The Year in Review: 2010 Public Relations Disasters

Here is the list of the year’s biggest PR disasters that I shared during an interview with 850 KOA this morning:


Last year, the Tiger Woods sex scandal was the gold standard for PR debacles. This year, that honor belongs to BP. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was enough to put them on anyone’s list, but it was the company’s response that catapulted them to the top. Doctored photos, attempts to strong-arm locals into signing liability waivers, and one gaffe after another from CEO Tony Hayward – “It wasn’t our accident … I just want my life back …” Remember, 11 people died when the rig exploded and thousands of lives were devastated in the aftermath. No one wanted to hear him complain about how unfair he felt he was being treated.

The overwhelming safety and reliability issues were bad enough, but the countless recalls and the appearance of a company trying to hide safety problems rather than fix them really shook a lot of people’s faith in Toyota. The good news for Toyota is that it has decades’ worth of goodwill built up with the American public. If it can fix the safety issues, the brand should be fine over the long run.

Being CEO of HP is like being the manager of the Yankees in the 1970s: It isn’t going to last long. And CEO Mark Hurd made it shorter than usual when in August he “resigned” after being accused of having an illicit relationship with a contractor and wrongly sharing confidential information. Now, the SEC has started an investigation into his departure, so watch for new revelations that could put HP on the list of 2011’s biggest PR debacles. Which wouldn’t be a surprise ­– they seem to make these lists every three years or so (tapping reporters’ phone lines to find leakers, bungled acquisitions, etc.).

Pinnacol Assurance
Here in Denver, workers compensation firm Pinnacol Assurance made some headlines it wished it hadn’t. In May, Pinnacol CEO Ken Ross violated one of the more basic rules of PR, which is don’t try to take a swing at a reporter on camera. Unfortunately for Ross, he was caught on camera threatening ­– and having to be restrained from attacking – 7News investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski after Kovaleski surprised him on a Pebble Beach golf course as part of a story on the company’s expensive junkets.


LeBron James
One of the axioms of PR disasters is that the truly great ones are self-inflicted, and NBA star LeBron James is a prime example. It was bad enough that LeBron ditched his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, but it was how he made his announcement that moved him to the top of the list. He created a one-hour, made-for-ESPN special called “The Decision” to tell the world where he would play. Clevelanders were angry not just that he dumped them, but that he embarrassed them while doing it, and LeBron fell from one of the 2-3 most beloved players in the NBA to one of the most reviled.

2010 Winter Olympics
The International Olympic Committee seems to commit more than its fair share of PR gaffes, whether it is allegations of vote buying or judging controversies. And the 2010 Winter Olympics lived up to that Olympic ideal. In February, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver got off to an ominous start when a Georgian luger was killed during practice. He flew off the track at nearly 90 miles per hour and struck a support beam head-on. Unfortunately, the tragedy was caught on camera and broadcast around the world. The Olympic Committee’s response was pathetic: they refused to admit the course was dangerous, and instead blamed the luger for his own death. Hardly in keeping with the Olympic spirit.


Tea Party Candidates
Nationally, Tea Party candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware tried to follow Sarah Palin’s script of ignoring the mainstream media and taking their message straight to the electorate. Unfortunately for them, that strategy works better when you are a vice presidential candidate and have Sen. John McCain’s star-power behind you. Angle snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by literally running away from media to avoid tough questions, and O’Donnell was one of the few candidates in U.S. history to officially declare herself not a witch. And both candidates watched prime opportunities for victory get away from them.

Scott McInnis and Dan Maes
Here locally, in a year that was tailor-made for Republicans to retake control of Colorado, Scott McInnis and Dan Maes combined for one of the all-time great meltdowns. The plagiarism charges against McInnis kept him from getting to the general election, and Dan Maes seemed for all the world like he was running because political donations were his family’s sole source of income. I’m pretty sure John Hickenlooper sent them both Christmas gifts this year.


Jay Leno
From a ratings perspective, Jay Leno owned late night unlike anyone since Johnny Carson, and he was brought down by a single decision he made years ago to give the Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien in 2009. NBC created a 10 p.m. show for Jay, but it was a ratings disaster, and his all-American, good guy image was destroyed when he took back the Tonight Show from Conan in February. To make matters worse for NBC, he still hasn’t reached his pre-Conan Tonight Show ratings yet.

NPR made the twin PR mistakes of changing its story and not taking the high road when it fired analyst Juan Williams in October. First, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said Williams was fired for a single comment he made about people in Muslim garb frightening him on airplanes, then she changed her story and said Williams was fired for a pattern of comments and behavior that included the airplane remark. And it didn’t help that she followed up the firing with a snarky comment about Williams needing to talk to about his issues with Muslims with his psychiatrist. Schiller quickly apologized for the comment and the manner in which Williams was fired, but the damage to Schiller and NPR was already done.

LATE-ENTRY WINNER was having a good year, and then it landed in the middle of two PR debacles: Selling a how-to guide to pedophilia and using its servers to host Wikileaks. Supporters tried to make both issues about First Amendment rights, but quickly learned that being a pawn in larger battles between rights and responsibilities is no fun. Politicians can afford to have 49 percent of the public hate them; companies generally cannot. And in both cases, Amazon ultimately ran to safer ground by dropping the pedophilia book and dumping Wikileaks as a web-hosting customer.

3 thoughts on “The Year in Review: 2010 Public Relations Disasters

  1. These are all great, but you missed the most obvious one – the Denver Broncos. Actually, a PR disaster to the degree it ends up on the pages of the New York Times about how bad the organization, in less than 2 seasons, ruined one of the most exclusive and popular brands in football. On the flip side, the greatest recovery can be laid at the feet (or arm) of Tebow. We’ll see how this plays out during the last game and when they make a coaching hire.

  2. Hiring John as VP of Football Operations really helps Bowlen from a PR perspective, though. I know that the organization is downplaying the PR implications of the hire, but it certainly must have played a role.

    Like Andrew said, the Broncos brand has been on the defensive since hiring Coach Josh, but at least Johnny Elway knows how to make a comeback!

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