferguson’s PR Firm Becomes the Story. After the tragic death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, after the public protests and horrible daily images from Ferguson as its police force reacted poorly and violently, and after the media invasion and non-stop footage and articles about reporters being arrested, pushed around by the cops, and stripped of their cameras and notebooks, Ferguson wised up and hired a PR firm. Only it made matters worse. The PR firm became the story when journalists began reporting that Common Ground PR employed no African-Americans. So the PR firm responded, which made matters even worse. The PR firm’s nine-paragraph statement began poorly by equating a PR firm’s response to an EMT responding to a 911 call. CEO Denise Bentele then claimed to be “dismayed at the negative reaction” to the fact that her firm was hired despite its lack of diversity.

The Top Public Relations Miscues from September

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by Mark Braykovich

Many of September’s biggest PR mistakes appear to be the result of not thinking before acting, or thinking too much and too long before acting. Either way, this flawed thought process made matters worse for each of the organizations involved – a PR practitioner’s nightmare. That’s the reason The Wilbert Group’s Crisis PR and Issues Management team is constantly analyzing others’ mistakes – so that we and our clients don’t repeat them.

#1 Wal-Mart’s No Joking Legal Matter with Comedian Tracy Morgan. Previously we praised Wal-Mart for its sympathetic and responsible response following a wreck in which a Wal-Mart truck struck a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan, critically injuring Morgan and killing a friend and fellow comedian. At that time, CEO Bill Simon stated, “If it’s determined that our truck caused the accident, Wal-Mart will take full responsibility.” Now Wal-Mart is blaming Morgan and fellow passengers, stating in legal filings that they should have been wearing seatbelts. So much for taking responsibility.

Wal-Mart has attempted to pass off this new round of finger pointing “as part of the ordinary course of legal proceedings,” but let’s call it for what it is: Bad PR.  Now Morgan and others are criticizing the retailer for its callousness and disregard for earlier accounts that Kevin Roper, the driver behind the wheel of the Wal-Mart truck, reportedly hadn’t slept in 24 hours.

“I can’t believe Wal-Mart is blaming me for an accident that they caused,” Morgan’s quote blared across the traditional and social media landscape in late September.

The bottom line: Wal-Mart thought too long and too much about what might turn out to be a winning legal strategy (though I doubt it), but is clearly a public relations loss.

#2 City of Ferguson’s Belated Apology. More than six weeks after the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked violent protests and a national debate about race relations, the city’s police chief publicly apologized. “I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son,” Chief Thomas Jackson said in a prepared statement.

Attorneys for the victim, Michael Brown, described the apology as too little too late. “We feel that the apology comes at a time when the trust and the confidence in the chief has already reached an all-time and irreversible low,” said one attorney. “Dynamite, much less an apology, will do little to move anyone off their opinions at this point.”

The videotaped apology also had an unprofessional look, with the chief holding the prepared statement in his hands, frequently referring to it, robbing the moment of much-needed sincerity. And clearly, it was not well-received.

The bottom line: Six weeks?!? If you are going to issue an apology, do so in the early moments of a crisis – not after insurmountable damage has been done. Ferguson waited too long and missed (by about six weeks) an excellent opportunity to keep this tragedy under control.

#3 Home Depot’s Public Relations Breach. It was bad enough that Home Depot had to acknowledge in September that an estimated 56 million debit and credit cards were breached in a data theft. It then had to suffer through deeper media examinations of its data security problems, including a New York Times article stating that, “despite alarms as far back as 2008, Home Depot was slow to raise its defenses, according to former employees.”

But what was most alarming on the PR front was the retailer’s sluggish and, at times, weak public response. The first reports of a potential breach came on September 2 by security blogger Brian Krebs. Yet Home Depot did not officially confirm the breach until more than two weeks later, on September 18. Not exactly a confidence booster for worried customers.

And while the company’s earliest public statements hit the right tone – chairman and CEO Frank Blake provided an acceptable mix of apology and acknowledgement of customer anxiety – the message got weaker with the passage of time.

In the Times’ article of September 19, for example, Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes stated that the company maintains “robust security systems.” Seriously? The company didn’t even know it had been hacked when it was first reported, and the breach by then was already months in the making.

The bottom line: Don’t let the passage of time – and new, worse media revelations – cloud your PR judgment. Be up front with consumers. Admit your failures and outline what you are doing to make it better. They’ll appreciate it later.

#4 DiGiorno’s Hashtag Fail. Everybody loves a good pizza and a good hashtag. But pizza maker DiGiorno’s failed miserably when it tried to combine the two in mid-September. In the aftermath of NFL star Ray Rice’s domestic violence debacle, new hashtags started popping up on Twitter in support of Rice’s wife and other abuse victims. Among them: #WhyILeave and #WhyIStayed.

The social media geniuses at DiGiorno’s obviously were not paying close enough attention. They quickly jumped on the #WhyIStayed hashtag in a most inappropriate way.

Which led to a storm of protest and this:

The bottom line: Research all hashtags BEFORE posting. Social media requires fast action, but not that fast.

#5 Urban Outfitters Outrage. The retailer came under fierce social media attack in mid-September when it offered for sale a Kent State University sweatshirt that, from almost anyone’s point of view, appeared to be blood-stained and bullet-riddled. Um, Kent State? Four dead in Ohio? The tragic shooting of protestors on May 4, 1970?

The retailer responded with a sincere-sounding apology, but not before enduring an online beating. By the way, the company contends the red stains and holes were the result of  “discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.”

The bottom line: Think through every product BEFORE you launch it – even a single sweatshirt. That will save you from many embarrassing apologies.