What We Learn From Famous PR Failures

Later this year, The Museum of Failure will open in Sweden. Those in public relations will notice the product flops it reportedly features, like Colgate beef lasagna, Harley Davidson perfume, and, of course, new Coke. But we like the museum for the lesson behind it, which is that even the biggest brands and most successful companies are capable of failure.

It also inspired us to look at famous (and infamous) PR “fails” over the decades as examples that even big brands can mess up.

Can You Head Off PR Failures?

In PR a failure could be characterized as a campaign that never caught fire, a pitch that fizzled or a relationship that went badly off course. So, we can’t prevent them, and those day-to-day missteps probably prevent other, larger flops. When a truly whopping mistake happens, — well, sometimes it takes time and perspective. Consider these “historic” PR failures.

The giant (melting) Snapple popsicle

NBC News called it “disaster on a stick.” And we’ll never forget it because the 2005 stunt by Snapple happened just a few blocks from our office. The 25-foot icepop caper was the brand’s attempt to break the Guinness record for the world’s largest popsicle in order to promote a new beverage flavor. It wasn’t a bad idea — visual stunts can be mediaworthy, and reaching for the record presumably gave the giant pop an extra reason for being.  But the whole thing melted down as the brand tried and failed to have a crane lift the rapidly softening giant pop upright, and Snapple called off the stunt amid rivers of sticky pink water gushing down 17th Street. The Snapple ice pop will live in PR infamy, yet it probably raised more awareness of the brand (and arguably for its new flavor) than an ordinary event would have.

Urban Outfitters’ “Holocaust chic”

It could have been a simple product mistake; Urban Outfitters launched a short-lived tapestry featuring gray stripes and a pink star that many thought was reminiscent of the striped pajamas that concentration camp prisoners were forced to wear during the Holocaust. We tend to think the retailer was being intentionally provocative, given its history of controversial products (see: Kent State splattered sweatshirt), so we give it a failing grade on this one. Unfortunately, Urban Outfitters isn’t the only retailer to launch a product that reminded some of Nazi Germany. Zara was forced to pull a yellow-star-emblazoned striped t-shirt off the market after similar concerns were expressed by the Anti-Defamation league. The commonsense lesson: stay far away from Hitler references or holocaust imagery, unless you want to be seen as exploiting a historic tragedy to make a sale.

The “Iron Man 3” fake attack

Compared to the giant ice pop, this one was just a local promotion, but it was far more alarming. Only a year after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that killed 12 people, a Missouri theater owner staged a fake attack to promote a screening of “Iron Man 3.” He sent a costumed character carrying a fake gun into the theater, prompting several audience members to call the cops. Luckily, no shots were fired, but the performance may go down as the stupidest — and most dangerous – PR stunt in history.

Justine Sacco’s careless tweet

The storm set off by a flippant tweet from a young PR executive three years ago seems a lot less shocking in the age of Trump. But Sacco’s experience was an object lesson in how ruthless the social mob can be, and how quickly things can turn when you don’t, or can’t, address a mistake right away. Just before leaving on a flight to her native South Africa for Christmas in 2013, Sacco, a smart and presumably social-media-savvy employee of IAC, posted a racially-charged tweet about AIDS. It was an attempt at snarky humor, but when she landed 11 hours later, thousands of angry tweets greeted her, including one from her employer. Sacco lost her job, her reputation, and probably her personal bearings as she grappled with the consequences of that single tweet. Today, she’s a poster child for internet shaming, and her experience is a personal branding lesson that everyone should heed.

Starbucks “Race Together”

This one had good intentions, and we give Starbucks points for its 2015 initiative designed not to promote a new drink, but to start an important national conversation. The idea was for Starbucks baristas to write “Race Together” on cups and to actually engage customers in a dialogue about race relations. Even beyond the practical considerations (who has time to start a heavy conversation on their way to work?), “Race Together” became late-night joke material and died a quick death.  Yet, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz later explained, “The irony is, we did create a national conversation — not how we intended, but you learn from mistakes.” Well said.

“Don’t let your failures define you–let them teach you”

Barack Obama said this, perhaps to Hillary Clinton, who has known some failure in life, or maybe just to anyone who has experienced a setback, which means everyone.

Mistakes happen, and their lessons begin when we take responsibility for the part we own, then forgive ourselves. So, we should remember failures, because they keep us humble, honest, and hungry for success. I had a colleague who kept a hard copy of a very negative story from a past media relations campaign. She said she needed to know that despite her best efforts, things could still go south. It’s not an incentive that would work for me, but for her it was a reminder to do her best work. For most of us, that motivation just might be a walk down the halls of the Museum of Failure.

What PR Pros Can Learn From Justine Sacco

Friday morning, IAC PR executive Justine Sacco had about 300 Twitter followers and was known mostly to her family, friends and colleagues. But after a racially themed tweet and 12 hours of silence as Twitter raged, she became a PR crisis case and an example of a personal reputation meltdown in real time. How did it happen, and can we learn anything from it?

It started with a tweet. Not an ordinary one. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white,” is pretty startling, particularly coming from a senior PR professional at a well known media company. There’s quite a bit to unpack there. First, it seems to make light of the AIDS scourge in Africa. Then it brings in race. Nothing amusing in either case.

Unfortunately for Sacco, Valleywag caught the update and posted a brief but snarky item about it, “A Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s PR Boss.”

At that, Twitter took notice. To some, it was pure ignorance and racism. Others thought it was an attempt at edgy humor, which was my take. Some speculated about a hack. The tweet was RT’d thousands of times, and Sacco’s Twitter account ballooned to over 6000 followers. Before the close of the business day, IAC had posted an apology for the “outrageous” and “offensive” tweet and implied she would be dismissed as soon as she could be reached. Sacco’s name was scrubbed from the IAC website that very day.

As Twitter waited for a response, it became obvious Sacco was on a flight without Internet access. In the meantime, the community went into overdrive and the story went mainstream, picked up by Business Insider, Huffington Post, and even The New York Times, among others. A faux Twitter account appeared, and Buzzfeed wasted no time in creating a listicle of Sacco’s most dubious tweets. All this in the course of a single day.

In a clever, or, some would say, questionable, bit of newsjacking, Gogo, the inflight Internet service, jumped on the controversy to promote its in-flight wifi. Then Twitter briefly cheered when the domain justinesacco.com was acquired and redirected to an African aid donations site. All were glued to Sacco’s account, waiting for the moment when she would realize the ferocity of the twitstorm, punctuated with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. Many actually likened the spectacle to O.J. Simpson’s low-speed Bronco chase of 1994…a pretty tasteless comparison if you ask me.

At some point, Sacco did land and obviously learned about the uproar. Her Twitter account was deleted and she went into hiding. And who could blame her? The story isn’t over, but it does point out some things of import to communicators. Already, in PR-land, Sacco’s meltdown is a lesson in social media’s power and to some, she’s a poster child for self-indulgent, oversharing millennials.

Personal is professional. If your employer is named on your social media account, everything you post can be linked to the company. Any PR professional should know that. And the standard disclaimer that “opinions are my own” is a waste of character space. Does anyone think it would have made a difference in this case?

Edgy humor is hard to pull off. Even if you’re a professional comic, you’re taking a risk with any humor that crosses lines involving issues of race, sexuality, mortality, or violence.  Even if it’s satire. Ask Daniel ToshBill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried, to name just a few. These are guys who do it for a living. Risky humor should be left to professionals.

Response time is critical. The amount of digital rage that built against Sacco because she was unable to delete or apologize for her tweet was astonishing. If we have ever doubted that the media/web/community will fill the void, it’s now a certainty. And the window of opportunity for responding and trying to make things right is breathtakingly small.

Consider a backup plan if out of touch. Some PR pros on Twitter tonight had practical tips. One suggested giving password and login access to work colleagues if unplugged for a day or more. Media trainer Brad Phillips (@MrMediaTraining) advises against setting auto-tweets if you expect to be out of touch for a long while –  as we’ve seen when tragic news hits and brands are caught tweeting trivia, or worse. Of course, a better idea is not to post questionable tweets in the first place, regardless of web access.

So, what should Sacco do now? PR pros will debate it, but she should start with a real apology. Not a mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry to those I offended,” but a true expression of contrition. The 12-hour silence couldn’t be helped, but deleting her entire Twitter account and retreating forever isn’t the right move, assuming that she’s not actually a bigot but merely insensitive. Jason Alexander’s heartfelt apology after a “gay” skit he performed on a late-night show is a good model.

The social mob is ruthless, to be sure. But social media can also be a powerful tool for communicating regret and asking for redemption. It may be quixotic, but I hope it can also help turn the schadenfreude the PR community feels about an entertaining, but basically horrible, reputation disaster into something a little bit instructive for all of us.