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December 22, 2010

Colossal Gaffes by BP, Toyota and NPR Top Off Fineman's 16th Annual "Top 10 PR Blunders" List

Richard Carufel's spotlight this week: Michael Fineman, President, Fineman PR

In a titanic year of communications faux pas, you really had to go the extra mile to be worthy of this year's 16th Annual installment of the Top 10 PR Blunders List, compiled by San Francisco's Fineman PR. This year's round-up features ponderous product recalls, free speech fallout and companies that should know better than taking on mommy bloggers — not to mention a tragic environmental disaster.

Fineman president Michael Fineman serves up his firm's report, which sounds off on this year's most notorious PR debacles from BP, Toyota, NPR, Craigslist, Amazon, Nestle and more:

1. BP Execs Pass the Buck
All eyes were on British Petroleum this year for its role in the protracted oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Although credited by some public relations professionals for speaking out early and often, CEO Tony Hayward hurt BP's corporate image by downplaying the damage and issuing thoughtless sound bites, including "it wasn't our accident" and "I just want my life back" •after 11 workers lost their lives in the explosion of oil rig Deepwater Horizon. But according to The Wall Street Journal, replacement CEO Bob Dudley continued courting backlash by accusing media and competing oil companies of "a rush to judgment" in condemning BP's crisis response and refusing to testify before a congressional committee. U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, head of that committee, fired back, saying that "BP is continuing to point the finger at everyone but themselves. Since this disaster began, BP has stood for 'Blame Passed.'"

2. "Moving Forward • Uncontrollably"
"Unintended acceleration" in best-selling Toyota vehicles plagued the world's largest automaker in 2010, with the Los Angeles Times attributing over 100 deaths to crash-causing manufacturing defects. Like the affected models, the public relations debacle quickly escalated, with Toyota eventually "at the center of the biggest product recall since the Firestone tire fiasco in 2000," according to Motor Trend. The company stumbled through months of multistage recalls and poor communications, promoting inconsistent solutions that had few discernable effects on the situation, blaming parts suppliers and at one point targeting drivers themselves with the help of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. "If you look at what they did it was clear that they didn't really understand the magnitude of the issue and the potential PR risk," Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University, told MSNBC.com.

3. Fired Up Over NPR Action
Although National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams raised eyebrows when he told Bill O'Reilly of FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that flying on airplanes with overt Muslims made him nervous, it was NPR that took the damaging reputational hit. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller dismissed Williams over the phone and, according to The Washington Post, later publicly implied that Williams needed psychological help. His supporters framed the firing as a First Amendment issue and called for cuts to NPR's budget while FOX News capitalized on the situation by awarding Williams a multi-year contract and promising to protect his freedom of speech. Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" declared FOX News "the winner," exclaiming, "Are you kidding me NPR? You're picking a fight with Fox News? They gave Juan Williams a $2 million contract just for you firing him! ... You just brought a tote bag of David Sedaris books to a knife fight."

4. Craigslist "Missed Connection" on "Adult Services"
Popular classifieds website Craigslist came under public, media and governmental scrutiny for longtime insistence on retaining its "Adult Services" category. Andrea Powell, founder of human rights organization FAIR Fund, called the website "the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking," as reported by The Washington Post, among others. Founder Craig Newmark performed poorly when interviewed on the topic by investigating CNN reporter Amber Lyon, eventually falling silent and walking away. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster blasted Lyon for her "ambush," but the company eventually pulled the category in the U.S. — though not overseas — after coming under pressure from the public and the House of Representatives. House members Ted Poe (R — Texas) and Loretta Sanchez (D — Calif.), took the fight to the pages of Politico.com, writing that "Buckmaster and Newmark need to change their tone and join, rather than debate, those who are trying to fight this problem." Elizabeth Hovde of The Oregonian agreed, writing that "Craigslist didn't take the high road without some public pushback."

5. Amazon Bans Porn but Promotes Pedophilia
While public relations and the practice of law both involve client defense, it's important to select the correct tool for the job. When Amazon.com employed anti-censorship arguments in a stilted statement to the Business Insider to defend its decision to sell an author's self-published guide for pedophiles, the online retail giant left itself open to massive public retaliation via social media, including calls for a boycott of the site. CNN's Anderson Cooper joined the fray, blasting Amazon for "profiting from pedophilia," accusing it of a double-standard given its "blanket ban on porn" and deriding the company for citing free speech while not responding to his or other journalists' calls for comment. Amazon quickly pulled the book from offer but not before sales of it had risen 101,000% in less than a day. Nick Saint of the Business Insider wrote that "keeping the pedophilia • while banning simple smut is a pretty tough policy to justify."

6. Sticky Situation at Nestlé
Besieged by Greenpeace supporters protesting its use of environmentally questionable palm oil, international food giant Nestlé dropped the social media ball. Instead of immediately addressing public concerns, the company first lobbied to have the video removed from YouTube and then accused Facebook posters of copyright infringement, initiating a combative online exchange with opponents and publicly debating the "rules of engagement." This heavy-handed approach won Nestlé no sympathy and, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, drew thousands of protesting "fans" to the company's Facebook page. According to The Holmes Report, "There's not much question that [Nestlé's] response — first silence the critics, then descend to their level — exacerbated the crisis, generating additional criticism in the digital arena and inevitably attracting the attention of the mainstream media."

7. Public Recalls Trust in Johnson & Johnson
Misleading claims from health-care giant Johnson & Johnson and subsidiary McNeil Consumer Healthcare may have originated a damaging series of issues with well-known products such as Tylenol, Motrin and Benadryl, but delayed corporate action, "phantom recalls," and a glaring lack of corporate transparency turned a bad situation into a nightmare crisis culminating in social media uproar and a congressional investigation. Mina Kimes of Fortune reported that House Rep. Edolphus Towns (D—N.Y.) took the giant to task in a May hearing, saying "the information I've seen during the course of our investigation raises questions about the integrity of the company ... it paints a picture of a company that is deceptive, dishonest, and has risked the health of many of our children." This is in striking contrast with Johnson & Johnson's actions during its case-study-worthy 1982 Tylenol recall. As Newsweek blogger Raina Kelley wrote, it "looks like we're going to need a new example of good corporate public relations."

8. James Makes "The Decision"
Reigning NBA MVP LeBron James made news for the clueless handling of his free agency choice, when he announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat during a highly publicized, live ESPN special entitled "The Decision" • without giving the Cavaliers any prior notice. James' actions enraged his most ardent supporters and drew media criticism for perceived arrogance, including from Time reporter Sean Gregory, who wrote that "this isn't about the actual game. This is all about the ego of King James." Clevelanders screamed "traitor," burned jerseys sporting James' No. 23 in the streets and accused James of believing he was "bigger than the game" while Charles Barkley called the announcement "a punk move." Cleveland native Derrick Tatum summed it up, telling The Miami Herald "[James] just disrespected the whole city by embarrassing [Cleveland] on national television."

9. Glenn Beck: Beyond Belief
Political commentator and prominent conservative Glenn Beck offended many by holding his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington D.C. on August 28, the same location and date as Dr. Martin Luther King's historic freedom march. Beck claimed that the event, which was dominated by high-profile conservatives such as Sarah Palin and attended by Tea Party members, was non-political and not racially divisive. But many media weren't convinced, including Ben Adler of Newsweek, who wrote that "the next time a conservative makes a racially inflammatory remark, perhaps he shouldn't wonder why he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt."

10. "Alaska Airlines Hates Families"
Alaska Airlines stranded Dan Blais' family in Las Vegas when his wife returned to the gate after rushing away to deal with a diaper emergency, coldly informing him that he could still board the waiting plane but that his wife's ticket had been given to a stand-by customer because she was "one minute late." Unwilling to abandon his family or wait two or three days for a stand-by flight, Blais purchased seats with an alternative carrier, returned home and then detailed his unsatisfying experience in the now defunct blog entitled "Alaska Airlines Hates Families" (excerpts from the original post can be found on Business Insider). When the media caught wind of the couple's experience, their story began appearing in daily newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun and the Edmonton Journaland among mommy bloggers. While Alaska Airlines social media manager Elliott Pesut did respond promptly in the blog's comment section, he did so without compassion, citing rigid policy and offering a future travel voucher for less than half the family's losses. Alaska Airlines later agreed to give the couple the amount spent on new plane tickets.

San Francisco-based Fineman PR (www.finemanpr.com) assembles the annual PR Blunders List as a reminder that good public relations is critical to businesses and organizations. Selections are limited to Americans, American companies or offenses that occurred in America. Selections are limited to avoidable acts or omissions that caused adverse publicity; image damage was done to self, company, society or others; and acts that were widely reported in 2010.

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