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.


As much as Americans loved the 2012 London Olympic Games, that is how much they hated NBC’s coverage of it. #NBCFail became the most popular Twitter hashtag of the Olympics for a number of reasons, but the biggest was tape-delaying coverage of almost all the events. Adding insult to injury, NBC itself played the spoiler for many viewers when it insisted on live-Tweeting results of events it would not show viewers until hours later.


People waiting for the first major gaffe from Apple after last year’s death of legendary founder and CEO Steve Jobs didn’t have to wait long. In September, Apple introduced Maps, an iPhone and iPad application that replaced Google Maps. Unlike other Apple products, Maps was stunning only in its incompetency. Denver users looking for the airport, for example, were directed to Stapleton. The fallout at Apple was significant: Apple’s head of software development was forced out and CEO Tim Cook issued a public apology that included a suggestion to use competitors’ products until Apple was able to fix all its issues.


For years, Lance Armstrong fought off accusations that he was involved in doping, even while competitors and former teammates alike acknowledged their guilt. But 2012 proved to be the year that finally caught Lance. The US Anti-Doping Agency alleged that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and stripped him of all his awards won since 1998, including all seven of his Tour de France titles. But the damage wasn’t limited to that. He was forced to resign from his Lance Armstrong Foundation, and he was dropped by sponsors including Nike, RadioShack, Trek, Anheuser-Busch and 24 Hour Fitness.


The NFL is a cash cow that generates nearly $10 billion in revenue annually, and this spring it was within a mere $3 million of reaching a new contract agreement with its union referees. But as the sides continued to have trouble bridging the divide, the owners turned to replacement referees. Unfortunately for the NFL, the big college conferences had already locked up their refs, which left the NFL scraping the bottom of the Division II and III college barrel to find “qualified” replacements. The results were predictable – terrible officiating outraged players and fans, and actually left the owners in a weaker bargaining position. After a wrong call in a Monday Night Football game stole a victory from the Green Bay Packers, the owners went back to the bargaining table and quickly struck a deal. The “real” refs were back at work the next weekend.


U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is a 20-year Marine Corp. veteran who won re-election in 2010 with 66 percent of the vote, and there was no reason to think 2012 would be any different. His military service combined with his reputation as a maverick willing to challenge the Washington establishment made him the favorite of Republicans and many moderate Democrats. But in May, he was recorded at a fundraising event questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States. Suddenly, his once-safe seat was in play. Coffman compounded the situation by giving a bizarre street interview to 9News where he simply repeated the same talking point a half-dozen times. He managed to win re-election in 2012, but only by three percentage points instead of 33. And he can expect Democrats to target his seat in 2014.


Mullen High School President Ryan Clement tried to take on a Colorado legend and he paid the price for it. In January, Clement fired wildly popular head football coach Dave Logan. The original story was that Mullen wanted coaches who were full-time teachers at the school. But when public reaction quickly turned against Mullen, Clement changed the story to Logan being fired for alleged rules violations, which only further incited the public. When the dust settled, Mullen’s reputation was in tatters. Logan eventually was cleared of any rules violations and was quickly hired to be head coach at rival Cherry Creek High School. As for Clement, he ended up quietly leaving Mullen six months after the Logan firing.

13 thoughts on “The Year in Review: 2012 Public Relations Disasters

  1. I’m not entirely sure I’d put Chick-Fil-A on this list. While I’d never counsel a client to jump into a controversial subject with such comments — and there was certainly backlash — their strong base of fans rallied to support them. It’s never been any secret that the owners of Chick-Fil-A were conservative, so they didn’t have a much support from the left to begin with. Now, conservatives who agree with their stand on this issue are increasing their patronage. The goal of any business is not to be popular in polls, but to sell product. Although I’m not certain of the validity of the reports, I have seen stories showing Chick-Fil-A sales up by more than seven percent in 2012. Most planned PR programs would love to be able to make that claim. While I don’t think this was planned, it seems the results might actually end up being positive for Chick-Fil-A’s bottom line (full disclosure: I’m on the “don’t eat there” side, but fully support the owners’ right to speak out).

    1. Chick-fil-A is a privately held company, so it will be hard to tell exactly what long-term effect it has. And you are right, Doyle, sales may be up slightly based on the coverage. But what makes them sell a little more product in their homebase of the Southeast isn’t going to help their expansion plans in the North and West, which is always the end game for franchisors.

    2. I agree with Doyle, smart PR move by Chick-Fil-A, great PR at no cost. I think Domino’s is doing sort of the same thing, taking on ObamaCare. An unpopular program, so it will get tons of support from the right, even thou it will hurt Domino’s workers (doesn’t less hours for all employees, say we’re going to have worst service?). It’s an interesting move seeing Domino’s has Peyton in paid ads. Overall Domino’s should make the smart list, even thou I won’t buy their product now.

      1. I grew up in the Southeast and have been eating at Chik-Fil-A for as long as I can remember. After college I moved to Los Angeles to start my PR career and was surprised to find a few Chick-Fil-A franchises in the city of Angels.

        They were EXTREMELY popular there (lets face it, the food is pretty good). Even after the PR mess and the CEO comments, the franchise smack dab in the middle of Hollywood was still very busy (like wrap around drive-through busy). I don’t think it was a planned PR move or a smart decision to make those comments. I would however bet my bottom dollar that many people who had never tried the food did after the debacle.

        While I don’t agree with the comments that were made, I found it a little ridiculous that the company was “penalized” publicly for the comments one of its executives made on his personal beliefs.

  2. As always, your leadership is most appreciated Jeremy! Thanks for your insight and wisdom.

    Count me as the first contributor to Mr. Story’s scotch fund for his tireless efforts to amuse, inform and unite a community of communicators. If every denverprblog reader kicks in $20, we could give Jeremy a nice stockpile to get him through 2013.

    He might even be able to escape for a weekend at the Ritz with his bride! Send dough to: 1407 Larimer, Ste. 200, Denver, 80202.

    1. Ha! Maybe we should have the First Annual Denver Public Relations Invitational at the worst dive bar we can find and everyone can save that $20 to buy themselves a few drinks.

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