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The Top Public Relations Mistakes of 2014, Part 4

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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 provide the last installment today. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

Those Hashtags from Hell

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.

digiorno

Which led to a storm of protest and this:

digiorno mistake

A Bad Deal. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal learned the hard way that social media can be your worst enemy when, in late July, his campaign kicked off a “We Know Nathan” campaign complete with t-shirts and bumper stickers. But the campaign was quickly hijacked with the help of a now infamous Twitter hashtag #weknownathan. The hashtag was first used by Georgia Democrats to bash Deal, an important detail apparently missed by folks in the Deal campaign. While Republicans eventually tried to jump on the hashtag in defense of Deal, it was too little, too late. Before the day was over, the Democrat-leaning group Better Georgia had snapped up the website WeKnowNathan.com and created a top 10 list about the governor with this headline: “We know Nathan…We just wish we didn’t.”

 

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 Mistakes of 2014, Part Deux

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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 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 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 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.

The Top Public Relations Mistakes of 2014, Part 1

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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’ll count down these mistakes over the next few days. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

The Automaker

GM CEO Mary Barra.

GM CEO Mary Barra.

GM’s Ignition Woes. First came revelations of deaths tied to an ignition switch problem in General Motors’ cars. Then came the recall of millions of vehicles – 30 million of them by mid-summer. But the effort by CEO Mary Barra and other GM executives to make a U-turn away from the negative publicity hit a huge speed bump when The New York Times reported in mid-July that documents showed GM kept silent about internal information it had regarding the deadly accidents. The article summed it up by stating that GM’s response “casts doubt on how forthright the automaker was with regulators . . . ” Putting aside the issue of whether GM properly disclosed information about the ignition switches to regulators, the PR issue at hand is why GM would let this new batch of bad news come out in this manner? Rather than appear to be hiding the truth, GM could have upheld its new mantra of “confronting our problems openly and directly.” Instead, GM provided the media with another gotcha moment and another round of negative publicity.

More GM Ignition Woes. In late November, GM missed an excellent opportunity to show compassion in the ignition switch fiasco. Ten years after a Texas woman was held responsible for her boyfriend’s death in a defective Saturn Ion, a judge overturned her guilty plea. The ruling came after General Motors publicly linked the death of Candice Anderson’s boyfriend to the defect in its ignition switches. A story by The New York Times noted that GM defended its long silence on the matter and included this heartless, insensitive comment from GM spokesman James R. Cain: “We have taken a neutral position on Ms. Anderson’s case.”

The Big Box Retailer

Walmart’s No Joking (Legal) Matter with Comedian Tracy Morgan. After an initial, sympathetic response following a wreck in which a Walmart truck struck a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan, critically injuring Morgan and killing a friend and fellow comedian, the mega-retailer took off the gloves. Walmart blamed Morgan and fellow passengers, stating in legal filings that they should have been wearing seatbelts. Morgan criticized the retailer for its callousness and disregard for earlier accounts that Kevin Roper, the driver behind the wheel of the Walmart truck, reportedly hadn’t slept in 24 hours. “I can’t believe Walmart is blaming me for an accident that they caused,” said Morgan in late September in headlines trumpeted across the Internet.

Walmart’s Snippy Editing. Amid the ongoing debate over the minimum wage, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote that Walmart “is a big part of the problem,” paying “humiliating wages” that “force thousands of employees to look to food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of welfare.” Hard words to swallow, no doubt, but Walmart’s PR response was abysmal. Walmart PR man David Tovar took a digital red pen to the opinion column and sent a sarcastic, ill-advised, marked up draft to Egan along with this note:

walmartA few months later, Tovar unexpectedly resigned from Walmart. Turns out the company discovered he lied on his resume about graduating from the University of Delaware in 1996.

The Top Public Relations Mistakes from October

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by Mark Braykovich

If October’s PR mistakes teach us anything, it’s that the prepared statement – a longtime standard in crisis situations – is sometimes a poor substitute for a strong response from, say, the CEO. While true that there are situations in which putting the top executive in front of the media is a terrible idea, too often and too quickly, it seems, PR people resort to “let’s issue a statement.”

The other lesson from the past month: There’s no shortage of important people doing and saying stupid things, which of course makes their companies look bad and keeps crisis PR practitioners like us busy. Quick advice: Think before you act or speak.

We point out these miscues not to poke fun, but because 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 Red Cross’ PR Disaster. A recent investigation by NPR and ProPublica casts a harsh light on the Red Cross’ efforts in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. Among the reporters’ conclusions: emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned as backdrops for press conferences, or dispatched to storm-stricken areas minus any relief cargo “just to be seen”; despite advance warning on Sandy, the agency lacked many basic provisions to distribute to victims; as many as half of the emergency meals prepared for Sandy victims were wasted or never delivered; and the Red Cross, according to its own internal documents, may have fabricated claims of how many people it served during Sandy.

One word sums up this report: Damning. A different word sums up the Red Cross’ PR response: Dismal.

The agency issued several statements to the reporters, who then used them sparingly throughout the article. One Red Cross official – but not CEO Gail McGovern – was interviewed on the record, resulting in a single, short quote in the article. The first on-air interview was granted by the Red Cross to NPR after the story was published and, again, it was not with the CEO but with an agency PR exec.

You might argue, as the Red Cross has, that this represents a failure of the journalists, not the agency. But what is clear is the naivety of the Red Cross’ PR handlers. First, written statements rarely get picked up verbatim, and the longer they are, the more likely much of the verbiage will be left on the cutting room floor. Second, if faced with a scandalous exposé that will most certainly damage your company or organization’s reputation, put the CEO out there for an interview. This sends the all-important message that you are being truly transparent and taking the issues raised seriously. Finally, don’t wait to see how your statement gets used (or not used) or until after publication to give on-air rebuttals or create a blog that blasts the reporting. The Red Cross did all of these things but by then it was too late.

The bottom line: Faced with a negative, reputation-altering report such as this, play offense, not defense. Unless, of course, your offense stinks. Then by all means stick with pre-publication statements and post-publication whining.

Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Photo: NBC.

#2 NBC’s Ebola Embarrassment. Amid America’s panicked response to Ebola, NBC medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman did the unthinkable: After returning from Liberia and learning that her cameraman had contracted Ebola, Snyderman and the rest of her team were placed in a 21-day voluntary isolation. So far, so good. But then Snyderman decided she just had to have some carryout food. So she and a couple of team members broke quarantine to curb their appetites.

Snyderman’s apology – about a week later and a week late – 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 bottom line: When important people do stupid things, they should at least have the courtesy and professionalism to issue a personal apology (in her case, on camera), not via a canned statement she probably did not write. In-person comes across as more heartfelt and credible.

#3 Honda’s Hot Air Bags. Several automakers are reeling from recent disclosures – and resulting recalls – about dangerous air bags. Some of the most serious criticism has been leveled at Honda. In September, The New York Times reported that Honda and air bag manufacturer Takata failed for years to take decisive action before issuing recalls. In a follow-up report in late October, the newspaper detailed the tragic death of Hien Tran, whose injuries following a crash of her red Honda Accord were first thought by police to be stab wounds. Police later determined her air bag, “instead of protecting her, appeared to have exploded and sent shrapnel flying into her neck.”

Honda’s efforts to counter this media offensive have been ineffective at best. A statement on its website reads like a lawyer wrote it, with no expressed sympathy for victims (Honda has said two people, not including Hien Tran, were killed by faulty air bags, and more than 30 people have been injured) or hint of apology. Perhaps playing a role is an expected wave of litigation (in fact, Honda was sued Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles). Yet even for the recent story on Ms. Tran’s death, Honda issued a statement saying it was “too early” to draw conclusions on her fatal injuries. Too early? For an accident that happened two years earlier, in September 2012?

As General Motors is all too slowly learning during its defective ignition switch debacle, a slow, rigid, seemingly illogical response only makes matters worse. With Honda now stating that it doesn’t have enough replacement air bags to repair every recalled car immediately, a more compassionate, consumer-friendly approach is called for.

The bottom line: If your products are alleged to be killing your customers, and your brand’s reputation is taking a beating in the marketplace, play offense, not defense. Canned statements can only repair so much harm and may, in fact, cause additional harm.

#4 Sexist Sentiments from Microsoft’s CEO. 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.

The bottom line: When important people say stupid things, they should immediately apologize publicly. Of course, as Nadella learned, that still might not be enough to quiet detractors.