2020’s Biggest PR Disasters

It has been quite a year, one that I doubt any of us will forget. We had a global pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis and record unemployment. We witnessed widespread protests against racism and racial injustice, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s. We saw the impeachment of a U.S. president, and the shocking deaths of the Black Mamba (Kobe Bryant) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

All of that certainly overshadowed the PR disasters we experienced this year. In fact, if you were going to have a PR disaster, this was the year to do it. Below are some of the most high-profile mistakes that were made this year. I hope you enjoy them. And, as usual, I excluded most political ones because there are just too many and we are so polarized that everyone views them through a partisan lens.

Jeffrey Toobin
Lawyer, author and cable-news legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin reminded everyone that there are worse things than mindlessly scrolling Twitter when you are on an interminable Zoom call (you’ll have to read the details for yourself). Unfortunately for Toobin, the New Yorker fired him immediately. Fortunately for Toobin, CNN took a much, ahem, softer approach, allowing the analyst to take a leave of absence to address a “personal issue.” 

Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo has made a lot of bad headlines the last few years, such as the $3 billion fine it paid after illegally targeting senior citizens and retirees for services they did not request and providing substandard investment advice. With that speed bump in the rear-view mirror, the company was free to look forward to new opportunities to make headlines. And it did just that in September when its CEO blamed the bank’s lack of diversity on the “very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.”

Tyson Foods
Managers at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa allegedly ordered employees to report for work while they secretly wagered money on the number of workers who would contract COVID-19. The details were shared as part of a lawsuit against Tyson, and specifically alleged that the plant manager “organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers.” 

The founder and CEO of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, resigned after making inflammatory comments online about the death of George Floyd. The comments caused high-profile CrossFit sponsor Reebok to drop its affiliation with the organization, and dozens of local CrossFit franchises quickly rebranded without the CrossFit name. 

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) regulates, not surprisingly, the oil-and-gas industry in Colorado, and part of that job requires carefully balancing the needs of the industry with the needs of the state’s communities. Building trust and credibility with all its stakeholders is critical. Alas, in November, the COGCC was forced to apologize after sending an inappropriate email ridiculing the very companies it regulates. Staff members testing a new e-filing system inadvertently sent an email to hundreds of oil and gas workers statewide that referred to fictitious companies such as “‘Snake Oil Inc.,” its law firm “Blah Blah Blah,” and its cause or case number “666.”

Girl Scouts 
The biggest PR disasters often are those that are self-inflicted, and the Girl Scouts are the latest organization to prove this point. In October, the non-political, non-partisan organization tweeted about the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, arguably the most controversial U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the past century, one week before one of the nastiest presidential elections in modern times. It was just asking – no, begging – for trouble. Unsurprisingly, it turned into the usual three-act play:

  • Act 1: Tweet something controversial about a 50-50 issue.
  • Act 2: Feel the withering backlash from 50% of the people; try to back away from the issue.
  • Act 3: Incur the wrath of the other 50% of people for trying to back away from the issue; slowly realize that you have now pissed off approximately 100% of people.

Marty Coniglio
The longtime 9News meteorologist was fired after he posted a tweet comparing federal police being deployed in cities to Nazis. Coniglio had appeared to be on the brink of retirement several times before, so the termination likely did not hit him as hard as it would have otherwise, and he has remained a defiant anti-Trump Administration voice on social media since the incident.

Denver Firefighters
For decades, nurses and firefighters have been the spokespeople of choice when you need to convey trust in your product or service. While some perceive doctors as greedy and cops as crooked, nurses and firefighters tend to have a halo of authenticity and trust that few other professions possess. The Denver Fire Department continued to test those perceptions, though. For the second straight year, firefighters were forced to apologize for crude sexual jokes and the presence of sex toys at their Annual Gala. And, this year, the consequence led to the resignation of Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade. Perhaps most disconcerting for Coloradans was that they had to hear CBS4’s Brian Maass utter the phrase “sex toy” three times in his coverage of the scandal.

If you, like me, had been waiting all year for the fast food chain Subway to have its annual PR crisis, it finally happened in October when Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the rolls sold by the fast food chain contain so much sugar that they do not legally qualify as bread. So, if you are ever at the Belfast Subway and someone orders a “ham and cheese puff pastry,” you’ll at least understand why.

Dunkin’ Donuts
It wasn’t quite as bad as finding out that the most recognizable face of your company has been arrested for pedophilia, but Dunkin’ Donuts has to be rethinking its marketing strategy after newly hired spokesman Snoop Dogg spent part of February threatening CBS news anchor Gayle King and calling for the release of convicted sex offender Bill Cosby.

Iowa Democrats
For nearly five decades, Iowa has had the honor of holding the first presidential nominating contests (caucuses, in Iowa’s case). The state’s influence cannot be overstated – how candidates perform there can jump-start or end campaigns. In February, however, it effectively played no role in the process for the Democrat party thanks to a new and apparently untested vote reporting app. Officials results were delayed for weeks, and voters in New Hampshire had already voted before Iowa provided its final results (in the end Pete Buttigieg edged out Bernie Sanders). The political website Axios called it “a software train wreck for the ages.”

The surprisingly good Denver Nuggets caused headaches for a number of NBA teams this year, but gave some sports announcers even more trouble. In August, Charlotte Hornets radio announcer John Focke tweeted about the Nuggets game against the Utah Jazz, and instead of “Nuggets,” he tweeted the N-word. Focke swore up and down that autocorrect was to blame, but he was quickly fired. One month later, the same issue happened to local sports radio host Darren “D-Mac” McKee, who also claimed autocorrect was to blame. McKee’s job was saved thanks several colleagues of color, including Alfred Williams and Chad Brown, who quickly and loudly came to his defense.

ABC News Correspondent Will Reeve
In April, ABC News Correspondent Will Reeve went full Winnie the Pooh (shirt, no pants) on his segment from home on “Good Morning America” when he failed to appreciate just how wide his Zoom camera angle was.

Elected Officials Violating Their Own Public Health Advice
Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock joined California Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo as the faces of elected officials who violated their own COVID-19 advice to avoid public gatherings and not travel for Thanksgiving. Not to be outdone, Austin Mayor Steve Adler recorded a Thanksgiving Facebook video message – from Cabo San Lucas – urging his constituents to heed the advice of health experts to remain home.

Houston Astros Owner Jim Crane
Following confirmation that the team had cheated on its way to winning the World Series, the owner of the Houston Astros gave a press conference that will be used for years as a media training tool for what not to do. 

2 thoughts on “2020’s Biggest PR Disasters

  1. At least a few of these are not the disasters purported. Notably the Girl Scouts. They could have stood up to the “culture of contempt” that came down on them, and helped turn the tide in a “my way or the highway” America. That’s their disaster, caving in when standing up meant so much.

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