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.

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.