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PR “Horror Stories” And Lessons Learned

PR.horrorstoriesIt’s nearly Halloween, which means it’s time for our annual look at a top New York PR agency’s tales of terror and mysterious mishaps, with a retro nod to everyone’s favorite girl sleuth, Nancy Drew. Anyone who works in public relations will tell you that things can go dramatically and frightfully wrong, despite meticulous planning.

PR pros will remember when Michael Bay, the action film director, walked off the stage at CES over a teleprompter snafu at the start of a glitzy TV launch event. The mega-star meltdown seemed like a disaster, although the extra coverage could have been a bonus for the brand.

Read on for some nightmarish war stories that may make your head spin but in some cases actually offer a positive takeaway.

The riddle of the disappearing ink. A former colleague hand-addressed invitations to a press event in fancy gold ink on black envelopes. By the time they had been mailed, the ink rubbed off of every single invitation! Thankfully, she had included company return addresses so she was able to re-address and distribute, but with only three days to spare. Maybe the lesson is to test out a new concept and build in extra time, just in case.

The “snickering” spokesperson. He didn’t walk off the set like Michael Bay, but maybe he should have. A colleague handled PR for a major candy brand that retained a teenage heartthrob to promote its involvement in youth sports. Imagine her horror when, in a taped appearance on an MTV game show, the pop idol made a veiled reference to his, um, personal anatomy. The quick-thinking PR pro knew the client would be horrified at the innuendo, so she begged the producer to cut it. The network eventually agreed to heighten the audience laughter to muffle it and quickly cut to applause. The segment was strategically placed at the end of a very long sizzle video, and the PR pro never heard a word about it from the client. She’s still wondering if they noticed.

The case of the callous cancellation. After having been (unjustly) fired by a Midwest client in a small town, the PR team at a top ten agency was granted an audience with the CEO for a last-ditch attempt to salvage the business. The intrepid team got as far as Detroit, where they boarded a connecting flight, only to be grounded by a snowstorm. After hours on an immobile plane, they arranged to drive the five-hour trip overnight. Showerless and sleep-deprived, they arrived just in time for the morning meeting, only to be told that it was canceled and the agency’s contract terminated. There’s no lesson here, just the bitter life of the PR agency warrior.

The haunted press briefing. In the midst of our media roundtable to share a client’s new product strategy, a mysterious groaning could be heard somewhere above the private restaurant room that had been prepared for the occasion. As the CEO began his powerpoint overview, the groaning turned to rumbling and plaster began to fall from the ceiling! The building was hastily evacuated. It turned out to be a crumbling ceiling and faulty roof made weaker by recent rains. Media guests laughed it off, and fortunately, no one was hurt. It was forever after known as the press event that brought the house down.

The mystery of the medical authority.  A dentist client claimed to have developed a diagnostic tool for detecting oral cancers. The doctor was a highly credentialed professional and spoke in articulate detail about the device and its benefits. Based on this knowledge, we reached out to health and medical media, who “bit” on the story. But, alas when it came time to produce those patients he mentioned…the dentist clammed up, and we were forced to cancel and apologize to press. The obvious lesson here? Demand as much data and supportive materials as you can, don’t let a good “salesman” sell you, even if he’s a client.

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