PR Winners: The Best Stories of 2018

For public relations and reputation experts, it’s easy to point out the brands and personalities who mishandled bad news or missed opportunities after public mistakes. Our list of the PR losers of the past 12 months is out, but what about the good news stories of the year? Here are my nominations for the best, most skillful, or just plain luckiest PR moves of 2018.

Parkland students keep the story alive

A tragedy like the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida will always dominate the news cycle — that is, until it doesn’t. Eventually the media and the public move on. Yet this time, a handful of student activists accomplished something difficult even for PR professionals – they maintained the story’s momentum.

The teens used their social media skills and journalistic savvy to quickly raise funds for future events, plan out media-oriented appearances, and offer an updated story for journalists and news crews.

First came a White House meeting, followed by a CNN town hall and a 17-minute school walkout in March. Things culminated in the March For Our Lives on the 24th – offering compelling visuals and fresh sound bites. Unlike other groups, like the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook, the teens didn’t hesitate to target the NRA and Congress directly. They knew the press would want new faces for interviews, so they organized a deep bench of media-savvy spokespersons and messages for journalists and news crews. A professional PR and social media team couldn’t have planned it better. The kids are all right – and I’m betting they’re not done yet.

Nike scores with Kaepernick

Marketers may have differing opinions on Nike’s brand advertising campaign around former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick this year. After all, the campaign sparked protests by those who took issue with Kaepernick’s refusal to kneel during the national anthem before games. But for sheer dominance of the news cycle, it was a clear winner. Not only that, but the brand surely knows its audience, and those aged 18 to 34 approved of its decision by a 67-21 margin, even as older voters disagreed. What may have been most impressive about the campaign was the surprise factor; Nike had maintained a lengthy silence about Kaepernick, who was actually signed to the brand since 2011, throughout months of protests, quietly re-signing him just before the deal was set to expire.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,”  was a powerful tagline. Did the revelation that it was planned well in advance undermine Kaepernick’s status as an exile and the “sacrifice” alluded to in the ads? Maybe, but the campaign’s omnipresence crushed everything else in the news cycle. According to Bloomberg, Nike generated $43 million in earned media and social buzz for its campaign in the first 24 hours after it was launched. Now, that’s a testament to the power of PR.

IHOP serves up a PR prank

If somebody had told me a year ago that IHOP would dominate social media channels with a prank re-branding as a burger chain, I wouldn’t have believed it. But the temporary transition from IHOP to IHOb dished up humor, suspense, a little nostalgia, and an extra dollop of controversy. The whole thing turned out to be a recipe for PR success. IHOP cleverly started things off by changing out some signage at select locations and flipping the “p” in its social media branding to a “b” without explanation, sparking speculation about what the letter might stand for.

Twitter critics jeered when it followed with the “news” that it was rebranding as International House of Burgers, of course. But there was a method – and a message – to IHOP’s madness. It wrapped the announcement around its plan to be known as a lunch and dinner chain, not just a stop for breakfast. And when was the last time someone was talking about IHOP anyway? Well done, IHOP, no matter how you spell it.

KFC’s colorful mea culpa 

IHOP wasn’t the only winning brand in the food service category. This year a regional ad campaign created as a customer apology after the UK unit of KFC ran out of chicken made international news. The campaign blended earned, paid, and owned media with spicy humor, self-awareness, and a cleverly crafted apology that stopped just short of being NSFW.

When it found itself in the embarrassing position of having no chicken for customers, KFC took on a humble, yet suitably British-flavored tone in its response. To soothe ruffled feathers, it posted cheeky notes on the doors of shuttered restaurants apologizing for “teething problems” with a new supplier. A webpage enabled UK customers to access updates about stores in their areas. Then the UK chain cooked up an extraordinary ad that ran in two daily newspapers. For most brands, the logo is sacrosanct, but KFC scrambled its initials in a shocking “FCK” headline that grabbed everyone’s attention and made the whole campaign work. It delivered on all fronts — as an apology to customers and franchise owners, as a creative expression of frustration, and a show of brand personality. It’s a useful reminder that, through creativity and quick decision-making, it’s possible to turn bad publicity into good PR.

ABC takes a stand  

It seems like a long time ago now, maybe because so many crisis situations have befallen media and entertainment brands (looking at you, CBS) but ABC Entertainment Group, then led by president Channing Dungey, deserves credit for its courageous and very quick decision to pull the plug on the successful reboot of its “Roseanne” series earlier this year. It’s easy to end a show or terminate a contract when it has fallen short, or when only a hefty payout is at stake. But in this case, the revived “Roseanne” was a true ratings hit, with huge future earning power for the network as the most watched new series of the season. It was renewed after only one episode and was ranked second in total viewers of all entertainment programs.

Yet when Roseanne Barr tweeted racist insults as part of a bizarre Twitter feud with former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, ABC swiftly canceled the show. There was no apparent hesitation, no poll-tested apologies, no mealy-mouthed mea culpa, just a corporate statement that was pitch-perfect. (Honorary mention to Sanofi for its rapid response to Barr’s tweet blaming her insult on Ambien. “Racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication,” from a major pharma company was real-time-marketing gold.)

Starbucks walks the talk

One of the things I admire most about brand Starbucks is its willingness to lead on issues that are both risky and difficult. After the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two African-American customers who took a table before ordering anything, the video of their arrest went viral, and the brand had a grande crisis in the making. Its initial response, in the form of a tweet a full day later, was slow and inadequate to the anger brewing after the incident. A formal apology issued the next day ignored the elephant in the room — the fact that the men were most likely treated differently from other customers  because of their race. Yet, true to its brand character, once it fully grasped the community and reputation impact of the incident, Starbucks engaged fully, leveraging its size, presence, and brand voice.

Two days after the arrests, the company issued formal apologies, both on social platforms and through media interviews and a CEO video condemning the “reprehensible” actions based on race. Starbucks followed up by announcing it would close 8000 stores on May 29 for a half-day of employee education around racial bias. Did it abolish racism with the partner education commitment? Of course not, but to its credit, it’s one of the few major brands that consistently talks up its values and, when challenged, takes the steps to live up to them.

Payless tweaks influencer culture

With all the moves from brands that addressed sobering issues like racial injustice or gun violence, it was refreshing to see marketing PR news made by the Payless shoe brand. Payless doesn’t attract a lot of third-party notice or make much news, but last month it pulled off a pretty brilliant stunt that worked as a legitimate marketing campaign.  In yet another of the successful brand pranks of 2018, Payless took over an old Armani boutique, renamed it “Palessi,” and stocked the shelves with its typical bargain-priced merchandise. Then, in a masterful PR stoke, it invited high-end fashion “influencers” to a special luxury footwear opening sale. The special guests unwittingly bought $20 shoes for $200 to $600 while raving about their quality and style — all captured on video for paid ads.

The ploy generated earned media coverage that cleverly reinforced the Payless brand promise of decent style for a great price, which was a strategic win for the brand. It also worked as a tweak of fashion influencer culture. The “experts” came off as posturing snobs, and the stunt was a reminder for those in the game that all influencers aren’t created equal. Beyond having lots of followers, a true influencer should be credible, with authentic expertise and legitimate appeal relevant to any brand it promotes. At a time when top brands are concerned about digital fraud as well as inflated ROI figures for influencers, it was a perfect fit.

The Thai cave rescue brought us together

It wasn’t a PR campaign, but the rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from a cave in northern Thailand tops my list of inspiring 2018 events that offered real-life storytelling lessons. It had all the classic elements: innocent children in peril; a true hero’s journey to their rescue; and a sense that we were all united in hoping for the best possible outcome.

There was more than one hero here, and there was a big twist to the story. At the point where it should have ended – the boys’ discovery by British divers after a nine-day search – the cave narrative was just beginning. When we realized the rescue would be risky, complicated, and perhaps impossible, everything changed. Our attention was divided between the boys and their soccer coach and the teams of rescuers who risked their lives to bring them out safely.

In its management of media relations, the Thai authorities seemed to follow the playbook from the successful 2010 rescue of the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for two months as the world waited and watched. The Thai rescuers were careful to paint the situation as grave, working to manage expectations, correcting the inevitable errors in reporting, and accepting expert help while maintaining control of the news flow.

Above all, it was an against-all-odds narrative that pitted a small number of rescuer “Davids” against a Goliath of terrifying natural power. In the face of worsening conditions and sudden setbacks —  torrential downpours, dropping oxygen levels inside the cave, and the death of an experienced volunteer, we weren’t confident of the outcome, but who wasn’t gratified to see light at the end of the tunnel?

In Bold Move, ABC Boots Roseanne Reboot

There were bigger stories breaking on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but on social media the news was all about Roseanne. It started with @therealroseanne’s revolting tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The post was bizarre, horrible, and nakedly racist, but at the risk of sounding cynical, I didn’t think anything much would happen as a result. I was wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Not just because ABC did the right thing, but because of what I think it means.

By now there’s a numbing familiarity to the cultural outrage cycle, especially on Twitter. A celebrity (or possibly the president) tweets something offensive, and it triggers a backlash from other celebrities, pundits, media, and active social media users. Cable news shows are pumped with fresh material, indignant ripostes bounce around the internet, and boycotts are launched. Most of the time it’s sound and fury that signifies very little beyond how divided we are, how much time we spend on social media, or how tough it is to fill the cable talk cycle.

This time, however, things were a bit different. The tweet about Valerie Jarrett wasn’t @therealroseanne’s first offensive post. It wasn’t even the first racist one. But it was the one that brought swift consequences, both for the star and her future income stream. ABC’s announcement that it would cancel the Roseanne reboot just hours after her offensive tweet wasn’t just surprising, but it skipped several steps in the typical outrage cycle. Roseanne did apologize and delete her tweet, but ABC cut straight to the chase, avoiding a painful drip-drip of negative coverage and threatened ad boycotts. It not only canceled the show, but it took a clear public position against the ugly racism of her tweet, calling it “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”

What’s more, the ABC decision was quickly followed by a tweet from Roseanne’s talent agency, ICM, that it had dropped her. Then came the news that Hulu would remove the old show from its library, joining Viacom and its channels in pulling all Roseanne reruns. One after another, the dominoes fell.

Maybe it was the fact that the rebooted show’s ratings had declined by the end of its season. Or it could be that ABC was ultimately exasperated with Roseanne’s erratic and bigoted behavior. But Roseanne was the network’s top show, and I like to think that its swift move heralds a tipping point. Like the #metoo movement, which was a long time in coming, it’s just possible that we’ve had enough of racism, or to be precise, of people who think it’s okay to tweet racist or bigoted thoughts in the guise of humor.

Even Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, got into the mix after @TheRealRoseanne tweeted Wednesday morning, blaming her original racist post on “ambien tweeting.”

Importantly to those of us in the PR business, the swift death of Roseanne is another case of a corporate brand stepping up where you might not have expected it. Sure, the show’s ratings had leveled off, but the rebooted Roseanne vehicle was the number-one show at ABC and the most successful new sitcom in years. Roseanne herself headlined the network’s upfront meeting presentation to advertisers just two weeks ago.

By way of explaining ABC’s decision in the face of a $60 million revenue loss, several have pointed to the fact that Channing Dungey, its relatively new entertainment president, is an African American woman. And that may be part of it, but I posit that this wouldn’t have happened the same way a year ago. Heck, it may not have happened even a month ago. And it feels good not to be jaded about this one.

On the very Tuesday that Starbucks closed 8000 stores for racial bias training, a bigoted star performer got what was coming to her, and the corporate entities involved didn’t even seem to flinch. And in the midst of a shambolic administration where presidential opinions and conspiracies are tweeted as fact, and faith in institutions from government to media is shaky, corporations are stepping in to assert their values – and maybe even remind us of ours.

In PR Melodrama, Hoover Tries To Save The Soaps

Cue the organ music… here’s the dirt. A top appliance brand is so steamed by the demise of ABC’s daytime serials that it’s yanked its advertising clean off the network.

That’s right, in a move worthy of Erica Kane herself, Hoover announced that it won’t be advertising on ABC after Friday of this week. What’s more, it’s started a movement to salvage the soon-to-be-scrubbed shows. was set up on Hoover’s Facebook page to “pull together the mass emotional outpouring of support for our beloved ABC soaps.” Hoover’s pledging to forward every last email from fans who are all in a lather over ABC’s decision to pull the plug on the sudsy dramas.
Efforts to revive the shows will probably end in grief, but Hoover has sucked in plenty of soap fans, as well as media and bloggers. Marketing VP Brian Birkendall reports receiving 400 emails on the day after the announcement. And in a nice twist,  Soap Opera Digest has declared this Friday “Buy Hoover Day.”

Great stuff. But, the drama does beg the question of whether anyone really watches soaps anymore. Clearly, ABC doesn’t think so. Soaps were once a money machine for the networks; Luke and Laura’s 1981 wedding drew 31 million viewers. But in recent years the once-beloved shows have been killed off like an evil twin. The reasoning seems to be: Why pay a professional cast if you can get nearly the same thing at a discount by ditching the writers and using “real” housewives or D-list celebrities? Only four remain on the air, with the venerable “General Hospital” resorting to the stunt casting of James Franco to attract new fans. Now, that can’t be cheap.

So the trend is downward for the daytime dramas, but in my opinion the petition is a brilliant PR and reputation move. The good folks at  Hoover know their customers, and they know there’s a large overlap with soap viewers. Most importantly, they know that these are the most loyal fans in the world, and they’ve connected with the powerless feeling fans get when an important decision is out of their hands.

Plus, there’s a virtual cottage industry of bloggers, fanzines, chat groups, and social networks devoted to the “stories,” as my grandmother used to call them.

So, bravo, Hoover. You probably can’t save the shows, but you’re right to, um, call ABC on the carpet to advocate for fans. For at least one of the players. I suspect this story will have a happy ending.

Banned Ads Are A Robust PR Opportunity

It played out like a publicity stunt. Not one as blatant as the annual Super Bowl banned-ad PR-fest. But, at first it seemed a little, well, overblown. The sexy Lane Bryant lingerie commercial featuring curvy model Ashley Graham was rejected by both ABC and Fox for showing “too much cleavage” and being therefore too risque for the family hour. The PR brouhaha and the networks’ response to it gave a new irony to the term “boob tube.”

Seizing the opportunity, Lane Bryant posted a blog entry that accused the networks of having a – you guessed it –  double standard when it comes to how much skin is too much. After all, those skinny Victoria’s Secret models are all over evening  TV, even before primetime. Speaking directly to its customers, the retailer asked why ABC and Fox should “make the decision to define beauty for you.” It even used the “c” word – censorship.

Viewers, bloggers, and media weighed in and piled on. The result? A plus-sized PR win for Lane Bryant and its new Cacique line.  And the sultry ad’s already, uh, racked up over 200,000 views on YouTube.

What I love about this situation is how deftly Lane Bryant took a fat PR opportunity and made it even larger. First, they used social media to mobilize their female customer base and shape the situation as a cultural issue, revealing a bias against women with curves. The initial post positioned Lane Bryant as an advocate for its customers, and the contrast with Victoria Secret was inspired. (Since both are owned by Limited Brands, it’s a win-win.)

It was also a nice move to allow Ashley Graham, who appeared in the spot, to do press interviews. As a gorgeous, highly paid, and successful model, she has more media appeal than a corporate spokesperson. Yet, her success doesn’t undermine her credibility. She’s still a full-figured woman, and her words speak as well as her other “assets,” as she calls them.

The networks’ response also tells you something about who’s PR savvy. ABC issued a defensive and humorless statement accusing Lane Bryant of seeking publicity, and denying that it was treated any differently from any other advertiser. But, Fox, no PR slouch, seemed to realize it was losing middle America. It’s promised to air the uncut ad during this week’s American Idol. Stay tuned.