As 2017 comes to a close, I take time to reflect on the year’s biggest PR disasters:
UNITED AIRLINES … The only good news for United Airlines is that its string of PR disasters occurred early in the year when they could be overshadowed by newer debacles over time. But what a year it was. The airline took the worst hit when it literally dragged a passenger off an overbooked plane, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth in the process. While that incident took the lion’s share of the headlines, the airline also managed to make additional waves when it banned two girls from flying because they were wearing leggings and forced a mom to hold a toddler in her lap for a full flight because it gave away the toddler’s paid-for seat to a standby passenger. United apologized for all the incidents, but the airline’s brand was harmed and its stock price remains down nearly 17 percent since the first incident.
UBER … When the hashtag #DeleteUber becomes your company’s most impactful marketing campaign, you know what kind of year it has been. You can pick which issue was the worst: privacy and tracking concerns, erratic behavior from its CEO, a plot to evade regulators through a complex program named “Project Grayball,” allegations of systemic sexual assault, being banned in the London – the choices go on and on. Former CEO and still-current board member Travis Kalanick added to the miserable year by feuding with his fellow board members, threatening a potentially lucrative IPO.
EQUIFAX … There are only about 320 million Americans, so it takes a special kind of incompetence to let hackers steal the personal data (names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and driver’s license numbers) of more than 145 million of them. But the good folks at Equifax rose to the challenge. Particularly frustrating is that there is little to nothing that average consumers can do to punish the company. Fortunately, Equifax’s corporate clients have also grown leery of the company. And to date, it has spent nearly $90 million in legal fees and other expenses to respond to the incident.
RED CROSS … NPR and ProPublica have been a thorn in the side of the American Red Cross since the media outlets examined the nonprofit’s spending following Superstorm Sandy in 2014. They found, for example, that seven months after the storm, the Red Cross still had not spent $100 million of the $300 million it had raised. Unfortunately for the Red Cross, NPR revisited the questions about the Red Cross’ efficacy just as Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the Red Cross was frantically trying to raise money for relief efforts. The Red Cross promised more transparency, but a generation of Millennials who like to invest locally have been finding smaller nonprofits on the ground in affected areas to support. The long-term implications of this PR disaster for the Red Cross have to be scary.
FACEBOOK … Advertisers love Facebook because it allows them to customize ad campaigns to target people with very specific tastes. Football fans, country music lovers, frequent vacationers … and “Jew haters?” An investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform allowed individuals and organizations “to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally.” After ProPublica contacted Facebook, it removed anti-Semitic categories such as “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Facebook said the categories were created by an algorithm, not employees, and “said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.”
PAPA JOHN’S PIZZA … Unforced errors and unintended consequences are the bane of PR professionals, and Papa John’s demonstrated this in a remarkably efficient way this month. The pizza chain is a huge NFL sponsor, and it attempted to link its declining pizza sales to NFL players’ national anthem protests and said it might cease its NFL sponsorship if the protests continued. That stand earned it the support of neo-Nazi newspaper The Daily Stormer, and Papa John’s was actually forced to try to blunt the PR disaster by issuing a statement asking neo-Nazis not to buy its pizza.
TERRY FREI … Denver Post sports reporter Terry Frei was fired in May when he tweeted: “Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.” Many found the tweet racist, while others argued that it was merely nationalistic. Either way, the PR disaster meant Frei was out of a job within hours.
THE OSCARS AND PwC … If you are like me, you went to bed on the night of Feb. 26 thinking that La La Land had won the Oscar for Best Picture. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned Moonlight had actually won. So what went wrong? In short, star-struck auditors at PwC. The duo assigned to the Oscars was more focused on celebrity selfies than their jobs, and they blew it by giving the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. In an instant, an all-time Oscars moment was created and an 80-year relationship between PwC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was frayed.
MEN … Between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, it has been a year when many powerful men have been outed as lecherous sleazebags. In June, The New York Times wrote a definitive piece on sexual harassment by employees at Silicon Valley venture capital firms, and it seemed like we had hit a tipping point. Women throughout the technology industry quickly shared their stories of harassment, and some of the worst offenders found themselves fired. Not to be outdone, the entertainment industry showed that when it comes to harassment, Silicon Valley is a bunch of amateurs. From Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. to Kevin Spacey, the #MeToo campaign helped Hollywood prove it really can be the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
KATHY GRIFFIN … Infamous for her place on Hollywood’s D List, comedian Kathy Griffin has always pushed the boundaries of good taste. But in May, she accomplished what few others have been able to do – she made Donald Trump a sympathetic figure. Her photo shoot that featured a bloody, severed Donald Trump head was evocative of ISIS beheadings and immediately made her a pariah among both the political left and right. When she sensed the magnitude of the backlash, she quickly apologized, but it was too late. She lost her annual CNN New Year’s Eve gig with Anderson Cooper, and her planned comedy tour was canceled.
PEPSI … In April, sugar-water purveyor Pepsi pulled a controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner that seemed to exploit national race protests in Missouri and other states. The ad showed Jenner bridging the divide between protesters and police by offering them Pepsi, which resulted in one NBC analyst commenting, “If the Black Lives Matter movement were led by a 21-year-old white supermodel armed with a can of fizzy soda, then maybe everyone would just get along.” Pepsi has perfected the art of “just spell our name right” over the years, so whether this counts as a PR disaster is in the eye of the beholder. The reality is Pepsi underscored its anti-establishment credentials while getting massive amounts of free media.
USA GYMNASTICS … Every four years, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team wows America with its gold-medal-winning Olympic performances. What goes on between Olympics, however, is far more sinister. Team doctor Larry Nassar was accused by 125 female athletes who said he abused them them during medical appointments. While nearly none of the original accusers was a household name, superstar Olympian Aly Raisman announced earlier this month that she was also a victim. The governing body named a new CEO this month, as it tries to reform a culture that was focused more on medals than the safety of its athletes.
NIKON … Nikon is known the world over for its professional camera equipment, and in 2017, the company launched its latest innovation – the $3,200 D850 DSLR. To create awareness of the launch, the company hand picked 32 photographers to get an advance look at the camera and share their experiences on the company’s website. Despite picking photographers from Asia to Africa, all the photographers had one thing in common: they were men. As The New York Times reported, “It was a baffling oversight to many female photographers, who have no shortage of challenges finding opportunities in a notoriously male-dominated industry.”
CHEERIOS … It’s no secret that there is an issue with the world’s bee population. Their numbers are declining, and scientists aren’t exactly sure why. As a breakfast cereal with a cute bee mascot, Cheerios seems like a logical product to help bring attention to this issue, and it did just that by distributing 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to help with bee habitat restoration. Unfortunately, the promotion quickly caused controversy when it was learned that “the packets Cheerios sent out included seeds for plants deemed invasive in some states and outright banned in others.” Cheerios pushed back on the accusations, but the damage was already done.
SUBWAY … Subway has been on my annual lists of biggest PR disasters for so many years it should win a lifetime achievement award. In years past, the disasters have been much worse (think convicted pedophile/spokesperson Jared Fogle), but this year the ubiquitous sandwich chain made the list for a research study that found that the “chicken” it serves was only 50 percent chicken. Panicked Subwayophiles were relieved to learn that the other 50 percent was soy rather than something more sinister, but the sensational headlines were everywhere. In the end, it may not hurt Subway as much as it could. The decision-making hierarchy for eating at Subway starts with price, moves to taste and eventually lands at quality. Hybrid soy-chicken is still cheap and salty.
NIVEA … Every year, a company wins the award for “Needs a more diverse set of employees.” This year, that company was Nivea. In February, the cosmetics company launched a “White is Purity” ad campaign that targeted consumers in Middle East countries. The campaign quickly went viral, and earned it the support of a white supremacist group that posted on Nivea’s Facebook page: “We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.”
ADIDAS … Context is king in public relations, and Adidas blew it this year. The Boston Marathon has become an almost-sacred event in the wake of the terrorist bombings that killed three and injured hundreds of others in 2013. This year, Adidas launched an email promotional campaign to marathon participants congratulating them for “surviving the Boston Marathon!” The company quickly apologized and is unlikely to suffer any long-term damage. But, it was an extraordinary gaffe from a global company that doesn’t often blunder.