The Year in Review: 2012 Public Relations Disasters

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


Penn State represents one of the greatest PR disasters of all time, certainly of the last decade. In fact, it has been such a debacle that the university managed to make the list both last year and this year. Last year, the university went from one of the nation’s most revered institutions to one of the most reviled in a matter of weeks due to its lack of a response to a horrible child sex abuse scandal that saw two administrators indicted, a former assistant coach arrested and football coaching legend Joe Paterno fired. This year, additional details emerged about an institutional culture that valued football success over protecting innocent children that were disturbing enough that the NCAA nearly gave the school’s football program the so-called “Death Penalty.” The result was another year of brutal headlines that will have almost everyone older than 10 associating Penn State with child rape for the rest of their lives.


There are few things tougher for a brand than allowing yourself to become a political football. But one of them is when you are the one to turn yourself into the political football. Susan G. Komen for the Cure learned that lesson the hard way when it tried to eliminate $680,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and education programs. Suddenly, Komen was at the heart of the abortion culture wars, and it saw its reputation and support reflect that. Four days after announcing the grant cuts, the Komen board reversed the decision, but the damage was already done. Donor support dropped significantly, and ultimately several high-level executives resigned, including Komen’s CEO.


How important is marketing? For more than a decade, the meat processing industry served Americans “lean finely textured beef,” the industry term for meat recovered from beef trimmings using a process that involves a centrifuge and ammonia gas to kill bacteria. But when critics, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, embraced the alternative term “pink slime,” it drew national media attention and outraged consumers. Restaurants and grocery stores refused to offer the product, and it took just a few more months before layoffs and bankruptcies left the industry in tatters.


Chick-fil-A is a Southern-based company with a reputation for supporting conservative causes. But as franchisees spread north and west, the company tried to downplay its political leanings. That all changed when the chain’s president and COO (who is also the son of Chick-fil-A’s founder) went on a conservative radio show and railed against gay marriage. Chick-fil-A quickly tried to back-track, but the damage was done. Activists targeted the company, and politicians in major markets like Chicago and Boston threatened to try to block new franchises in their cities. And polling done after the dust settled showed that nearly 40 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the company and 15 percent said they were boycotting the chain.

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