The year 2020 was the year of amazing PR blunders. Ironically, if you take the six worst examples of last year, PR practitioners agree that they were self-inflicted. When will we learn? Once again, history is repeatable – executives failed to apply the most basic principles of crisis and reputation management.
My list has six mind boggling“fails.”
- The Biggest Blunder Trophy goes to President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus epidemic. His statements congratulating himself for keeping the death rate from the coronavirus at only more than 200,000 (as of Election Day) may be the most uncaring remarks by a president ever. Trump kept the seriousness of the coronavirus from the public for many weeks. Then he exacerbated the problem by ignoring a basic rule of how to respond to a PR crisis: Don’t think you can talk your way out of a PR crisis. Get the bad news out ASAP and then give detailed plans how you are going to correct the situation. In addition, much like Nero who allegedly played the fiddle while Rome burned, Trump was photographed playing golf while people died from Covid-19.
- AstraZeneca gets the second prize. When the company and the University of Oxford released preliminary results on their Covid-19 vaccine, they failed to mention an error that caused some trial participants to receive half doses. This actually turned out to be more effective. The proverbial icing on the cake is that the most promising results excluded data from older people. Secretive and untrustworthy are the words being used to describe the company. Why would anyone have faith in any vaccine they release in the future? And, how can it be that the company wasn’t better advised on this announcement?
- Sherwin-Williams made an enormous misstep when the company decided to fire a top social media influencer. In July, the company fired TikTok influencer Tony Piloseno, a college student with 1.2 million followers on his paint mixing channel. Sherwin-Williams accused him of stealing paint when in actuality he was buying it using his employee discount. Popular thought is that the company freaked out because an employee was using its products in ways it could not control. Shortsighted thinking because the TikTok channel was generating a huge amount of free, positive publicity for the brand. Executives need to learn the new rules and let go of attempting to tightly script their messages. Sherwin-Williams’s competitors who were smarter jumped at the chance to make lucrative job offers to Piloseno.
- EBay apparently harassed newsletter publishers, by sending porn to neighbors and live roaches to their homes. Although this happened in 2019, the details only came to light in an indictment last June and was followed by predictably bad publicity. Six former staffers were charged with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and witness tampering. They are alleged to have harassed critics by, among other tactics, posting ads inviting strangers to their home for sex. Even worse, EBay’s former chief communications officer, Steven Wymer, reportedly told a former top security officer at the company that he wanted one of the newsletter publishers “DONE,” indicating “I want to see ashes.” How can leaders delude themselves into thinking disturbing acts of aggression won’t come to light? There is no way to hide. Is it too obvious to simply not to do this? The reputational (and legal) damage can be devastating.
- Tropicana ran an ad suggesting parents stressed out by the pandemic secretly make mimosas: Not only was it in very poor taste to propose that the answer to peoples' problems is surreptitiously consuming alcohol. This one from the division of PepsiCo and was especially ill-timed given that problem drinking did rise during the pandemic, especially among women. Keepers of brands must realize they will suffer backlash if they try to make light of problems that have people feeling overwhelmed. MullenLowe PR and Cramer-Krasselt should be ashamed that they even pitched this idea. Empathy is a word that needs to be at the idea table.
- And, right in our own PR community, Edelman — the world’s largest PR firm — cut jobs less than three months after its chief executive promised no Covid-related layoffs: In highly unpredictable circumstances, companies shouldn’t make promises like this. Chief executive Richard Edelman was no doubt well-intentioned when he made the no-layoff pledge at the start of the pandemic. But reneging on the promise didn’t only hurt staffers who may have made life decisions about mortgages, spouses’ jobs and more with his commitment in mind. It also caused unnecessary reputational fallout for the Chicago-based agency. Why would anyone listen to the counsel of a PR firm whose CEO can’t be taken at his word?
Folks, this is not hard. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.