9/28/14 • Five Epic Public Relations Blunders – And What They Taught Us

As posted in The Gaston Gazette:

(9/28/14) BELMONT, N.C. –  The old adage “any publicity is good publicity” is often trotted out when a business faces bad PR. In reality, however, the effects of bad publicity can be devastating. If your business is associated with a crime, an ethical violation, or just simply bad judgment, the repercussions can take a long time to dissipate.

So what should a business do when faced with bad publicity – and how can you prevent it in the first place?

If we take a look at a few recent public relations blunders, we can learn quite a bit from their mistakes:

  • Urban Outfitters’ bloodstained Kent State sweatshirt. In mid-September, Buzzfeed reported that clothing retailer Urban Outfitters was selling a Kent State sweatshirt that appeared to be bloodstained. The story went viral and the public raged at the thought of a company attempting to make a profit on the May 1970 Kent State massacre. To their credit, Urban Outfitters quickly pulled the item and issued an apology, but the apology was problematic. The company said they never intended the item to represent the massacre, and they blamed the incident on a perception problem. “We deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively,” they said in a statement released on Twitter. This did little to assuage angry customers, many of whom vowed never to purchase from the company again. The lesson: Own up to mistakes as simply and honestly as possible, and don’t blame your customers’ “perception” of an event, no matter your intentions.
  • Donald Sterling’s racist comments. In April, celebrity gossip site TMZ released audio of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend he didn’t want her to associate with African Americans. The repercussions of his rant were swift as celebrities and public officials, including President Obama, lambasted him publicly. It also came to light that Sterling had attempted to whitewash his behavior by donating to charities that support minority rights such as the NAACP. In subsequent recordings released by RadarOnline, Sterling said he was wrong, but he “never thought a private conversation would go anywhere out to the public.” He also told Anderson Cooper that he wasn’t a racist and that he had made a “terrible mistake” and wanted to apologize. His words didn’t save him. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned him from the NBA for life, fined him $2.5 million and he was forced to sell the team. Although apologies are important, the more important lesson lies in not holding opinions that alienate or denigrate any member of the public.
  • Freedom Industries’ response to the Elk River chemical spill. In January, residents of Charleston, W. Va. noticed a sweet licorice smell to their tap water. The smell turned out to be 4-Methycyclohexanemethanol; 7,500 gallons of the chemical, used in coal processing, had spilled into the Elk River from a Freedom Industries facility. Although the spill happened on a Thursday morning, Freedom Industries didn’t respond to media, other than issuing a brief press release, until a Friday night press conference. According to the Charleston Gazette, the press conference lasted only 10 minutes, and the company’s president, Gary Southern, said the incident was “extremely unfortunate” and the company was “very, very sorry,” but also that it had been a long day and he wanted to “wrap this thing up.” The ramifications of this incident were powerful: The company was forced to declare bankruptcy and assist in government cleanup, and the lasting health effects on residents are unclear. But the PR lessons here are obvious: If your company is responsible for something that endangers the environment and the public, do not delay your response and do not allow your spokesperson to put his or her personal needs above the public good. Also take action immediately to do what’s right and correct the problem.
  • HealthCare.gov’s problematic rollout. On October 1, 2013, the federal government’s insurance exchange website went live, and it immediately had problems. Reports flooded in of incomplete forms, error messages and more. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, only about 1 percent of applicants were able to use the site. On October 20, President Obama held a press conference and said there was “no excuse” for the problems and that a “tech surge” had been implemented. The government hired a contractor to assist with fixes, which were in place by late November, but the damage had already been done. The White House’s slow response to citizen frustration was a black eye for the administration, and detractors of the Affordable Care Act said the technological problems with the website were symptomatic of problems with the law as a whole. Lesson? When you roll out a new initiative, especially one that’s controversial, make sure that all pieces of its implementation are operating like clockwork. And if there’s a problem, fix it immediately.
  • Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique and Bistro meltdown. In May 2013, Chef Gordon Ramsey of the popular series Kitchen Nightmares did something he’d never done before – he quit his own show. The reason for his resignation? Arizona-based Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique and Bistro. According to the restaurant industry website Eater, Ramsey, whose show at that point had successfully mentored 82 restaurants, said he couldn’t work with Amy’s because its owners were “incapable of listening.” The episode supported Ramsey’s claims: It showed owners Amy and Samy Bouzaglo screaming at Ramsey’s critique and ignoring his suggestions. Not long afterward, the restaurant’s Facebook page was flooded with negative user comments. Posts to the page quickly got out of hand when someone posting from the restaurant account called users stupid, then resorted to a series of epithets, all posted in caps. Later, the couple claimed that their account had been hacked and that they were not responsible. But it was too late to salvage their reputation – many potential customers saw the episode and felt their comments were consistent with what they saw. To make matters worse, the couple returned to the show in April 2014 and went on an invective-laced tirade against Ramsey again. Bottom line: Don’t ever yell and scream when someone offers you a critique, don’t use your business’ social media page as a place to vent, and learn from your mistakes rather than repeating them.

Although they are embarrassing and even painful to rehash, an autopsy of public relations disasters like these is valuable. What you can learn is that when it comes to handling a crisis, a good rule of thumb is to confess and repent. It’s never in your best interest to deny, defend and blame. It only fuels the story.

Elaine and Melia Lyerly share their 35+ years of marketing, advertising, public relations and brand strategy experience with readers each month in a column published by The Gaston Gazette. See this month’s edition at http://bit.ly/11lyH8N.