Bill Hartzer

Top 10 Public Relations Blunders for 2012

I always look forward to the end of the year. Not only is it a great time to look back at all of the good things that happened during the past year, but it’s also a great time to look at your mistakes, and the mistakes that other companies in your industry have made: so I don’t make the same mistakes. Every year Fineman PR puts out their list of the top public relations blunders. I’ve posted this for the past few years. So, here is this year’s list, the top ten public relations blunders of 2012.

1. Pink Ribbon Pink Slip

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced its decision to end its longtime partnership with Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading breast cancer charity was widely criticized, particularly via social media, with many alleging that funding was cut due to pressure from anti-abortion groups and anti-abortion sentiment in the Komen executive ranks. Meghan Casserly of Forbes reported on social media backlash from iconic women, such as author Judy Blume and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, the latter who tweeted that “Komen’s decision hurts women – it puts politics before women’s health.” Faced with massive public outcry, the foundation apologized and reversed its decision within 72 hours of the initial announcement, but the damage to its image was already done. The New York Times cited a Harris Interactive study showing that Komen’s “brand health” score fell 21 percent from the year before.

2. “Mice No Match for Mountain Dew,” – ABC News

Mountain Dew maker PepsiCo mis-stepped in its defense against Illinois consumer Ronald Ball’s 2009 lawsuit over an alleged dead mouse in a can of its popular beverage. Hoping to refute Ball’s allegations, the company insisted the soda would have reduced the mouse corpse to a “jelly-like substance” regardless, as reported in numerous national media, including the Huffington Post and Scientific American.

While experts cited studies indicating that Mountain Dew’s unique formulation, including high levels of citric acid and controversial brominated vegetable oil, probably could jellify a mouse, the company’s inexplicably off-putting statement was a far cry from enticing consumers to “do the Dew.” Eric Randall of The Atlantic Wire skewered PepsiCo, describing the company’s unusual defense as “a winning-the-battle-while-surrendering-the-war kind of strategy that hinges on the argument that Pepsi’s product is essentially a can of bright green/yellow battery acid.”

3. Unhelpful, Unfriendly, Discourteous and Unkind
With 2012 marking its 100th anniversary, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) should have enjoyed a banner year. Instead, the organization self-righteously battled against the inclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders with widely covered incidents of organizational bigotry as reported by numerous media, including ABC News, NBC News, NPR, CNN and the Associated Press. The other shoe dropped, though, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the court-mandated release of BSA files detailing decades of sexual abuse incidents that were documented internally but never reported to police or properly investigated. The confluence of these issues was too much to bear for many Americans: parents pulled their boys out of scouting, corporations such as United Parcel Service withheld donations and adult Eagle Scouts returned their badges. The editorial staff of The New York Times noted that “for an organization that extols trustworthiness, these files lay bare an appalling dissonance. The Boy Scouts battled to the Supreme Court to protect their right to purge gay and lesbian leaders and to exclude gay boys, insisting that openly gay people were bad role models. It bent to bigotry while hiding sexual predators.”

4. That’s Progressive?
Matt Fisher’s sister was insured by Progressive Insurance before she lost her life in a 2010 traffic accident, so when Fisher appeared in court during the trial of the under-insured driver at fault, he didn’t expect to see a Progressive lawyer assisting the defense in an attempt to undermine his family’s claim on his sister’s policy. Outraged, Fisher publicized the incident on his Tumblr page in a post entitled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Court,” in which he claimed that “carrying Progressive insurance and getting into an accident does not entitle you to the value of your insurance policy. It just pisses off Progressive’s lawyers.” The company said that it did not represent the defendant in the case, but court documentation showed that the company was granted permission to participate on the side of the defense. According to CNNMoney, Progressive “didn’t handle the social media replies well,” sending out “stiff-sounding statements,” including a clipped, repetitive tweet, instead of apologizing to the family. While Progressive did eventually reach a settlement with the Fishers, the damage to its image was done: according to The Wall Street Journal, more than 1,000 Twitter users claimed that the incident caused them to drop the insurer.

5. “’47 percent’ speech is 100 percent offensive” – Philadelphia Daily News

When 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney starred in a secretly taped video taken at a May fundraiser, in which Romney said that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes and think of themselves as “victims” – and that he couldn’t care about them – Romney was savaged by both the media and his political opposition. Kasie Hunt of the Associated Press wrote that Romney’s statement “provided fodder to those who portray him as an out-of-touch millionaire oblivious to the lives of average Americans.” For weeks thereafter, Romney repeatedly defended his view, telling reporters that it was “not elegantly stated.” Not only was Romney’s statement inelegant, but fact-checking by CBS News and other media indicated that it was patently incorrect and misleading. Romney later admitted that he was completely wrong, but to many that admission seemed disingenuous. Editorial staff at The Week noted that “the fact that Romney made his ‘47 percent’ remarks at a private fundraiser, unaware that he was being filmed surreptitiously, only bolstered the impression that these were his real views.” Jon Gelberg of PR News summed up Romney’s blunder, writing that “in our age of smartphones, all notions of private or off-the-record conversations should be tossed out the window.”

6. “Hurricane Sandy Sale” a “major marketing fail” – Alaska Dispatch

Social media sites erupted in outrage when both American Apparel and Gap urged consumers in states affected by Superstorm Sandy to shop online during the disaster, and Adweek blasted the companies for “forgetting that death and loss make a poor springboard for promotional messaging.”

Gap quickly apologized while American Apparel stood behind its misguided marketing, with remorseless CEO Dov Charney stating that “part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going.” Charney also noted that some consumers did use the discount, generating “tens of thousands of dollars.” Apparently not enough dollars, however – Charney later stated in an SEC disclosure that “we were blindsided by Sandy, and with greater New York being our largest market, we estimate we lost in excess of $1.5 million in retail sales due to the storm.” Jessica Phelan of GlobalPost called it in advance, writing that “we wouldn’t be surprised if [American Apparel’s] sales figures – or possibly its marketing peeps – were Hurricane Sandy’s latest victims. Excuse us if we don’t feel too sorry for them.”

7. “Ball-dropping blunder” for Goodell and NFLFortune

After the National Football League and its referees failed to come to an agreement, the NFL suffered through nearly four weeks of its regular season with some dubious replacements: high school and low-level college officials with no NFL experience, as well as, according to sports site Deadspin, a crew of refs who had been previously fired by the Lingerie Football League for incompetence. Media nationwide, including The New York Times, reported on numerous instances of replacement refs taking the field as fans rather than officials and an increasing incidence of poor, often game-changing, calls. An agreement was eventually reached and the NFL refs returned, but for many the crux of the issue was Commissioner Roger Goodell’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the game’s integrity – and irritate fans – over a relatively small amount of money. Sports Illustratedwriter Michael Rosenberg wrote that Goodell “could have ended this lockout weeks ago for roughly the amount of money that NFL executives spend on dry cleaning every year.” Fortune contributors Jack and Suzy Welch highlighted a lesson for Goodell: despite the NFL’s “virtual monopoly … you can’t aggravate your customers.”

8. “Nobody wants a side of politics with their pizza.” – Huffington Post

In August, wealthy pizza magnate “Papa John” Schnatter was widely criticized for his stance against the new Affordable Healthcare Act and his determination to circumvent it as reported by ABC News, Politico and numerous other media. His flamboyant and needlessly cold messaging seemed designed to alienate his own customers and pool of potential employees. The Naples News reported that Schnatter told a group of Florida college students that “it was likely that some [Papa John’s] franchise owners would reduce employees’ hours in order to avoid having to cover them.” Even Mad Magazine got in on the action, with editors noting that “if you thought that the worst thing about Papa John’s Pizza was the pizza … the policies … will leave an even worse taste in your mouth!” “A brand is just a collection of ideas,” Barbara Findlay Schenck, author of “Branding for Dummies,” told TODAY. “When suddenly the brand message shifted to political stances, bottom line prices, price increases and staff cutbacks, the inconsistency rocked brand strength, confidence, and preference.” According to, “the Twittersphere appears largely elated over news that Papa John seems to be eating his feisty political words post-election.” The news site awarded “top tweet” recognition to Twitter user @kimbersc when she slammed Schnatter, asking: “who’d the moron CEO think was eating that pizza? 1%ers?”

9. “Dude, Where’s My Apology?” BetaBeatPopchips “President of Pop Culture” (according to Popchips marketing collateral) Ashton Kutcher starred in an ill-advised online video campaign in which he wore stereotypical Bollywood attire – along with skin-darkening makeup – to impersonate an Indian character named Raj. The video did gain attention for the snack brand but for all the wrong reasons. Tech entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash questioned the campaign’s direction, noting that “if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 … to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course.” Dash noted early on that “Kutcher’s apology would be the easiest and most obvious part” of addressing the brand’s blunder and Ling Woo Lee, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, agreed in an opinion piece for CNN, writing that “I’m still waiting for Ashton Kutcher’s apology [and] I’m starting to lose patience.” Nonetheless, while Popchips quickly issued an apology and pulled the offending video, Kutcher has not apologized to date.

10. “Rigged game” at Liberty Mutual – Boston Globe

In early April of this year, Boston Globe business reporter Todd Wallack reported that Boston-based insurance giant Liberty Mutual was under scrutiny from the Massachusetts Division of Insurance after the discovery that longtime CEO Edmund F. “Ted” Kelly earned an average of $50 million a year from 2008 to 2010. As a mutual insurance company owned by its policyholders, any extra money Liberty Mutual earns should go back to customers, not executives. About a month after Wallack’s article, the Globe’sBrian McGrory wrote that Liberty Mutual spent $4.5 million in 2011 to renovate incoming CEO David Long’s 1,335 square foot executive office suite, adding ”woven silk wall coverings,” a private shower, exercise room and an automatic Lutron lighting system. All this excess spending occurred in fall 2011 when unemployment was at 9.1 percent and the stock market was plunging. Liberty Mutual didn’t issue a single statement of regret in the month after the initial revelations, while Kelly explained his pay as “an accounting issue.” As McGrory explained to Ed Cafasso of The Public Relations Strategist, “their lack of response made my job easier … the best thing they could have done was gotten enough of it out there earlier so the tips dried up.”

I’ve been posting every year for the past several years–and the Public Relations blunders keep getting better and better:

Top 10 Public Relations Blunders of 2007
Top 10 Public Relations Blunders of 2008
Top 10 Public Relations Blunders of 2009
Top 10 Public Relations Blunders of 2011

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