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?

#MeToo Slams Under Armour: Can It Recover?

The #metoo movement has claimed the reputations of many high-profile men. But its real impact may be at the corporate level. Our heightened awareness – and the corporate reluctance to address systemic misbehavior – presents serious public relations challenges for established companies in every sector. No brand is immune from a reckoning with the consequences of inattention to sexual harassment and inequality in the workplace.

Take onetime media darling Under Armour. The brand enjoyed huge early success, in part due to the  real-life story of founder Kevin Plank. A former football team captain, Plank developed the line based on moisture-wicking technology that was later adopted by NFL teams and featured in hit movies. The company expanded aggressively, and with its growth came inevitable setbacks. The past two years have been particularly rough, and its fumbles show how hard it can be to salvage a reputation when faced with simultaneous business challenges.

The reputation issues started with Plank’s public praise of President Trump as a “pro-business leader” last year. The comment didn’t sit well with some of the brand’s star athletes like Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland, and customers threatened a boycott. Plank was forced to explain himself in a full-page ad in hometown paper Baltimore Sun. He later resigned from the president’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative Council and joined other business leaders in condemning Trump’s equivocal comments after events in Charlottesville – which prompted threats from Trump supporters. Things eventually calmed down, although the business environment didn’t improve much.

Business suffered as some of its large retail customers struggled, and the brand lost cachet among the all-important teen segment. Earlier this year Under Armour announced a restructuring meant to streamline its business and refocus on women’s apparel, among other areas. Yet just as its recovery started to gain traction,it was hit with serious criticisms of workplace behavior and culture born out of #metoo.

A scathing story in The Wall Street Journal recounted how female employees were subjected to sexual harassment and “inappropriate conduct” in the workplace. Under Armour covered expenses for employee entertainment at strip club, and the piece describes an annual outing at Plank’s home where young female employees were invited based on their attractiveness.

To its credit, the company responded quickly in the wake of the Journal story. Plank’s statement referred to “systemic inequality in the global workplace” and pledged to “accelerate the ongoing meaningful cultural transformation that is already under way at Under Armour.” Although the statement doesn’t actually accept responsibility for misbehavior, it does promise to do better.

Yet the Under Armour example shows how, when a company is already weakened, a reputation shakeup can do more damage than it otherwise would, precipitating customer disenchantment and defections of talent. By contrast, Nike announced a raft of departures by highly placed male officers after scores of female executives complained of systemic harassment, unfair treatment, and retaliation when they brought their concerns to HR officers. But the $112 billion Nike may be better equipped to withstand setbacks, and it has moved swiftly to install women in senior leadership positions.

The formula to protect reputation in the #metoo era is both simple and very, very difficult.

Root out the bad actors

This is an obvious first step, though it can be easier said than done when the harassers are considered top performers, or if they have a close relationship to the CEO. One of Under Armour’s earliest employees was Scott Plank, Kevin Plank’s brother, who rose to EVP for Business Development but retired quietly in 2012 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Many other positions were held by friends of the founder, and, not surprisingly, it had a corrosive effect on the culture.

Make sure women are in positions of influence

Workplace studies show that harassment is more common where men outnumber women and where the supervisor ranks are mostly male. Research by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that sexual harassment at work is more likely to be reported at organizations with women in senior leadership (by 56% vs 39%). Under Armour’s only C-level female was the HR chief, and she recently left the company to accept another position. Over the past year the company also lost its female SVPs for global retail and global brand management. If those aren’t flashing red lights, I don’t know what is.

Establish a rigorous protocol for complaints

Too many corporations limit their role to refreshing the corporate sexual harassment policy or stepping up worksite sessions on the topic. They may talk the talk, but when a sensitive complaint surfaces, the impulse is to cover it up. Worse, the corporation may stigmatize the person who brought the complaint, sometimes unwittingly. To protect its reputation a corporation cannot afford to ignore systemic power imbalances, unresolved complaints, or episodic misconduct.

The heart of reputation, of course, is corporate culture. David Ballard, Assistant Executive Director of Organizational Excellence at the APA sums it up. “All the training, policies and punishments won’t have an impact on harassment if you don’t address power differentials, pay equity and gender equality in organizations,” he notes. Like most workplace problems, the #metoo affliction is easier and less painful to prevent than it is to treat. An organization that cultivates diversity, openness, and ethical behavior is in far better shape to handle unforced errors of any kind, especially today.

Nike’s Kaepernick Campaign Is Brilliant — And Risky

As many in PR and politics have observed, the president has a talent for exploiting cultural flashpoints. The NFL’s battered reputation has been attributed in part to his criticism of players who chose to take a knee during the national anthem at the start of many games.

But Mr. Trump may have met his PR match. Nike, with its own unerring instinct for the big play, has unveiled a 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign around former NFL-er and activist Colin Kaepernick. The first ads broke on Labor Day, and they are striking. They’re also risky  – mostly for Kaepernick.

As expected, the campaign’s unveiling was met with backlash from some Nike wearers who are outraged by the deal. Twitter was filled with images of cut-up socks and even flaming sneakers. More importantly, the company’s stock dropped more than 10 points in early trading Monday.

But if recent history is a guide, Nike’s brand reputation will withstand boycotts. It has had plenty of time to prepare for repercussions, and it knows its core audience. As part of the campaign, the brand will donate to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” camp, sealing its commitment to his social justice mission. As NPD’s Matt Powell tweeted, “Old angry white guys are not a core demographic for Nike.” Ouch.

Yet there are more subtle hazards here. Nike is vulnerable to charges that it’s cynically exploiting a cultural divide. After all, this is a $32 billion brand that spent 20 years cleaning up its reputation for sweatshop labor and unfair business practices. Its hands aren’t exactly clean.

The real risk may be for Kaepernick’s image. Though his fans will surely cheer his gainful employment after he was essentially boycotted by the League, Nike is an imperfect brand partner precisely because it’s so powerful. It remains fully in bed with the NFL, and its labor practices continue to dog the company. A new wave of protests against it started up again last year.

And one fascinating aspect of the story is that Nike has been paying Kaepernick all along, waiting for the most opportune moment to break the news about the campaign. That fact adds more surprise – and media value – to the narrative. It also means Kaepernick’s supporters were ignorant of the deal, which may leave them feeling duped.

Overall, however, the emotion, timing and news value of the campaign make it a winner. Most marketers can only dream about a paid campaign that generates as much earned media as the Kaepernick ads. Trust Nike to spot an opportunity and run with it. As Kaepernick attorney Mark Geragos told the New York Times, “I give Nike credit for understanding that he’s not just an athlete, he has become an icon.”

Is Tiger Woods Back?

“Winning Takes Care of Everything,” boasts the ad. Sponsored by Nike, the only brand that stuck by the disgraced golfer as he struggled to get his reputation out of the rough, it has an impertinence that’s gotten everyone talking. It’s confident, even cocky, and most importantly, buzzworthy. A winner for Nike.

Yet the tone is at odds with Woods’ carefully choreographed repentance and new, more humble lifestyle. Also, it may be a little premature (the Arnold Palmer Invitational isn’t the toughest tournament, after all!) More to the point, it violates a cardinal rule of reputation management by indirectly reminding us of his fall from grace. And many criticized the ad for seeming to trivialize or excuse his misbehavior.
But, as Nike points out, Woods set a goal to regain his game stature and through hard work, he has – at least for now – accomplished it.

So does his status mean he is, literally, out of the woods? Are his recent wins and (presumably) stable relationship with Lindsay Vonn enough to wipe out the bimbo eruptions and hostage-video-style apology of three years ago?

Probably. Woods is now the game’s number-one player again, which is a tangible and indisputable achievement, and one that at times seemed impossible. My guess is that if he wins the Masters next month, it will clinch his comeback. Because most of us, even casual fans, now really want him to win.

Life doesn’t give us many mulligans, but Woods has earned this. There are few stories more irresistible to the media – and the public – than redemption on such a grand scale. Tiger Woods is a just a shot away from climbing back from the longest, toughest, and most painful match of his life.