Who had the worst PR of 2019? Yes, it’s that time of year when we evaluate the mistakes, stumbles and train wrecks of public reputation over the past 12 months. There’s lots to choose from, including fresh blunders by the usual suspects like Uber and Facebook. But for this post we’re focusing on truly terrible reputation reversals compounded by poor handling. Below is my list for the year’s worst.
“If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going,” was how one pilot summed up the company’s onetime reputation among his peers. Of course, that was before 2019, when we learned that design flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max contributed to two fatal air crashes. What’s more, the company’s handling of the tragedies also crashed its credibility. A government task force faulted Boeing for failing to adequately educate pilots on its automated safety system known as MCAS. Later reports revealed that Boeing rejected a safety system that might have mitigated the problems for cost reasons.
The airliner’s issues would have been a serious business problem for Boeing in any case, but its communications with regulators, stakeholders and the public worsened the impact. Rather than grounding the jet until the accidents were investigated, Boeing insisted the Max was safe. Its CEO reportedly lobbied the president to keep it flying, which was a particularly bad look given the $1 million the company donated to the inauguration. As more information came out, it seemed clear that Boeing had simply put profits ahead of safety.
Boeing also seemed to de-prioritize the flying public in its response. This happens with B2B companies whose customers and stakeholders are other businesses and governmental organizations, not consumers. But there’s no excuse. This week Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg was pushed out, the Max is still grounded, and so is Boeing’s reputation.
Led by the dramatic meltdown of WeWork just weeks before a planned IPO, 2019 was a real year of reckoning for so-called technology unicorns. This year’s unicorns lost $100 billion in value. The WeWork disaster is particularly instructive for communicators because its crisis was in some ways a matter of PR succeeding too well. In other words, WeWork was a victim of its own hype. The company was built out as a high-growth technology startup but it was really just a dressed-up real estate business. Its CEO basked in his role as media darling and would-be visionary even as the company burned through cash and its liabilities soared. When it tried to divert attention with a shallow rebranding strategy and a prospectus filled with fuzzy, culty language, investors laughed, then punished the company harshly.
WeWork wasn’t the only unicorn to be smacked down in 2019. Even post-IPO companies like Uber and Lyft saw significant drops in their market cap. Maybe unicorns are named after a mythical creature for good reason.
In 2019 the hits kept coming for consulting powerhouse McKinsey. It has had PR troubles in the past, but things started up again as The New York Times launched a series of investigative articles on the storied consulting company.
A deeply reported piece by ProPublica (in partnership with the Times) recounted McKinsey’s role helping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deport migrants and manage the care of those in custody. Proposed spending cuts for food, medical care and supervision reportedly caused even career ICE workers to be “uncomfortable.” McKinsey quickly issued a detailed rebuttal, shrewdly paying to have it appear in the top position for keyword searches for “McKinsey ICE.” Yet the rebuttal was swiftly challenged by ProPublica, which produced evidence from McKinsey powerpoint presentations that was presumably obtained from employees. McKinsey looked defensive or even misleading in characterizing its relationship with ICE.
Then came reports of the firm’s role advising Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin. Court records from lawsuits against Purdue implicate McKinsey in Purdue’s efforts to boost OxyContin sales even after its abuse was widely known, including an exchange on “how to counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed.” The story doesn’t suggest criminal conduct by McKinsey, but it’s a horribly distasteful account.
On top of everything, the Justice Department is investigating the firm for violation of bankruptcy laws. Taken together, the stories give the impression McKinsey is greedy and callous, if not dishonest, and its public response has been uneven.
Embarrassing though they were, reports of McKinsey’s helping boost OxyContin sales are nothing compared to the PR fallout experienced by manufacturer Purdue Pharma and the family who owns it. After years of legal wranging, Purdue filed for bankruptcy protection and settled lawsuits with 23 states. Yet more than 20 states have declined to settle, and the injured parties are pressing for a larger piece of the profits from the billionaire Sackler family.
For the Sacklers, 2019 brought new revelations after a judge ultimately ordered the release of previously redacted records. Even as the company publicly denied its opioids were addictive, its officers acknowledged the issues internally and at one point even designed a plan to profit off addiction treatment. And as lawsuits piled up, the Sacklers took billions from the company in order to shelter their assets. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called it “the very definition of ill-gotten gains.”
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong was even harsher. “Purdue and the Sacklers had a real opportunity to begin to make restitution to victims and their families and people across Connecticut and this country, and to begin to make it right. Instead, they again chose to prioritize themselves and protecting their wealth instead of meeting their responsibility to provide treatment and prevention. Purdue and the Sacklers could have helped put out the fire that they started and that has engulfed the nation. Instead, they choose to watch it burn.”
Several family members are known as international art patrons and generous enough museum donors to have an entire wing of the Met named after then. Until recently, that is. As damning information continued to emerge, the Sackler name was stripped off buildings at the Louvre and Tufts University and protesters targeted family members. The Sacklers have not changed their offer of a $3 billion settlement, but additional lawsuits await.
It was a royal disaster. At best, the interview was startingly tone-deaf. Duncan Larcombe, former Royal Editor at The Sun, called it a not just a car crash, but a “ten-car pileup.” Charlie Proctor, editor of the Royal Central website said, “I expected a train wreck. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.” (You have to love the British flair for language.)
PR associates the world over were wondering why Prince Andrew agreed to a lengthy sit-down interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis. The reasons are pretty clear, actually; rumors involving the Prince’s association with notorious predator Jeffrey Epstein and allegations of sexual abuse had been growing over the course of the year. The Queen herself approved the interview. But it was Andrew’s demeanor and his insensitive comments that were so damning.
Though he called it a “wrong decision,” the duke didn’t express any real regret for his long association with Epstein, even after Epstein’s conviction as a sex offender. When asked why he was a guest at Epstein’s Upper East Side brownstone in 2010, the duke responded, “it was convenient.” Critics labeled it “aloof, out-of-touch, and self-important.” The backlash was so severe that Prince Andrew was asked to move out of Buckingham Palace and relieved of his royal duties. The best thing he can do now is to lower his profile.
No one died, but for sheer, irresistible outrage, not many 2019 stories beat the college admissions scandal. It achieved saturation coverage because there was something for everyone — celebrities, college sports, a social media influencer, and wealthy helicopter parents willing to bribe and cheat for their already privileged kids. The scandal was so diffuse that it’s hard to pick any winners, but some of those indicted handled things better than others. The institutions involved, including USC and Stanford, weren’t named in the criminal indictments and there’s no evidence that they knew what was going on. Virtually all are conducting internal investigations.
The chief targets of public anger were the celebrities, particularly Lori Loughlin, her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, and their daughter Olivia Jade, a budding Instagram and YouTube star. In my view Loughlin would have been far better off following the path of her fellow perp Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty, served a minimal sentence, and can now begin to rebuild her reputation. But in any event, the admissions bribery story had the kind of memorable detail that just confirms what many suspect about the system – that it’s rigged in favor of the rich and famous, or at least the rich and corrupt. There were photoshopped sports photos, faked SATs, and bribed proctors. Olivia Jade’s posts about not wanting to attend classes just rubbed it in for ordinary parents and kids who work like crazy to win acceptance at a decent college.
Honorable mention goes to Peloton for a defensive response to its much-criticized ad; luggage company Away, Nike (for clumsy handling of its maternity policy for female athletes), and Juul, who targeted teens in its marketing even while insisting otherwise.
Next up: The PR Winners of the Year.