Inside the Profession Thought Leadership

2013 PR Disasters to Learn From

Use the comment section below to let us know which 2013 PR disaster you think was the worst of the worst.

January is named in honor of the Roman god Janus – the god of beginnings, transition and doorways. In art, Janus is normally depicted as having two faces, one looking back at the past and another looking forward into the future. For this reason,  January is not only a good time to look ahead (as we’ll be doing throughout this month with our annual blog series highlighting the anticipated top trends in public relations for 2014), it’s also a great time to take a look back at some of the mistakes that we hope are not repeated.

While some companies and public figures found ways to avoid the curse of the traditionally unlucky number 13 in 2013, the year was dismal for others. 2013 presented several public relations mishaps that would make even the most veteran, seasoned pros think about hiding under their desks.

The following is a list of the worst public relations failures we saw last year, in no particular order – because, let’s face it, they were all equally bad:

1. Rob Ford, Toronto’s Crack Smoking Mayor – Rob Ford is an example of every public relations practitioner’s worst nightmare. Like a bull in a china shop, every move Ford made seemed to cause more damage than good. The impact of Toronto’s walking, talking crisis storm stretched well beyond Mr. Ford and Toronto. Ford not only besmirched the reputation of Canada’s largest and most populous city, the extent and extended ripple effect of his antics have been felt throughout the country. Headlines that refer to Ford as “Canada’s Mayor” and articles that hold a light to him as a personification of the country’s decline show that when left unchecked, a crisis can grow like a weed (some pun intended).

2. KTVU airs fake, racist pilot names – 2013 was a good year for trolls… not the fairytale beings that live under bridges, but the real life troublemakers that sow discord while looking for a chuckle. In the wake of the tragic crash of Asiana Flight 214, a FOX affiliate in the San Francisco Bay Area was the unwitting victim of “trolling”. In its rush to “scoop” the competition and be the first news source with information relating to the crash, KTVU aired what it believed to be the names of the pilots flying the plane; instead they broadcasted what turned out to be a racist joke against Asians. While most elementary-school children would likely have noticed that the names were fake, KTVU producers didn’t. The station trusted information confirmed by a person who was later identified as an intern at the National Transportation Safety Board. The mistake went viral on YouTube when viewers posted recordings of the newscast to the social media site. Ultimately KTVU issued several apologies on air and through social media channels and resulted in three veteran producers losing their jobs due to the prank. We can only assume that the NTSB intern will never be hired by anyone ever again in his life or that he’ll go on to have a lucrative career as a late-night talk show host.

3. Ruining your career in 140 characters or less – Twelve hours, half a day, enough time to watch half a season of “24” or build anything bought from Ikea. For Justine Sacco, 12 hours was all it took to end her career and elevate her to the position of poster child for what not to say on social media. Sacco, now the former Director of Communications for IAC, posted an insensitive and racist tweet before boarding a 12 hour flight from London to South Africa. The length of that flight was all the time needed for Sacco’s tweet to go viral, for the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet to trend, for her other questionable tweets posted over the years to be dissected and cataloged and for Sacco to be fired from her job. However, losing her job may not be the worst part of this experience. Because she seemingly lacked understanding of the influence of social media as a public forum, it may be difficult for future clients to trust her judgment when it comes to this medium. As PR practitioners, our clients expect us to know how to best navigate the social landscapes. If they can’t trust us to do that properly, there isn’t much reason for them to hire us.  Unfortunately for Sacco, her 12 hours of fame may last a lifetime.

4. McDonald’s serves its employees bad advice – The fast-food giant couldn’t seem to escape making headlines in 2013. With wage strikes making top news throughout the year, McDonald’s well-meaning, but exceedingly poorly-executed employee website took center stage as a series of misguided posts made the company seem out of touch and insensitive when it came to employee relations.  As workers took to the streets in droves to petition for higher wages and other benefits, McDonald’s launched a microsite to help them manage their budget by offering useful tips; suggestions included finding a second job and guidelines on tipping people like their au pair, housekeeper, massage therapist and nannie. Needless to say these tips were useless to most of McDonald’s employees.  McDonald’s finally decided to shut down the site after suggestions that its workers should avoid eating fast food because it is unhealthy were posted… let’s just let that sink in for a moment.

5. Fast Food companies vs. Instagram – While fast food might taste good, the industry’s reputation is dubious to say the least. As mentioned above, even McDonald’s suggested that its employees avoid its products. Apart from being considered unhealthy, urban legends and stories from workers have contributed to the idea that it’s also dirty or prepared using less than hygienic methods. Because a fast food job is a rite of passage for some and a legitimate career for others, most people are only about two degrees of separation from someone who knows someone who has worked at a fast food joint at one point or another. That person probably has a lot of stories that go something similar to the following: “I knew this person who worked at [insert fast food chain restaurant here] and they told me about this one time they [insert vomit-inducing story here].” While those of us who still need to get our fast food fix in once in a while believe most of these tales to be urban legends and trust that the person in the back is taking all appropriate safety and health precautions when wrapping our 99 cent cheeseburgers, the proliferation of social sharing has sometimes proved us wrong. Photos of gross ways that employees have handled the food that comes to you for less than $1 keep popping up and there is almost nothing that fast food companies can do to stop it. It’s important for our clients to communicate a clear social policy that could extend to personal networks early in the hiring process. It’s also important for PR to work with human resources to implement guidelines to vetting the social presence of prospective employees to help mitigate the changes that companies might be hiring the boneheads who do some of these vile acts.

6. Paula Deen melts down – Food Network’s butter-loving Southern-fried chef found herself in the frying pan for ethnically insensitive and racist remarks she made in her past. While celebrities saying and doing ethically questionable things isn’t anything new and not something that any of us expect will stop any time soon, Deen’s crisis PR strategy seemed lacking at best and “make-it-up as you go” at its worst. After her remarks were made public, rather than moving forward with a message that could be delivered clearly, cohesively and effectively, Deen seemed to fumble through her messaging and explanations for her actions. There also seemed to be no clear plan for when, how or to whom Deen should apologize. She dug herself into an even deeper hole when she canceled her scheduled interview with The Today Show, which was much anticipated by the public. Deen finally appeared on the show, but her interview and apology were so awkward it was hard to watch. Social media hasn’t just been a good place for putting one’s foot one’s mouth; it is also where most went to give their mea culpa (“my bad”). In an effort to control the story to some extent, Deen also turned to YouTube to offer an apology for her actions. She posted a YouTube video apology, and then removed it. She then posted another apology video to YouTube… and then removed that one as well. Deen’s vanishing apologies resulted in several parodies that extended the life of the crisis. Deen’s befuddled crisis strategy also reinforced the need for public relations managers to properly media train spokespeople well before a crisis ever happens, whether those spokespeople feel they are already comfortable with being recorded or not.

7. Lululemon alienates its core – When Lululemon, a high-end yoga clothing company, faced complaints that its yoga pants were both see-through and pilling (when fabric creates those unsightly little fabric balls), Chip Wilson, chairman and co-founder of the company, quickly identified the culprit for the problem – the customer. Rather than apologize for the problem regarding the material and committing to finding a reasonable resolution that would satisfy his customers, Wilson implied that some of the women wearing the company’s pants were too overweight and that his product just doesn’t work for them because of that. Ouch! Like others, Wilson eventually saw the error in his ways and took to social media to offer an apology that was just as bad as the original offence.  Through a video posted on Facebook, Wilson made amends (sort of). With tears in his eyes, Wilson apologized to his employees (not the offended customers) for how his comments affected them. Wilson stepped down from his position late in 2013 because of the debacle.

Time after time, we’ve seen such poor communication execution in the face of a crisis that it makes us all stop and wonder “where was the PR strategy?” While it can be easy to critique others from afar, we should also be taking the time to consider if we’ve properly prepared your client for the crisis that they may never even see coming.

Please use the comment section below to let us know which 2013 PR disaster you think was the worst of the worst or add one that you thought should have made the list.


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

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Laurent Lawrence, APR


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