The PR Winners Of 2019

For most experts in public relations, it’s easy to identify episodes where companies or individuals made mistakes, often making a bad situation worse.

But what about the successes? Those are harder to assess. They may be about the brand that punches above its weight, one that makes a comeback against the odds, or even the crisis that didn’t happen. Here are my nominations for the PR Winners of 2019.

Gillette Gets Woke

This one’s a controversial entry for the winners’ column because reaction to the brand’s 2019 ad campaign was sharply divided. The commercial Gillette debuted in January was a different type of ad for the men’s razor category.

Instead of touting the product’s advantages, it tackled “toxic masculinity” just in time for the Super Bowl. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the two-minute spot depicts boorish or sexist behavior by men, then cuts to a celebration of “woke” men and a challenge to do better. It ends with a twist on the brand tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get.”

Did the campaign boost sales? It’s hard to say. Some men were angered by it and vowed to toss out their Gillette products in protest. In its July earnings report P&G took an $8 billion writedown on the Gillette division. Yet the charge was due to currency fluctuations and a shrinking U.S. market for men’s shaving products — beards remain popular, and the competition from upstart DTC brands is still keen. All in all, I’d say that if the campaign’s goal was to drive conversation and engagement, it was a clear win.

Popeyes Scores In Sandwich Wars

The great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 probably boosted sales for several fast food chains, but Popeyes came out on top both in PR and product quality. (Yes, we did our own taste test in the office.) What’s more, the brand took advantage of a summer news lull and punched above its weight in the social media arena. The feathers started flying when Popeyes launched its first nationwide chicken sandwich, directly targeting Chick-fil-A, but pulling in Wendy’s and even Boston Market and KFC into a Twitter food fight. Celebrities and news anchors weighed in as the sandwiches sold out and customers rushed to find it. Someone even tried to sell one for $7000 on eBay.

When Popeyes ran out of product six weeks early, it hatched a clever plan to invite customers to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bun) and come for its still-plentiful chicken tenders. And according to the Apex Marketing Group, it served up an estimated $65 million in equivalent media value for Popeyes. More importantly, the brand scratched its way to one of the most significant improvements in YouGov’s Ad Awareness metric among consumers throughout September. And the fight lives on today.

Capital One Deals With A Data Breach

In general, companies do a poor job reporting on security breaches. When a hacker accessed personal data from the Capital One account of more than 106 million people, however, it fared better than many before it. The breach was potentially very serious, involving the Social Security numbers and Canadian Social Insurance numbers as well as bank account numbers of Capital One customers. Yet in many ways the company was lucky; the hacker was arrested after she bragged about her exploits on Twitter and on an open slack channel, and she didn’t seem interested in selling or otherwise profiting from the data. And Capital One got credit for addressing the breach less than two weeks after it was discovered.

Capital One’s handling wasn’t perfect, and it initially offered incomplete information about the hack. But when it comes to this kind of disclosure, speed trumps specificity, and it moved quickly. Within two weeks of learning of the hack, CEO Richard Fairbanks released a statement about it, apologizing and assuring customers that it was fixed. The company’s website directed customers to updates on the breach as they became available, detailing what happened and promising to make free credit monitoring and identity protection available to all affected. Months later, reports surfaced that the hacker, a former Amazon Web Services employee, may have obtained sensitive data on other companies, so there may be more challenges to come, but for Capital One, the worst seems to be over.

Barilla Pasta Comes Full Circle

The reputation journey of Barilla Pasta has taken years, and that’s precisely why its recovery deserves recognition. The brand stepped in the sauce in 2013 when company chairman Guido Barilla made anti-gay comments on Italy’s best known radio talk show, publicly praising “traditional families” and criticizing gay adoption. His remarks quickly reverberated across the Atlantic, where LGBT activists called for a boycott and celebrities tweeted in protest. Competitor Buitoni took advantage with a Facebook ad proclaiming “Pasta for All” with images of tortellini pairs featuring gender symbols of opposite and same-sex couples. An Italian-American mother of a gay son started an online petition to ask Stop & Shop to pull Barilla from its shelves.

CEO Claudio Colzani told Bloomberg that he planned the brand’s comeback in three chapters: apology, investigation, and promotion. It started with several video mea culpas from Guido Barilla. But the brand also put action behind Barilla’s words. It appointed a chief diversity officer and set up a diversity and inclusion board of outside experts and well recognized advocates. (Barilla’s attempts to win the trust of LGBT activist and author David Mixner is a great story all by itself.)

It then launched a D&I training program for employees and joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies for LGBT-friendly policies. Five years later, Barilla has nearly pulled itself out of the reputation hole. In fact, it launched a special limited edition of spaghetti in a package featuring two women holding hands and a pasta strand in their mouths, Lady and the Tramp-style. Colzani summed it up this way: “We were simply trying to be a good citizen. Now, we’re trying to be a role model.”

Felicity Huffman Does Her Time

Of the 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, as the college admissions bribery investigation was known, Felicity Huffman may have faced it best. Her handling of the situation was right from the crisis management playbook. First, she issued a well-crafted mea culpa for her actions. Huffman took full responsibility for the bribery and cheating that she enabled, making it clear that she alone was to blame. Looking wan and decidedly unglamorous for her court appearance, she apologized to her family and children (whom she asserted were unaware of the scheme), but that’s not all. She also expressed contrition directly to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” That’s the part of the bribery scandal that so infuriated regular people.

Huffman then proceeded smartly and swiftly with a guilty plea and served a 14-day prison sentence, admittedly a very light punishment. Since her release she has been involved in court-mandated community service and has wisely given no media interviews. I predict a Martha Stewart-style comeback by 2022.

Which organizations fared worst in 2019? Check out my nominations for the PR Losers of 2019 and let me know if you agree.

How To Restore A Public Reputation

When the college admissions cheating and bribery scandal broke nearly a month ago, two names led the headlines. More than 50 people were implicated, but actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were featured in every article. Both actors’ spouses were mentioned, and as a social influencer, Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade was also drawn into the coverage. But the two women were the faces of the scandal. It’s the price of fame; boldface names draw clicks.

Now, each woman is faced with a classic PR problem. Can they win back their reputation? If so, how?

Any expert will tell you that coming back from a public disgrace is a long haul. So far, only one – Huffman – has taken the first public steps toward recovery. Here’s the advice I’d give to her and her fellow defendants.

First, nail down the legal strategy

For a public person charged with a crime, the smartest legal strategy may be in conflict with the best public relations advice. PR people don’t like it when legal counsel wins at the expense of public image. But it happens, as when a public company CEO can’t admit wrongdoing due to liability concerns, despite knowing that a mealy-mouthed statement or “no comment” comment may prolong the damage. Happily for Huffman, in her case the legal and communications strategies are in sync. She swiftly chose to plead guilty and was free to move on to the next step – taking responsibility for her actions.

(In contrast, Lori Loughlin has thus far refused a plea deal, and at her court appearance she was all smiles, signing autographs for fans. Yesterday she and husband Mossimo Giannulli were slapped with more charges, so the stakes for them are higher, and the outlook for PR rehab is poor.)

Face the reality

This step is harder than it looks, and not just due to potential liability. Celebrities – even top business leaders among them – often live in a bubble. They’re surrounded by people whose livelihoods depend on pleasing them, and over time their judgment can become distorted. Many are tied to an infrastructure of agents, talent management, PRs, and support staff, and it’s difficult to upset the balance. While facing the music is often their only chance to preserve the career machine, it often feels counterintuitive, and it’s tempting to hide behind third parties.


Do it sincerely and do it well. That’s exactly what Felicity Huffman did in a statement released yesterday. A poor or inadequate apology can make the situation far worse, but as such statements go, Huffman’s is pretty good. In fact, it’s worth breaking down what works.

Take responsibility

Huffman gets several things right in her messaging. First, she admits and accepts responsibility for what she did, a key precursor to an effective mea culpa. Importantly, she makes no excuses. This is where many public apologies go wrong; we’re all familiar with celebrities who blame substance abuse, emotional issues, or a bad childhood. Instead, Huffman expresses deep remorse for her actions, admitting, “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.”

Acknowledge the harm

Another helpful aspect of the statement is its acknowledgement of others. A good apology and effective PR message shouldn’t be about you, the public personality whose life has been fractured, even though it may be natural to feel that way.

Finally, Huffman apologizes to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

That last part is key, because it hits on why the scandal infuriated so many people. The phony admissions schemes were shocking examples of how advantaged people cheat and game the system to gain even more advantage, and ordinary families were naturally outraged by it. Huffman did well to acknowledge that.

Make things right

It may sound paradoxical, but from a reputation point of view, Huffman should hope that she spends time in jail. She can’t fix what’s broken about the college admissions process, but she can pay for her crime. A reasonable penalty that includes a prison sentence will ultimately help restore her image because it will appeal to our sense of justice.  It worked for Martha Stuart, although in my view Stewart’s crime was less egregious. Of course it won’t hurt if either Huffman or Loughlin spend time doing legitimate volunteer work or donating to a worthy cause. But those steps come later.

Use media wisely

If I were advising Huffman I’d probably tell her to lie low until after her sentencing and (probably inevitable) incarceration. Repairing one’s reputation doesn’t have to involve media, and in many cases it’s better to avoid it, lest you appear to be capitalizing on the situation. For a professional actor, however, an eventual media sit-down is inevitable. When the time comes, Huffman should conduct an exclusive interview with a friendly media outlet as a way of sharing her story and completing the redemption journey. It should be honest, unvarnished, and heartfelt.

It’s a long road back, and in Huffman’s case, the admissions scandal will be in the first line of her obituary. But the cliché is true; while the media mob is a beast, especially amplified by social platforms, the American public is essentially forgiving. With the right reputation rehab and some time for people to forgive her, Felicity Huffman has a chance to return to a time when her biggest problem was which dress to wear on the red carpet.