PR Fail Lessons: 96 Public Relations Not-tos

by PR Coach on April 23, 2011

PR & Twitter Fails offer lessons too

What happens when you bring together 96 PR failures all in one spot? After the collective gasp?  Hopefully, a whole lot of learning for PR pros.

This Friday’s PR Picks, feature a plethora of PR Fails from the past five or six months for your reading enjoyment. The goal is to shine a light on poor PR practices and to reflect on more professional, more strategic and smarter ways to do public relations.

Not to mention the entertainment value of some of these PR train wrecks.

Some of these PR fails will ring a bell while some newer ones will spark a “what were they thinking?” insight or two. The Twitter fails alone are worth reading to learn a lesson or ten! C’mon people. Surely we can do better?

When you step back, the lessons are blindingly simple. Act ethically. Be careful with Twitter. Listen to your customers and respond quickly to complaints. Manage crises carefully, as if your life or business survival depends on it. They do.

Guard your organization’s reputation but earn public respect with your actions. Clean up any leftover, lazy public relations practices. Be principled. In short, act like a professional.

And now, let the show begin. Ninety-six PR not-tos. Read ‘em and weep. Or smile. So many public relations fails, so many lessons and so little time!

Bad PR…Bad

Two of the biggest PR Fails in the past six months were monumental in every way.

This Spring (2011), just less than a year after the BP oil rig tragedy, operator Transocean issued $19.5 million in obscene safety bonuses to five senior executives. Say what? Last October (2010), Sanofi-Aventis sent a brutal layoff notice to 75% of its employees – by voicemail. Press #1 to see if you have a job. Ouch.

You heard it right. Feel a headache coming on? Of course these were problems no amount of good PR could solve.

Cynthia Boris and Peter Himmler looked at the perils of astroturfing or creating false grassroots support by individuals or organizations.  Bloomberg profiled the forged comment letters and unethical practices of the Dewey Square Group and subcontractor Goggans Inc in presentations to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. And Greenpeace sued several chemical companies and PR firms for “spying.”

The Daily looked at two public affairs firms that made an awful lot of money trying to polish the image of Moammar Gadhafi. The insurance industry and its PR firms took heat for deceptive campaigns against healthcare reform from Deadly Spin author and former PR Wendell Potter. Meanwhile, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) continued to play Beavis and Butthead with Jack O’Dwyer.

Etsy ran afoul of consumers, media and bloggers like Shel Holtz for selling a number of very offensive greeting cards online. They handled the issue poorly, compounding it through clumsy efforts in social media.

Who could forget the sometimes silly, sometimes serious Twitter fails that got so much attention in mainstream and social media?

There was BP mucking about during its oil spill, the Chrysler contractor F-bomb, Cheapflights customer name-calling and Kenneth Cole’s Egypt fiasco due to an unfashionable tweet.

The Twitter fails didn’t end there. A Marc Jacobs intern had a public melt down. A handful of companies tried to market via Twitter on the back of Charlie Sheen’s misery. GE flubbed its response to a serious tax issue and Bing apologized for a flawed Japan fund raising attempt.

What is it about Twitter? So simple and yet so easy to screw up.

We had the usual bad media pitches by lazy or inept PR people. Annoyed analyst Josh Bernoff pleaded with PR people to clean up poor pitching practices.

Susan Harrow highlighted six PR mistakes while Stephen Silvers wondered what it means when most journalists think PR people are idiots. PR Daily featured five examples not to follow in its article PR Pros Gone Wild.

There was more on fake news. And, hey PR folks? How about links to your press releases?

Gini Dietrich groused at PR people who suck and Danny Brown ranted about the treatment of mom bloggers and “When PR Has Its Head Up Its &ss.” In The New York Times, restaurateur and columnist Bruce Bushel complained about inept PR people delivering nothing.

PR agencies slipped up too. The Lavidge Company learned how stonewalling makes bad online news worse for clients. Global PR agency Edelman earned head shakes for its “No comment!” to a straightforward trade media request for info regarding client Best Buy’s new customer magazine.

Then there was another global PR firm’s Austin office and its absolute disregard for good new business practices recounted by the disappointed prospective client.

In the Middle East, the PR agency of the Year doctored a celebration photo and released it publicly, leading to industry association sanctions. Ronn Torossian compounded a media relations issue for his 5WPR agency by testy responses to Gawker.

Athlete endorsements were lost to scandals. The Gap fumbled the design and launch of its new logo and hastily retreated to the old one after a social media tsunami.

Go Daddy’s CEO proved that hubris and elephant hunting can drive a company’s reputation straight into the elephant dung.

A PG&E executive incurred the wrath of the blogosphere and forced his own resignation for posting phony comments of support for “smart meters” on a blog. Rolls-Royce ducked the media for weeks after its engine issues on Qantas airline aircraft.

Remember the Cooks Source controversy? The popular regional food mag folded after plagiarizing material, badly failing to apologize and becoming a social media and PR Fail sensation for weeks.

Chick-fil-A poorly managed anti-gay accusations. JC Penney was exposed for an SEO link scheme on Google by The New York Times. Badvocate group Sun Day Campaign issued a credibility-hurting childish press release of the day.

Neither were marketers immune. O’Dwyer’s pointed out companies riding on the coattails of the Chile mining disaster. PR companies in the UK ramped up crass connections to the planned Royal wedding.

Hilton Hotels learned a lesson about not saying sorry and Groupon showed insensitivity in a coupon campaign calling depression the “world’s perfect sleeping aid.” How about those glowing but fake book reviews posted online by PR people before the book was available? Genius!

Just to finish on a fun note, be sure to see the South Bend school district billboard typo and this cigarette company’s ironic sponsorship of volcano relief. As Ephraim Cohen reminds us, and TSA, When SNL Nails You, You’ve Lost the PR Fight.

I could go on… and on… but it’s time to let you read for yourself.

If you’re looking for more, check out Bad PR… Bad. Always entertaining and one of the most popular sections of our growing PR Library of more than 7,200 public relations tips and resources. If you have a favorite story or PR fail to share, we’d love to hear from you too.

Note: Links with a W are PR Coach “winners” worth reading.

Photo Credit: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid via Flickr

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

96 PR Fails and Lessons

11 Athlete Endorsements that Were Lost to Scandal [Business Insider]
Many lessons to be learned from these athlete misadventures.

A Lesson for Etsy [Shel Holtz]
Tough customer, social media and PR learning.

Astroturfed by Demand Media [Peter Himmler]
PR fails when transparency is lacking with reporters and bloggers.

Astroturfing: Maybe it’s Not as Bad as it Seems [Marketing Pilgrim]
Astroturfing is always wrong, always a PR Fail IMHO.

Awful PR for the Public Relations Society of America [PR Watch]
WWF-style bashing from guess who?

Bad Press Releases: BS + Bafflegab = PR Fail [The PR Coach]
When you mix BS with bafflegab all you get is bad news.  W

A Social Media Firestorm about Apple Pies [The New York Times]
Magazine rips off writer, then fusses.

BP attempts to clean up Gulf via Twitter [The Guardian]
Reality check: Tweet with integrity or get slammed.

Bing: PR Fail Heard Round the World [The PR Coach]
The search engine company made a clumsy Japan fund raising effort via Twitter and reaped scorn from many quarters forcing an apology and hasty recovery.

CFTC Refers Forged Comment Letters to Justice Department [Bloomberg]
Dewey Square Group and contractors forged comment letters to CFTC. PR, ethics Fail or what?  W

Carl’s Jr, Hardee’s Launch Comprehensive “Robust” Mobile App [QSRWeb.com]
WTH? Enjoy! Not just a burger ‘n fries LOL but useless apps too.

Cheapflights.co.uk Swears on Twitter and Calls X Factor Contestant a Silly Bint [Malcolm Coles]
Now here’s a Twitter mistake NOT to make. Ouch!

Chik-fil-A Flubs Crisis Management [Jonathan Bernstein]
No excuse to get caught up in this anti-gay maelstrom.

Childish Press Release of the Day [The Media Blog]
Badvocate lacks credibility on nuclear told-you-so.

Chrysler Social Media Agency Told to Hit the Highway After Twitter Foul Up [Marketing Pilgrim]
PR Fail or appropriate response? You decide.

Cigarette Company Sponsors Volcano Relief Efforts [Marketing Pilgrim]
This PR fail is too funny!

‘Cooks Source’ Apologizes to Blogger Whose Story It Lifted [MediaPost]
Lukewarm apology doesn’t lower heat on plagiarizing publication.

Cooks Source Magazine Ignites Copyright Firestorm [Kathy Gill]
Excellent analysis of the magazine PR fail by Kathy Gill.  W

Cooks Source: What Should Judith Griggs Have Done? [Online Journalism Blog]
Certainly, she shouldn’t have done what she did.

Cooking PR Chile [O’Dwyer’s]
PR Fail. Sometimes PR is just crass, opportunistic and stupid.

Corporations Try to Ride the Sheen Machine on Twitter [The Atlantic]
Talk about marketing on the backs of misery. Distasteful or what?  W

Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans
Excerpt from Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter.  W

Did Chrysler Overreact to Accidental F-bomb Tweet? [Ragan.com]
Debate continues on Tweet mistake.

Dirty money: Polishing Gadhafi’s image has been lucrative for US firms [The Daily]
Seemed like a good idea at the time? Now, not so much.

Dropped Letter in School Message Leads to Embarrassing Billboard [Fox News]
Always watch for typos. Whoo hoo.

Etsy’s #PR Nightmare: Greeting Cards Making Light of Rape [Waxing Unlyrical]
Etsy’s lack of sensitivity and tepid response hurt its reputation.

Frightening Fake News [SavetheNews.org]
PR Fail practices worth noting.

[From #PR with Love] Why PR People Get Paid and You Don’t [Mom Blog Magazine]
Success is all about blogger respect.  W

GE Flubs a Pushback Against The New York Times [Columbia Journalism Review]
Debate on tax and GE response continue.  W

GE Illustrates How Not to Use Twitter [PRNewser]
Sometimes a tweet is not so sweet. Blogging or advocacy ads are more effective in complex arguments.  W

GE Launches Twitter Blitz to Combat NY Times Article [PR Daily]
This bad PR included using the wrong medium (Twitter), spinning answers and then not responding to media.  W

Go Daddy CEO Steps in Elephant Dung [Brad Phillips]
Wise-ass dot.com exec deserves crisis PR lesson.

Greenpeace Sues Chemical and PR Firms for “Unlawful” Spying [Mother Jones]
PR agencies’ ethics and conduct leave much to be desired.  W

Greenpeace Sues Chemical Makers, Alleging Spy Effort [New York Times]
PR agencies fall way short on ethics and conduct.   W

Groupon: “world’s greatest sleep aid: depression”
Argh! Another hour, another social media PR failure.

Hacked E-Mails Show Web is an Increasingly Useful Tool in Dirty-Tricks Campaigns [The Washington Post]
DC still dirty after all these years.

Hilton Worldwide and the Lesson of Bad Appearances [PR Rock and Roll]
No excuses for this PR fail. They forgot to say sorry and mean it.

How Many PR Companies Post Fake Reviews Online? [Valley PR Blog]
Glowing book reviews before the book was even available? PRFail.

How “No Comment” Has Edelman in Trouble [Gini Dietrich]
Surprisng media relations and PR Fail by world’s largest independent PR agency when asked about a Best Buy campaign and trends.  W

How to Handle Bad Press [Valley PR Blog]
PR Fail illustrates the results of stonewalling and poor media relations.

It’s NOT a PR Problem. Think Real Values, Mission and Culture Reputation [Tom Gable]
Tom Gable writes a thoughtful essay on how companies have not had a PR problem but rather have gone against their real values that made them successful in the first place.

Learning from Kenneth Cole’s #SocialMedia Mistake [HubSpot]
Crisis PR tips: Did KC do anything right?

Marc Jacobs Intern Has Public Meltdown on Brand’s Twitter Account [Styleite]
This PR Fail ain’t pretty!

Media Training 101: Rudeness is Never Acceptable [YouTube]
Toronto’s newly elected mayor shows crass rudeness in this nationally broadcast radio interview on CBC.

Middle East PR Agency of the Year Makes Major PR Blunder [Call Center Info]
Sometimes, small things, and chutzpah, can trip you up.

Mud sticks – The Top 10 PR Disasters of 2010 [Business Spectator]
10 Aussie disasters and plenty of PR lessons.

New Business? Not With This Global PR Firm! [The PR Coach]
What can you say about a PR agency that doesn’t respond to a new opportunity, leaves a prospective client hanging and makes it even worse? Fail!

Note to PR People: PLEASE INCLUDE A LINK TO YOUR RELEASE! [Disruptive Conversations]
Argh! What’s up with feckless PR people who don’t do the basics? PR Fail.  W

NY Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme in Google [Search Engine Land]
JC Penney expose for the SEO curious. Gaming Google but claiming no knowledge.

Oops of the Day, Part Deux [MediaBistro]
Darn that F word Chrysler says.

PG&E Executive Generates Online Backlash [BulletproofBlog]
Fake comments on smart meters force exec’s resignation.  W

PR Fail: ‘Cooks Source’ Stirs Up Crisis PR Broth [The PR Coach]
Plus 22 ways to manage an online PR crisis.

PR Lessons from Northern Ireland Water Crisis [Business Wings]
Another PR Fail and useful crisis PR lessons from Northern Ireland water crisis.

PR People Suck [Spin Sucks]
Gini Dietrich’s rant is justified.

PR Professionals — Clean Up Your Industry [Josh Bernoff]
Analyst Josh Bernoff points to poor PR pitching practices. What’s not to get about these PR Fails?  W

PR Pros Gone Wild! 5 Examples Not to Follow [PR Daily]
PR people failures and let them be a lesson to you.

Pedestrian Avoidance Test Fails Spectacularly [Jalopnik]
Over at Volvo, somebody took their foot off the reputation gas.

Playing At Public Relations: Rolls-Royce Asks Will It Pass? [Copywrite, Ink]
Rolls-Royce ducks from Qantas crisis and hopes the media will go away. PR fail.

Press One to See if You’ve Got a Job [HartfordBusiness.com]
Unbelievable PR Fail and reputation hit for Sanofi-Aventis for sloppy handling of layoffs.  W

Publicist Announces Imperial Stars’ Arraignment; Leaves Us Scratching Our Heads [OC Weekly]
What’s with this PR Fail? And dumb and dumber too. W

Questioning PR: Bruce Bushel at Southfork Kitchen [Rich Becker]
More thoughts on NYT story of PR Fails from Rich Becker.  W

Restraining Orders for the PR Profession [Alison Kenney]
Alison Kenney has a rundown on recent PR failures and lessons.

Ronn [sic] Torossian Is ‘Completely Unaware What Would Make You Speak Poorly of My Firm’ [Gawker]
PR agency CEO tirade compounds media relations problem.

Royal Wedding: PR Companies Take Advantage [The Telegraph]
Why does public relations lack credibility? Aaargh! PR Fail.

Self-inflicted PR Damage [Jerry Brown]
TransOcean’s insensitive “safety” bonuses after oil rig tragedy are baffling and a PR failure.  W

Seriously, Timothy Johnson, Your Idea of How to Do PR for Clients Is a Joke [TechCrunch]
So many PR fails are bad pitches, but this behavior defines bad PR…bad.

Six Worst PR Mistakes Business Make [The More Clients Blog]
These PR mistakes are easily avoided.

Social Media Fails [webtrends blog]
Good example of what happens online when Maytag customer/mom blogger didn’t get a response

Some Stunts Should Never See the Light of Day [RepMan]
Stupid stunt shows terrible judgment. Bad PR…Bad.

The Bad Pitch Body Slam [Bad Pitch Blog]
Three excellent PR Fail lessons from bad PR pitches.  W

The Five Dumbest Things PR Pros Do With Social Media [The Buzz Bin]
Avoiding these social media Fails can improve public relations results.

The Kenneth Cole post you haven’t read yet [Shel Holtz]
Useful PR Fail wrap by Shel Holtz.

The Problem with Public Relations [New York Times]
Now this is a good [I mean bad] PR story about PR people not delivering results and getting profiled in a New York Times column for it.  W

The Tale of PR and the Blogger – How 10 Yetis See It [10 Yetis]
Sometimes PR people are clueless.

Tiger Woods’ PR Campaign Off to Shaky Start [Smart-Grid]
Harsh review of Tiger’s inadequate reputation effort.

Tony Hayward’s 2010 Blooper Reel: The Top 5 Gaffes [The Street]
Crisis management reflections and a look at five PR failures to learn from.  W

Transocean, We ‘May’ Have a Problem: Today’s Outrage [The Street]
Safety bonuses after oil rig tragedy leads to big PR Fail.  W

Unfashionable Tweet [Peter Himmler]
PR Fail by insensitive marketing twits at Kenneth Cole.

Videogame Maker Accused of Environmental Abuse [Techland]
Sometimes, more thought needs to go into publicity stunts.

Walmart Fighting Hunger Campaign Is a PR Mess [Gini Dietrich]
Hello? What PR strategy?

What Is Wrong with PR? [Gini Dietrich]
Thoughtful post from Gini Dietrich: A lovely day for generalizations.

What It Means That So Many Journalists Think PR People Are Idiots [Steven Silvers]
Doh! These bad publicists need to go back to school.

What Part of ‘Bad Publicity’ Don’t You Get? [PR Geek Speak]
The Marie Claire crisis is simply bad PR. Full stop.

What’s Happening with The Gap? [Capstrat]
After the big logo PR Fail and marketing bumps, whazzup?

When a Company Creates Its Own PR Problems [David Henderson]
PRFail: Not getting employees on the same page.

When a Newspaper “rips off” Your Blog, Then Taunts You About It… [Ian Dennis Miller]
Plagiarists live at LongIslandPress.com according to Ian Dennis Miller. A simple attribution, even after the fact would have prevented the issue.  W

When PR Has Its Head Up Its Ass [Danny Brown]
Great Danny Brown rant about poor blogger media relations.

When SNL Nails You, You’ve Lost the PR Fight [Business Insider]
What can you say? TSA was a perfect example of bad PR. Lots of fun when SNL parodies you. W

When the Marketing Reach of Social Media Backfires [The New York Times]
Chrysler and Aflac learn PR lessons the hard way.

Why PR and Social Media Don’t Mix – Qantas Culture [Customer Think
Great example – Bad PR, bad by Qantas when it’s airline logo showed on accident wreckage, they were still denying it.  W

Yahoo, You Flubbed News about Future of Delicious, Not Press [Search Engine Land]
Yahoo’s poor communications devalued Delicious.


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