The Worst PR Moves Of 2010

It was a good year for bad moves – when it comes to PR, that is. Here’s our list for 2010’s biggest PR blunders.

BP. Let’s get it out of the way. There’s not much more to say about BP’s response to the flood of bad press after the Gulf oil spill. Its handling of the public reaction showed a lack of preparedness, poor message management, and a tone-deaf take on the public mood. BP will have a stained reputation and serve as a textbook case in bad crisis management for years to come.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Call this one the “runaway reputation.” We’ll never know why the General’s aides let themselves be quoted criticizing the Vice President in what was supposed to be a flattering McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone magazine. Blame the ash cloud, which led to a longer embed by reporter Michael Hastings. Or, chalk it up to the booze reportedly consumed on the bus. Whatever the cause, the sloppy media relations resulted in a lesson for PR pros and a defeat for McChrystal.

Spirit Airlines. 2010 wasn’t a smooth year for Spirit. First, it hit some rough PR weather after announcing it would charge as much as $45 per bag for checked luggage. Not popular with fliers. Then, its response to the needs of stranded passengers after a pilot strike was anything but spirited. Yet, the biggest blunder came with the tasteless ad campaign that poked fun at the Gulf oil spill. Fire the PR pilot. Amazon’s decision to sell a self-published “guide for pedophiles” was a PR nightmare. It initially defended the title on freedom of expression grounds, saying that removing it would amount to “censorship.” Coupled with its seemingly arbitrary de-listing of gay and adult-themed titles back in April, the book brouhaha showed a baffling absence of thoughtful policy around controversial content. (In my view, a private company’s decisions about its inventory is not “censorship.”) Amazon pulled the title the next day in the face of public outrage, but not after the publicity made it a Kindle best-seller. Ugh. Turn the page.

Christine O’Donnell. Was her campaign cursed? The Tea Party favorite probably would have been haunted by her decades-old appearances on late-night TV no matter what her communications plan. But, her frequent mistakes showed a lack of preparedness, and her attempt to put the whammy on the witchcraft jokes backfired in a big way. Plus, O’Donnell remains under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds. Scary.

China and the empty chair. By trying to mount a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government shot itself in the foot. Though he remained in his prison cell in China, Liu’s presence dominated the entire ceremony as though he were there in person. The empty chair in Oslo spoke louder than any PR offensive the Chinese could have mounted.

The Transportation Security Administration. Pity the TSA. Its new screening protocol flew right into a perfect storm of public concern over privacy and government regulation, and a slow news weekend. Though it responded to grassroots outrage with savvy use of social media, it failed to get out in front of the story. TSA messaging was heavy on factoids, yet short on empathy. Even Captain “Sully” Sullenberger bashed the patdowns as, um, heavy-handed. A stronger education campaign, including an influencer outreach, in advance of the holiday might have helped.

Lebron James. This guy’s on everyone’s list. His move to Miami was one thing. But the truly bad “Decision” here was to drag out the announcement in an egocentric and overhyped hourlong ESPN television special. The melodrama played badly with fans, and the relentless focus on James (rather than the team), left him poised for a fall.

The Best PR Moves Of 2010

This year brought well-publicized disasters, misbehaving celebrities, and corporate goofs. But, which individuals and companies communicated most skillfully during 2010? Here are our nominees.

Wikileaks. Whether Julian Assange is a hero or a “high-tech terrorist” depends on your point of view. But in 2010 Wikileaks perfected a media relations strategy for maximum impact for the release of thousands of  leaked diplomatic cables. Previously, Wikileaks had either trickled out its materials too gradually, or overwhelmed the media with an overlarge outpouring of classified information. But, in November, it seemed to get things just right. Its strategy was simple:  simultaneous publication of the leaked materials by five highly credible news organizations. The result was domination of news headlines for days.

Jon Stewart. Only Stewart could draw over 250,000 to a rally that started as a joke. Not only did his “Rally to Restore Sanity” beat Glenn Beck’s crowd by a surprising margin, but this year, Stewart showed he can do what no one else seems to be able to — bust legislative gridlock. His public shaming of the senators blocking the passage of the 9/11 first responders bill actually got the bill through. It earned him acknowledgement from the White House and a comparison to broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow in a glowing New York Times piece. Stewart still insists he’s not political, but his influence is formidable. This guy really gets things done. Jon Stewart in 2012?

The Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, the Tea Party was able to cool some serious internal divisions to speak out with one voice. Despite some candidates who landed in hot water (“I’m not a witch” will live in PR infamy), most of the party’s key players spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. More importantly, its message was never diluted. A full-strength focus on government spending brought the party credibility and congressional seats.

The Chilean government. Its flawless handling of the rescue of 33 miners showed not just leadership on the part of  Sebastian Pinera and his government, but real storytelling genius and media relations savvy. The final rescue scenario was better than any mini-series, complete with a happy ending.

Gap. Yes, I know its logo fiasco looked like a bad fit and a PR blunder, but the company’s ultimate decision to return to the original iconic identity made it more relevant than it’s been in years, at least to a narrow slice of influentials. Not a model PR campaign, but a good example of turning bad publicity into good will.

Conan O’Brien. He started the year by walking away from one of the most coveted gigs in television, and agreeing to a seven-month exile before the premiere of his new show on…basic cable? But Team Coco made clever use of the hiatus. Their social media strategy was genius. His hilarious Twitter feed was vintage Conan, while kicking off a string of updates that kept him in front of fans. Coverage from his “Legally Prohibited” comedy tour ensured his relevance until the debut of his third act this September.

JetBlue. 2010 was a tough year for travel companies. Start with a grounded economy, add higher fares and fewer services, throw in an eruption from an unpronounceable volcano, and top it off with a security controversy. JetBlue not only came out on top again in passenger surveys, but it handled flight attendant Steven Slater‘s unexpected, and highly publicized, exit from the job with PR savvy and typical JetBlue cool.

Facebook. Despite another privacy crisis in 2010, Facebook turned the potential reputation nightmare of the unflattering film “The Social Network” into an opportunity for a charm offensive on the part of founder Mark Zuckerberg. Reaching 500 million members and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year isn’t such a bad way to close out 2010.

Next up: Worst PR Moves of 2010.

Ten Trends That Will Affect Public Relations Pros In 2011

PR is reaching a golden age, triggered by the growth of social media and new, more relevant metrics. PR is dead, a bridesmaid in the hot pursuit of larger budgets and sexy social programs. The predictions are all over the map, but, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here’s our list for the top trends that will have an impact on how we do our jobs in the coming year.

1.  Curation, not just content, is king. For social media platforms to maintain their hypergrowth, they must make it easier for us to organize, filter, and customize the content coming our way. And, as creators and aggregators, we’ll fill that role for the content we distribute to client and corporate audiences.

2.  Digital storytelling is a big story. As mainstream media opportunities shrink, communicators are increasingly the producers and packagers of our own content. Use of images, video, and particularly infographics, to impart news and track trends, will be differentiators. Check out Bob Pickard’s blog for excellent insights on digital storytelling, and the more scientific approach he forecasts for public relations.

3.  Social everything. The explosion of social shopping, gaming, and learning will create more opportunities for branding and consumer engagement. Look for the Groupon promotion model to migrate beyond consumer sectors, perhaps into professional services. (PR programs by the dozen?) We need to find ways to make content as social and “spreadable” as possible throughout the Web.

4.  Multicultural marketing gets more attention, and funding. In addition to demographic trends, the Web is rapidly becoming a more multicultural, multilingual place, making multicultural marketing and communications talent in our business highly sought-after.

5.  Reputation management drives corporate priorities. Marketing PR as a demand generation and brand-building tool isn’t going away, but “defensive PR” will be even bigger than ever. The tolerance for a poor or inadequate response to bad customer feedback, or a genuine crisis situation, will become even smaller in 2011.

6.  Customer service is the new PR. Public relations practitioners and customer service professionals will collaborate more, as each needs to be skilled in dealing directly with the customer – often under stressful circumstances. With the ubiquity of the social Web and the growth of the “complaint culture,” our skills in interfacing directly with communities, and managing a two-way communication channel, will be highly valued.

7.  Offlining gains steam. We’re hyper-connected, yes. But as data speeds grow and devices proliferate, many of us will be unplugging, at least temporarily, to recharge and detox. I’m convinced that Eric Yaverbaum and Mark DiMassimo are really onto something with their offlining movement, at least among those over 35.

8.  Mobile is mainstream. The Web is dead, long live the Internet. Given new categories of mobile devices and the coming of 4G, the content we distribute will be increasingly adapted to tablets, smartphones, and other devices. This has implications for length, optimization, graphics, and links. More importantly, our audiences may be accessing the Web from behind pay walls and commercial apps, which means we need to be more creative and forward-thinking to reach them with branded messages.

9.  New measurement models catch on. Communicators have gained a grasp on the measurement tools that help justify our budgets and benefit from a return to pre-recession marketing expenditures. The currency of the future isn’t just reach, popularity, or traffic, but sentiment and influence. Industry vendors like Cision are hyping new tools that offer real-time monitoring of all online content, with automated features like sentiment analysis for more sophisticated profiling of a wider range of influencers.

10. The “new” influencer is the crowd. Influence will become more democratic in 2011 and beyond. Look for more media companies to take decisions about top stories, lists, and even business direction to their readers. Corporations will also be more willing to crowdsource new products, company promotions, and possibly try out new business models in the coming years.

What do you see as trends for 2011 and beyond? Please tell us your ideas, and we’ll post updates with the most intriguing suggestions.

Does Social Media Cause Groupthink?

I used to consider “groupthink” mostly as the enemy of new ideas. You know, where members of the team are more motivated to agree with one another and get along than to question the status quo or break new ground. Then there’s the too-homogeneous mindset that can result from an entrenched corporate culture. Tech blogger Steve Tobak wrote a great post about the potential perils of a “monoculture” in “When Groupthink Trumps Smarthink.”

But, lately I worry about a different kind of bandwagoning. One related to our increasingly selective and inch-deep consumption of media, and fostered by like-minded online friends and fans. It’s why I began to switch from my favorite news channels when following the midterm elections. (I knew what those who agreed with me thought; I wanted to find out what the other side was thinking.) It’s the reason I’ve resolved to question some of my assumptions about PR, ethics, and social media as 2011 looms. (Hence, the “boiling frog” analogy in a previous post.) And, it was my motivation for engaging a Tea Party member on the topic of healthcare reform at a recent business reception.

Okay, that last one was a bad idea, as it turned out. But I think the risk is there. When the Web first exploded, it seemed like the perfect antidote to any kind of homogeneity of thought or ideas – after all, there’s nothing you can’t find online. But, you do have to find it first. Today, the content we consume, and the social networks that we find it in, are increasingly curated, recycled, and aggregated. Newsfeeds, LinkedIn discussion groups, Twitter circles, Facebook clubs – it can contribute to a cloistered media diet and narrow point of view.

So, how to fight against the subtle pressure to think like the crowd?

Branch out. Try to read one blog post or column each day from a site or group you don’t agree with. I can’t bring myself to become fans or subscribers of these groups, but I think it’s enough to read and subscribe to different types of blogs and feeds, particularly around a hot-button political, social, or industry issue.

Similarly,it helps to add a few fresh friends/followers every day. Sure, it’s great to be focused, and it’s essential for most bloggers, but list functions and tagging make it easy to wander beyond your professional turf without losing that focus.

Avoid the rockstars. Some of the most popular social media figures are truly original, or at least, they started out that way. But, up-and-coming bloggers and columnists are nearly always more interesting, and they try harder.

Be critical of what you like. And “like.” As Robert Pagliarini points out, we’re unguarded among those we trust, but we should hold the familiar to a higher standard when it comes to spewing opinions or speculating about reasons for things. And there’s no safer place to disagree than among friends and peers.

Look for original content. We get enough recycled news every day. Seek out those resources with original content, where the author’s professional interests and biases are obvious.

Play devil’s advocate. With your own assumptions, that is. It’s a useful exercise in which you nearly always learn something.

Solicit other opinions. Especially from those who are silent. I like to do this in business meetings, because the quiet ones often have interesting opinions.

Look for diversity, even within a topic. This is why I find it useful to read posts and byliners about PR from those who head up mega-agencies as well as solo practitioners. Everyone has something specific to add to the conversation, so looking up and down the food chain keeps my mind open.

Question authority. It sounds like teenage rebellion, but it’s relevant to all of us. And it certainly applies to what we read and retweet from self-anointed experts every day. Having common opinions and experiences is a comfortable basis for an online relationship, but the average blogger or commentator will appreciate an alternative point of view, if well expressed, even more. The social Web should be about discussion, after all.

When Social Media Goes Too Far

The social web can be a wonderful thing. But what happens when social content goes too far as a substitute for actual journalism? In an age when “everyone is the media,” the credibility bar drops fairly low, revealing biases, errors, and rumors that pass as fact. I’m grateful for the traditional press, battered, but unbowed, when it comes to sorting out what’s really happening.

Except when it isn’t. Occasionally the mainstream media is suckered by what they read on blogs and social media platforms. David Carr’s New York Times story on the TSA furor has me thinking about how things go haywire when social and traditional media, rather than complementing one another, join to fan a brushfire. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Carr recaps how the reaction to new TSA security procedures, including high-tech scans and thorough body pat-downs, blew up on Twitter, then mushroomed into a traditional news story, and spawned an opt-out movement…all turning out to be much ado about very little. The TSA struggled to respond to the furor. But, when the mainstream outlets went out to report the story of the airport protests, apparently there wasn’t one.

It reminded me of a larger news story. Remember the Iranian Twitter revolution that never happened? And, at the other end of the spectrum, a favorite recent blog topic, about the outcry around Gap’s new logo? The social media revolt was such that newspapers and other jumped on the story, and Gap was forced to backpedal and return to its original iconic look. Yet, afterwards, a customer survey showed that only 17 percent of Gap customers were even aware of the initial logo change. It was branding and social media insiders, and PR people like me, whose comments multiplied exponentially on the social web.

These examples raise “echo chamber” accusations about the social web and its so-called influencers. Who’s really out there? Is it twelve people with mirrors? Is what seems like digital “grassroots” just a a few plants treated with media miracle-gro?

Maybe it’s no surprise that those who tweet the loudest are heard. After all, social content sharers are prey to all the pitfalls of traditional press – wanting to be first with interesting items, needing news during a slow time (like a holiday week), wanting to stoke reader interest, retweets, and discussion.

To be fair, many readers of Carr’s TSA story hotly dispute his premise – that, in fact, there were few protests and little of note at major airports over Thanksgiving week. That’s a good thing. When controversy rages online, it’s a reminder of the diversity of opinion on the web, and an antidote to groupthink.

When we bother to look for it, that is. Maybe it’s a reminder for us to break out of our digital cliques and to try harder to avoid falling into a social/digital news feed of recycled ideas and commentary about commentary. The next post will explore ways to do that. Until then, enjoy this video about “old” media’s newfound fascination with it.