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 started counting down these mistakes yesterday and will continue for the next few days. Enjoy and Happy New Year!
The Disease-Fighter and Reporter
The CDC’s Anthrax Response. The Atlanta-based agency charged with helping Americans avoid disease became newsmaker when it was reported in early summer that dozens of its employees may have been exposed to anthrax. Just as troubling was that the CDC, an agency accustomed to crises, seemed ill-prepared to respond to one involving itself. Many of the initial news reports in mid-June carried only a brief statement from the CDC, when a disclosure of such significance and seriousness clearly called for their leader to be front and center. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden steered clear of the media for several days, even when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a front-page article stating that the incident “is the latest in a series of safety problems” at the CDC in recent years. Frieden got better as time went on – and later starred during the Ebola crisis – but the agency still sustained some avoidable reputational damage.
NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Photo: AP.
NBC’s Ebola Embarrassment. Amid America’s panicked response to Ebola, NBC medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman did the unthinkable: After returning from Liberia, learning that her cameraman had contracted Ebola, and being placed in 21-day voluntary isolation, Snyderman decided she just had to have some carryout food. So she and a couple of team members broke quarantine to curb their appetites. Her apology – about a week later – came in the form of a weakly worded message read on-air by anchor Brian Williams. “As a health professional I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public, but I am deeply sorry for the concerns this episode caused.”
The Technology Giants
Facebook’s Failed Experiment. A couple years ago, Facebook notified 689,000 of its users that it was locking them out of the social network because they were either robots or had used fake names. The users had to prove they were real to gain back their access. Turns out it was merely an experiment. Facebook knew all along most of the users were legit; the real purpose of the tests was to determine if users’ emotions could be affected. Regardless of the business and/or ethical merits of this experiment, Facebook’s PR response when this came to light recently left much to be desired. Rather than issue an apology – which seems prudent when you have 1.3 billion users – Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said only that the experiment was “poorly communicated.” Sandberg, the now-famous author of “Lean In,” leaned away from an apology along the lines of “we’re sorry we did this.” Instead, she only apologized for the way users found out about it.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Photo: Pinar Ozger.
Microsoft CEO’s Sexist Sentiments. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came under fire in mid-October following his remarks at a women’s forum in which, in response to a question, he said women don’t need to ask for raises and instead should have “faith that the system” will take care of them. Microsoft Director Maria Klawe, who posed the question, immediately disagreed with Nadella, stating, “If you don’t ask, you generally don’t get.” Nadella was widely criticized on social media following his remarks, and even a Twitter apology in which he described his remarks as “inarticulate” attracted continued bashing.
Microsoft’s “Not So Soft” Layoff Letters. Microsoft showed how heartless a company can be when delivering bad news to employees. Just a week before Microsoft announced the largest layoff in its 39-year history – 18,000 employees, about 15 percent of its workforce – CEO Nadella wrote a sweeping, 3,000-word email to employees that made no mention of potential reductions. On July 17 came the real news, via separate emails from Nadella and Microsoft EVP Stephen Elop. Elop’s email is a classic: It begins with “Hello there” and doesn’t get to the point – the massive layoffs – until the 11th paragraph.