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10 of the Biggest PR Blunders in Recent Memory

#10 – Lee Ryan’s 9/11 comments
This one is older, but a classic example of why a PR person should be the best friend of anyone in the public eye.  While trying to break into the ‘music scene’ of a new country its good PR for bands to do interviews and appearances to create buzz and interest.  During the aftermath of 9/11, Lee Ryan of the band Blue was giving such an interview and was quoted as saying “What about whales? They are ignoring animals that are more important. Animals need saving and that’s more important. This New York thing is being blown out of proportion. Who gives a f**k about New York when elephants are being killed”.  Ryan claimed the comments were taken out of context and publicly apologized, but the damage was done and the band never recovered.

#9 – Ellen’s Dog Fiasco
When you deal with a personality as big as Ellen DeGeneres you keep your PR team on-call…its just common sense.  The back story goes like this:  Ellen adopted a pup, Iggy, from agency Mutts & Moms.  When said pooch didn’t get along with her cats Ellen decided to give Iggy to her hairdresser’s family instead of returning it to the agency.  While this action was clearly against their policy, Mutts & Moms’ reaction was a huge PR misstep.  They repossessed Iggy from the family – aggressively, and were caught on tape doing so – prompting Ellen to appear in tears on her show begging for Iggy’s return.  As a result, Mutts and Moms received thousands of scathing reviews and threats from outraged Ellen viewers.

#8 – O.J. Simpson’s Book
Entitled “If I did it’” and about the hypothetical murder of his ex-wife.  In today’s world of sensationalist news it might be possible (although would require a healthy dose of fantasy) to understand why some marketer out there thought this was a good idea.  It was scheduled to be published and promoted on a TV special by News Corp subsidiaries – but the general uproar over the book and a few affiliates refusing to run the show led to Chairman Rupert Murdoch stepping in and canceling both.  Oh – and the book’s super high profile editor was fired.

#7 – The Tom Cruise Debacle
It all started with the infamous Oprah couch-jumping incident.  It was a little endearing, a little frightening, and generally assumed to be an isolated incident.  Until he butted heads with Matt Lauer on the Today show, and got into an all-out fued with Brooke Shields over psychiatrics, and his manic appearance in that Scientology video got leaked on YouTube…you get the point.  Where was his PR team during all of this?  They’ve kicked it into gear now, with his new movie coming out and making normal appearance again, but the lapse did a lot of damage to both his public image and the already not-so-stellar public image of Scientology.

#6 – Sony’s Botched Launch of the PS3 & PSP
Specifically the alliwantforxmasisapsp.com “blog”.  It was an attempt at viral-marketing by people that obviously didn’t understand the concept – predictably it failed miserably.  Readers were supposed to believe it was made by fans but the edgy-style writing came off forced and fake and the downloadable material was so sales-y that is was quite obvious Sony was behind it.  So obvious that perhaps they were going for a sort of inside-joke type site…whatever their intentions it didn’t take gamers/readers long to figure out the blog was a fake and they took it personally.  The angry backlash was only made worse by Sony’s handling of the PS3.  Their response to consumers’ concerns about the $600 price tag was “It’s probably too cheap”, they also insinuated that anyone who loves gaming would work the extra hours needed to be able to afford one…ouch.  When the Wii started outperforming PS3 instead of considering why this might be, they dissmissed the better selling console as an ‘impulse buy’.

Sony’s management was arrogant and completely out of touch with their core consumers.  This is the one blunder on our list that is almost entirely due to bad PR.

#5 – Hot Coffee
Short story: A gamer/hacker found something naughty hidden in the PC version of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  He then released the infamous Hot Coffe mod, which unlocked a disabled (note: not deleted) interactive mini-game featuring a character *ahem* ‘making whoopie’.

Pretty soon every major news outlet was on the story, it got to the point where Hillary Clinton was promising a full-blown investigation into the Entertainment Ratings Software Board and Rockstar (the game’s publisher).  Rockstar made a classic PR blunder by going with the strategy “deny, deny, deny”.  They claimed that the mini-game was completely the work of hackers and they had nothing to do with it.  Unfortunately for them the mini-game was then discovered on the PS2 and Xbox versions too, which basically proved that it came from Rockstar – whether or not they ever meant for anyone to actually see it.  Most of the time a PR disaster like this will only affect the company, Hot Coffee affected the entire gaming industry.  Since the scandal the industry has been under heavy scrutiny and under constant attack from censors who wish impose restrictions/penalties on the sale of violent games.

#4 – Miley Cyrus and her Vanity Fair Photos
Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz took some very grown-up photos of Disney star Miley Cryus (aka Hannah Montana) for the magazine Vanity Fair.  There was no nudity, the pics were tasteful and ‘artsy’ – the issue was that she was 15 at the time and the fact that she worked for Disney probably had something to do with it as well.  The public out-cry was enormous and all about the over-sexualization of ‘tween’ stars and how the line for what is age-appropirate is hardly there at all anymore.

The Cyrus clan was present during the shoot and didn’t see anything wrong with the pictures – but their PR person should have.  The pictures were a tad racy and definitely not in-line with the tween Disney star’s image, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing it is, at the very least, a ‘proceed with caution’ red flag.  Since the controversy Miley & co. issued a public apology – the right move for her PR team’s damage control efforts.

#3 – John McCain Bailing on Letterman
During the campaign John McCain was scheduled to appear on Late Night with David Letterman.  The senator personally called the talk show host to explain that he would be going back to Washington immediately to attend the economic debates and therefore would have to cancel his appearance.  The story would have ended there, only McCain didn’t go back to Washington – he went a few blocks away for a last minute interview with Katie Couric.

Fittingly, Letterman had booked Keith Olbermann – a huge McCain critic – to fill the spot.  The ensueing rant was both biting and hilarious – not to mention damaging to the McCain camp’s projected image of honesty and integrity.  The incident was drawn out over the next few nights as well, when McCain stuck around NYC to speak at the UN the next morning, prompting Letterman to go after McCain during his interview with guest Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Later, when McCain finally made it to the set he was un-apologetic, stating simply “I screwed up”.  Now that’s just bad PR.

#2 – Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp.
Makers of cholesterol drugs Vytorin and Zetia, who sat on study results that showed the combination of the drugs doesn’t work as claimed…for almost 2 years.  They claimed that the withholding of the information was because there were reasons to doubt the results.  It does, however, seem a little fishy when you consider the $100 million+ advertising campaing and the over $5 billion revenue in one year alone.  The backlash was substaintial – bringing hundreds of lawsuits and government agencies down on the companies.  It’s hard, but the world is generally more forgiving when full-disclosure is generally the best option, at least from a PR standpoint.

#1 – AIG and Big 3 Auto Execs
After receiving a federal bailout to the tune of $85 million, AIG decided to drop a half a million on an executive retreat to a posh resort – complete with banquets, golfing and spa treatments.  A few weeks later CEO’s from the Big 3 Auto companies flew in seperate private jets to congress so that they could ask the government for a $25 billion bailout…without any sort of turnaround plan prepared.

Both companies felt the public backlash, the Big 3 actually took action – coming up with a plan and driving themselves to Washington the next time around.  In the worst economic environment in decades, where people are losing their jobs and struggling to get by, it was in extreme bad taste for these companies to display that kind of extravagance while holding out their hands to Uncle Sam.  It’s a public relations nightmare.

Disagree? Did we leave a major PR misstep out?  Let us know!

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One Response to “10 of the Biggest PR Blunders in Recent Memory”

  1. Michele Nix Says:

    Interesting post. Stikes me, too, that some of the biggest PR blunders are the PR roads not taken — specifically when there’s no crisis, simply a great moment, hook, timing to do something powerful to elevate your product or brand. “What might have been” had a company seized a great opportunity to gain brand visibility and/or maximize a competitive advantage. Not doing anything at all can be quite a blunder, too. We don’t hear about those moments, because the opportunities were never taken. Hopefully there’s some awareness inside the organization when that happens, so those missed opportunities can become teaching and lead to better PR next time. Great blog.

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