Bad PR: 78 Irresistible Stories & 20 Lessons!

by PR Coach on November 5, 2012

bad PR lessons

So many bad PR stories & PR fails to share

The last several months featured buckets full of bad PR. Since I haven’t done a roundup post for quite a while, it’s time to share a BIG collection of 78 bad PR stories and 20 lessons we can learn from them.

We saw marketing mishaps during hurricane Sandy, a bad mix of pizza and politics, social media missteps to make you blush, junk science, hubris, bullying online, “newsjack(ass)ing”, stupid PR stunts and much more. And we’ve gathered them all here for you. Just jump right in.

So many bad PR lessons, so little time…

1.    Marketing and tragedies NEVER mix.
Clearly some marketers don’t have a clue when it comes to sensitivity. Witness the poorly thought out and ill-timed efforts of American Apparel and it’s Hurricane Sandy Sale. Or the Gap’s “we’ll be shopping today” tweet. Crass and definitely not good for the reputation by companies that should do better. A PR fail by marketing misfits and not the only ones to make this mistake during the terrible tragedy.

2.    Bad marketing makes bad PR.
When it comes to bad PR, marketing often brings on the worst of it. There’s no other way to explain the marketing malarkey from  MAC cosmetics and Rodarte’s ill-conceived Juarez collection, Urban Outfitters Navajo underwear, Nivea’s nutty ‘uncivilized ‘ ad and Summer Eve’s ethically challenged talking genitalia. Nokia admitted using deceptive marketing to promote its new Lumia smartphone. In most cases, companies pulled campaigns and some issued apologies. But they left us speechless.

3.    Pizza and politics will give you indigestion.
You couldn’t have anything but indigestion from Pizza Hut’s marketing stunt during the Presidential campaign.  It was a poorly thought attempt to inject themselves and their product into the news, resulting in ridicule and social media derision. The company later moved the campaign to social media where it belonged the first place. We hope a bad PR lesson learned.

4.    You can run but you can’t hide from social media.
There’s good news and bad news about social media. The good news is that it creates many new channels to speak directly to others. The bad news is that when you make a mistake it goes viral. Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney learned that lesson when he admitted hiring a social media consultant to tweet for him. Four bad social media PR blunders from BK, NRA, Celeb Boutique and Chick-fil-A made things interesting. The NRA tweeted about the benefits of gun ownership during the theater shooting in Colorado. Now those are harsh social media lessons.

5.    Bad science and bad pitching don’t make good PR.
PR and marketing people need to learn that junk science generates bad PR and alienates media. How else to explain these misguided attempts to get media coverage of silly surveys ? “Birds crap on cars!” says company selling car-cleaner, “People find it hard keeping up with their neighbours’ lifestyles” says loans company, Research Bafflegab: How PR Creates Junk Science, Cocoa as Sunscreen? PR Firm Shamelessly Hypes Tiny Study or  “Sex is a lot like tennis!” says sex toy firm during Wimbledon. Arghhh. Enough with sorry surveys and pap science PR people.

6.    Sometimes, you should just apologize.
Ann Coulter continued to use the offensive term “retard.” Despite a huge backlash, she insisted we just don’t get it. A gay couple filed a lawsuit against United-Continental  Airlines for a “humiliating experience” caused by baggage handlers. The airline investigated and claims there was no evidence. Meanwhile, Barclays PLC paid for $450 million to settle interest manipulation charges. The big question was did anyone get fired and where was the sincere apology? No answers yet.  Accretive Health’s questionable debt collection tactics and badgering of vulnerable patients and families generated patient horror stories and very negative media coverage. And Progresso “kinda” said sorry for an issue with chemicals in its cans. In each of these bad PR cases, a heartfelt apology would have done wonders for the reputation.

7.    Pride and ego are a dangerous combination.
Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace was swift. Unable to ride around the facts any longer, he quietly removed his Tour de France victories from his Twitter bio.

8.    Hubris hurls.
Groupon displayed a cavalier attitude to writing down its most recent financial results following a successful public offering valued at $17 billion. Investors will not appreciate the hubris and will expect results. Over at Chesapeake Energy, the Board seemed asleep at the wheel as its CEO negotiated a 2.5% royalty on each of its wells. Investor outrage caused the Board to re-examine the deal eventually forcing the CEO to step down. Chalk up a win for shareholders and another warning for boards of directors everywhere.

9.    Advertising knows nothing about PR.
This is becoming a truism. How else to explain carmaker Fisker running ads to clean up bad PR? Belvedere Vodka’s ad featuring sexual assault against a woman? Wodka’s anti-Semitic billboard ? Toshiba offending a clinical research group with its ads. Bad, insensitive advertising usually results in bad PR.

10. Media is just as guilty of bad public relations as PR people.
Illustrated by CNN and Fox news who got the news wrong about the Supreme Court decision wrong and never apologized or corrected the record adequately. Bad journalism!

11. Social media should NEVER be managed by idiots.
Social media went from bad to worse for three companies. KitchenAid sent a misguided tweet about Obama’s deceased grandmother. Progressive insurance mismanaged a Twitter controversy. Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream owner’s Facebook post inflamed a racism debate. Form-tweets are bad PR as Nokia learned when trying to promote its product. Way out of control and conclusive proof that social media should never be managed by idiots!

12. Bullies usually get the bad PR they deserve.
Internet bullying is a growing issue. That’s why it’s a surprise when big companies engage in it. The outcome is always bad PR and social media outrage, evident in these recent examples: Apple’s unnecessary lawsuit against a Polish online grocery; Samsung stranding a blogger over a misunderstanding; and Diageo’s “hare-brained PR blunder” trying to stop a tiny competitor from receiving a well-deserved industry award.

13. Stupid PR is as stupid PR does.
Some PR stunts are simply stupid. No wonder, like Rodney Dangerfield, we don’t get no respect. First, the ticking promo clocks that caused a bomb scare? Then PETA publicly “barbecuing” a topless woman to protest animal abuse. Ferrari gets hammered when a Great Wall of China stunt goes sideways, leaving nonremovable skid marks on one of the world’s wonders. What were these PR peeps thinking?

14. You’re always on the record.
 This PR fundamental is often forgotten by those who should know better. A Swiss politician lost his job after offensive tweets. A young Australian publicist’s glib comments about journalism layoffs generate a painful PR lesson. Former auditor for Erie County, Tom Paul, could have used some good advice. His profanity-laced complaint to a reporter speaks for itself: “You don’t know your @@@ from a ####ing hole in the ground….” and ends with “Call me back…ya %%% head!”

15. Coverups only add fuel to a crisis.
At Boy Scouts of America, allegations of a long time cover up of child abuse added fuel to a crisis. Not only were children abused, but transparency, decency and morality seem to have suffered as well in the effort to protect its reputation. This crisis is just beginning and, similar to Penn State, expect more media revelations in the future.

16. Ignoring an issue is not an option.
Memo to the Environmental Protection Agency: Monitoring and managing wrong info is part of your job. By not correcting misinformation about the use of drones to monitor farm misdeeds, the EPA let rumors run rampant. Acting sooner would have avoided the problem. Of course, the Boy Scouts could learn that same lesson.

17. Media relations: Shut up already!
Bad pitching, bad strategy and bad PR results blossomed. Lack of research, a cold e-mail pitch and lying to a blogger are not a great start as the PR Breakfast Club reported. Arnold Schwarzenegger proved to be just another philanderer promoting a tell- all book. We didn’t care and neither did many media. Mitt Romney’s media team failed to control access by the media with predictable bad press. Rafe Needleman highlighted a terrible e-mail pitch and Amy Gahran shared the “world’s dumbest news embargo.” Both show the importance of focus when pitching busy media. And a University of Tennessee student learned that calling a news conference to protest coverage for stupid fraternity behavior is not good PR strategy. These media relations miscreants could have used Jennifer Nichols advice from “17 surefire ways to annoy journalists.”

18. PR professionals are supposed to personify good judgment.
PR agencies created some of their own bad PR recently. A Wal-Mart PR agency staffer impersonated a journalist to spy on a union. Brown Lloyd James agency got a PR lesson trying to burnish the image of Syria after its crackdown on dissidents.

19. Newsjacking is dangerous media relations strategy.
Hard to believe this news release and newsjacking attempt by a PR agency that knows better: Dismembered bodies, gunned-down landlords. Or the Newsjack(ass)ing Amy Kauffman describes post-Hurricane Sandy. Poorly played by all with terrible results.

20. There’s no such thing as “bad PR.”
We can put this old chestnut to bed with several recent examples. Mitt Romney’s pre-Olympics UK visit sputtered as he criticized a lack of British preparedness. And the mitts were off as he made a further gaffe trying to apologize.  Rush Limbaugh’s offensive mouth cost his radio network millions in lost advertising. Donald Trump showed us “how to get attention while contributing absolutely nothing of value to society.” The CEO of Spirit Airlines denied a refund to a dying vet and held his position until finally caving in after a huge social media and media outcry. Yes Virginia, there IS such a thing as “bad PR.”

I could go on with many more bad PR lessons. They’re endless and that’s a good thing because they give bloggers a steady stream of great stories to tell and lessons to share. Besides, they make your own PR mistakes look small by comparison. Another day, I’ll write a post on “good PR”, if I can find enough material. Just kidding.

Have you got a favorite bad PR story to tell? How about a good PR story for editorial balance? We’d love to hear it in the comments below.

You’ll find more PR fails in our virtual PR Library. Check into the Bad PR… Bad file, just one of 32 sections with more than 7,500 useful PR tips, tactics and curated PR links. We’ll talk to you next week.

Author: Jeff Domansky

Visual credits: Pharma Marketing Blog

78 Bad PR Stories & PR Fail Lessons

A good curator gathers relevant material, adds editorial judgment and creates something new, interesting and valuable for readers. I hope you’ve enjoyed this bad PR post and I’m glad to share the following sources for the stories above. Good reading!

3 Shocking Social Media… Ahem… Errors of Judgement [B2C]
5 Brands Guilty of Insensitive (and Just Plain Wacky) Marketing [The Researchist]
11 major public relations mistakes (and how to learn from them) [The Next Web]
17 surefire ways to annoy journalists [PR Daily]
Airline denying refund to dying vet has history of Bad PR
American Apparel Angers Twittersphere With ‘Hurricane Sandy Sale’ [Mashable]
American Apparel’s ‘Hurricane Sandy Sale’ [PR Newser]
An Argument Against Exaggerated Market Research [March PR]
Ann Coulter Continues to Use Offensive Term “Retard” Despite Backlash [Media Matters]
Apple Sues Polish Grocery Store Over A.pl Name [PC Mag]
Belvedere vodka ad sparks outrage [Globe and Mail]
 “Birds crap on cars!” says company selling car-cleaner [Mail Online]
Bloggers take to Twitter against Samsung [LiveMint]
Can you use advertising to clean up Bad PR?
Chesapeake Energy CEO Gets Fracked [MWW]
Chick-fil-A PR fail starts to approach Epic levels. And it’s not over yet [Eyes of Perivision]
CNN, Fox get news wrong: What apology? [Thr PR Coach]
Clueless in Chicago: Accretive’s Ongoing PRFail [Nemo Media]
Cocoa as Sunscreen? PR Firm Shamelessly Hypes Tiny Study [Health News Review]
Controlling the News [David Reich]
Could bankruptcy, bad PR, angry pilots ground American Airlines? [FOX News]
Dismembered bodies, gunned-down landlords [The PR Coach]
Drinks giant Diageo reels from social media backlash [Econsultancy]
Dumb PR Stunt: Ticking Promo Clocks Cause Bomb Scare [PR Newser]
Everybody’s Chillin’ at the Nokia Pre-Party (It’s Awesome) [SB Nation]
Ferrari leadership silent as company’s crisis worsens in China and Singapore [David Henderson]
Following Humiliating Experience, Gay Couple Files Suit [Bulldog Reporter]
Gap veers from its social media policy in Twitter blunder [PR Daily]
Gene Weingarten: Flack yourself [Washington Post]
Good Reporters Welcome Feedback [15-Seconds]
Great Moments In Bad PR Quotes [PJ Media]
Groupon PR: Whoops! It Happens [PR Breakfast Club]
Guinness parent company commits harebrained PR blunder [PR Daily]
How Not to Do PR, by Donald Trump and Gloria Allred [PR NHewser]
How publicist’s glib remark turned into a social media nightmare [Herald Sun]
How Sorry Are You, Barclays? [The PR Verdict]
I Know A Guy Who Knows A Guy Who…. [15-Seconds]
Is Spirit Airlines Making the Right Call Not Refunding Dying Vet? [FOX]
Is the Yes Men’s PR Shell Game Working? [The PR Coach]
Lance Armstrong Quietly Removes Tour De France Victories from Twitter Bio [AllTwitter]
Leave Bad Enough Alone [15-Seconds]
Lessons from This Summer’s Biggest Social Media Blunders [Post Advertising]
Mary J. Blige Now Knows Who Her Friends Are Thanks to BK [MediaBistro]
Massive PR Fail: Boy Scouts Hid Reports of Child Abuse [PR Newser]
Misinformation in the Air [15-Seconds Blog]
Mitt Romney’s London PR Gaffe gets Funnier [MediaBistro]
Need Blogger Outreach? A Case Study in How NOT to Do It [PR Breakfast Club]
Newsjack(ass)ing: PR Fail in the Wake of Tragedy and Crisis [iMedia Connection]
Nokia’s Deceptive Marketing Campaign for New Lumia Smartphone [Bulldog Reporter]
Outrage Over Pizza Hut ‘Sausage or Pepperoni’ Illustrates Why #PR Is Losing Battle [Forbes]
PR disasters that started on YouTube [PR Daily]
PR Fail: Worst. Job Description. Ever. [PR Newser]
PR Hall Of Shame No. 3821 [Song by Toad
PETA Protesters ”Barbecue” Topless Woman [Before It's News]
“People find it hard keeping up with their neighbours’ lifestyles” says loans company [Mail Online]
Philly councilman pays firm $28K to tweet for him [PR Daily]
Pizza Hut’s Cheesy ‘Lifetime Supply’ PR Stunt [PR Newser]
Pizza Hut eats humble pie after debate PR stunt [USA Today]
Pizza Hut rethinks presidential debate stunt [Yahoo! News]
Progresso kinda responds to controversy over chemical in its cans [Shel Holtz]
Research Bafflegab: How PR Creates Junk Science [The PR Coach]
Romney boots reporters from Newseum event, media critics debate irony [Poynter]
Rush Limbaugh’s Comments Cost Cumulus Millions
Samsung’s Public Relations Blunder(s): Is Your Company Headed Down the Same Path?
Schwarzenegger’s Press Tour Is Bad PR [PR Newser]
 “Sex is a lot like tennis!” says sex toy firm during Wimbledon [Mail Online]Starbucks in British mistake [Inside Ireland]
Stephenson Group — please stop spamming [Drew Kerr]
Swiss Politician Loses Job After Offensive Tweets [MediaBistro]
The Communication Crisis Groupon Created for Itself [SpinSucks]
This deleted DeSean Jackson tweet is hilarious [USA Today]
Tip #202: I’ll take unrelated tangents for $400, Alex [PR ProTips]
Toshiba ad offends clinical research group [PR Daily]
Wal-Mart’s PR Firm Sent This Flack Posing as Reporter to Spy on a Pro-Labor Group [DC Junkies]
What Not to Tweet During a Crisis [Strategic Objectives]
What’s fatty and greasy and pretends to be a teenage girl on the internet? [Daily KOS]
Why Was KitchenAid Tweeting the Debate? [Media Post]
WikiLeaks: #PR firm tried to buff Syria’s image after crackdown [Los Angeles Times]
World’s dumbest news embargo [Amy Gahran]