Inside the Profession Thought Leadership

Biggest PR Disasters Of 2014

While 2014 was great for some public relations professionals, the proliferation of new technologies, the race to be first to capitalize on recent news and in incessant need to generate a “viral” hashtag created a perfect storm that made it terrible for others.

Each week seemed to bring with it new head-slapping, groan-inducing communication misfires that made most PR professionals wonder out loud “what were they thinking!” Some companies found themselves incapable of digging out of snowballing mistakes while others seemed to just find the worst possible ways to engage their audiences.

Hopefully last year was a fluke, but it gave us a lot to learn from. The following is a list of the worst PR/communication disasters of 2014… in no particular order, because they are all equally terrible:

Bill Cosby gets more than he asked for – Looking to capitalize on the popular meme trend that seemed to be the benchmark of 2014, Bill Cosby, the lovable comedian known as “America’s Dad” asked his fans to “meme him” using a meme generator developed by his PR/social media team.

In what was likely supposed to be a lighthearted fan engagement project designed to distract from the resurfacing decade old rape allegations, instead turned into a public relations nightmare for both Cosby and his PR team.

Rather than receiving quirky or funny submissions, the terribly timed campaign was flooded with references to the allegations and helped ignite a firestorm of additional accusations and questions about the integrity of the (once) beloved comedian.

The NFL fumbles – The National Football League couldn’t seem to get out of its own way last year. Their biggest public relations issue resulted from Commissioner Roger Goodell being caught unprepared and defenseless when TMZ released video of (former) Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice dragging his (then) girlfriend from a hotel elevator. After dolling out a two-game suspension – half as many games as Matt Prater (then of the Denver Broncos) was given after violating a substance abuse policy for drinking “a couple beers… at home while he was on vacation” – Goodell was stunned into complete silence when TMZ later released surveillance video of Rice punching his girlfriend unconscious in the elevator.

Goodell not only made the cardinal mistake of staying quiet (for weeks), but when he finally did speak he played ignorant. The NFL managed to check off most every box on the list of most common mistakes in handling a crisis – hesitation, obfuscation, retaliation, equivocation, pontification, confrontation and litigation.

Throughout the year, the league also found itself scrabbling to recover from a string of other domestic violence issues involving other high-profile players. While a few players were suspended, none of the leagues higher-ups lost their jobs. Although the fact that the predicted protesting never came to fruition during the season and viewership remained high may lead some to the conclusion that one of America’s biggest sports made it through the year relatively unscathed, its carefully cultivated image was severely tarnished and it’s unlikely that the NFL will get another pass if/when other issues inevitable come up.


NYPD social efforts backfire – 2014 was a bad year for the New York Police Department and their foray into public engagement through social media only added to their woes.

Early in the year, the NYPD launched the hashtag #MyNYPD and asked the public to tweet photos with members of the force…

Following the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, issues with “stop and frisk” and a history of other equally unsavory incidents between the public and officers, it was only a matter of moments before the hashtag was hijacked by photos of unpleasant run-ins with the long arm of the law.

The hijacking was so virulent that it spread nationally and went international to include images of encounters with police in Europe and around the world.

Later in the year, following an unpopular decision in the chokehold-death case of a Staten Island man during an arrest attempt by a group of NYPD officers, the force again took to twitter with the hashtag #WeHearYou.

The poorly conceived hashtag was considered insensitive, tone-deaf and just plain foolish. Once again leading social media users to post negative comments, this time tied to the subject of being unable to breath and the victim not being heard before he died because he was being choked.


DiGiorno gets burned – Lesson #1 in public relations: always do your research. DiGiorno Pizza’s social media person proved again that trendjacking can be dangerous when he/she tried to co-opt the hashtag #WhyIStayed. While making a lighthearted comment about the love for pizza, they ignored the fact that the hashtag was actually about the very heavy topic of domestic violence sparked primarily as a result of the above-mentioned NFL incidents.


To the credit of whomever manages (or managed) the DiGiorno twitter feed, they did apologize to each person who tweeted at them to complain.


US Airways makes an “Honest Mistake” – While responding to one of its followers, the airline tweeted a sexually graphic image from its official twitter handle. For obvious reasons we won’t be linking to the photo itself, but the following Buzzfeed News headline will give you an idea of how bad it was:



The image made US Airways a trending topic for all the wrong reasons and the butt of many jokes (seriously, no pun intended). The most interesting aspect of this case is that the social media manager responsible for the incident was not fired and US Airways reps labeled the incident an “honest mistake.” (That must have been one heck of an explanation on the part of the social media manager.)


Retailers Continue To Offend – It seemed like almost every major retailer was forced to issue an apology for selling something offensive, while others just continued to spiral downward.

Having never worked in the industry, I can’t quite say how some of the following items passed the quality assurance, taste or common sense test, but among the most offensive merchandise we saw in 2014 were:

  • Urban Outfitters selling a Kent State sweatshirt covered in splattered blood seemingly referencing the 1970 “Kent State Massacre”
  • Zara’s Holocaust shirt for children. While marketing it as a “sheriff’s shirt” the badge and stripes were more reminiscent of the clothing worn in Hitler’s concentration camps. (everyone knows that the bad guys wear stripes while the sheriff wears a badge, so why would both be on the same shirt it the first place?!?)
  • Hallmark offers Swastika Wrapping Paper… for Hanukkah.
  • Sears was also in the news for selling a Swastika ring. To be somewhat fair though, the item was listed on the Sears site through a third-party seller.
  • Play Doh delivered what some parents thought looked suspiciously like adult toys for the holidays. The company has since announced that it will provide replacements.

Among the companies that just can’t seem to rebound from their public relations mistakes:

  • Lululemon offended again: for some reason the retailer (known for questionable customer relations decision) decided to install a tile floor in one of its Buffalo, NY retail locations that made fun of the city’s heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. Again alienating customers.

  • American Apparel can’t seem to avoid controversy. Again proving why “always do your research” is such an important rule, the retailer posted a photo of the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in place of fireworks in what seemed like an Independence Day Tumbler promotion. Also, while American Apparel was finally able to oust embattled founder and former CEO Dov Charney, they simultaneously upset rank-and file employees and manages who view Charney as an integral part of the company.


Hashtags Get Mangled – While we’ve already covered most of the worst hashtags of last year, we thought it appropriate to list a few that led to #PRFail, not because they were necessarily bad ideas, but because they were misguided or mismanaged.

  • Cowboys Suck: The Dallas Cowboys football team didn’t take a close enough look at the hashtag promoting their game in London. If they had, they would have noticed that creative editing easily transformed Cowboys +UK into #CowboySuk
  • Always double check!: When Sephora Tweeted “#C**tdownToBeauty”, they reminded us all why spell check is so important. Because forgetting one letter in the work “count” can be the difference between benign and brutish.
  • Automation isn’t your friend: The New England Patriots learned that lesson the hard way when their Twitter campaign automatically generated a jersey with a racial slur and tweeted it out to followers.


As we enter 2015, keep in mind the old saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here’s to a clean slate and better 2014.


Use the comment section below to let us know which disaster you think was the biggest or to add one that you feel should have been included.

Laurent Lawrence is the associate director of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America

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Laurent Lawrence, APR


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