In the spotlight: Michael Fineman, President, Fineman PR
The 17th Annual Top 10 PR Blunders List, compiled by San Francisco’s Fineman PR, features blunders by organizations that were unprepared, undecided, unconscious, unfair and uninformed — and all of them preventable.
1. Penn State, "Your Scandal Isn’t Going Away"
The story of disgraced former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on charges of sexual abuse is a terrible one, but news of the university’s lack of action over more than 10 years infuriated the public and media alike. University President Graham Spanier fanned the flames with a poorly planned initial statement featuring more support for two University officials alleged to have been covering up a 2002 incident than for the eight abuse victims. But that was just one of many stumbles in the eyes of prominent media and PR professionals, who urged Penn State to get organized, take responsibility, prioritize the victims and get all the bad news out as quickly as possible. Poor crisis planning was an obvious issue, with Advertising Age reporting that "despite months of advance notice, Penn State’s board didn’t enact a communications plan, and waited until after the arrest … was all over the news" before retaining crisis counsel. Even Penn State senior lecturer of public relations Steve Manuel agreed, telling USA Today that "this was a crisis in the making of at least three years. Penn State knew this shoe was going to drop and it was not prepared." Lynn Zinser of The New York Times urged University leaders to accept that "your scandal isn’t going away," describing the "sorry spectacle" as "what appears to be an institution-wide moral collapse."
2. Cain Undeniably Unprepared
Republican presidential hopeful and former National Restaurant Association (NRA) head Herman Cain made a major mistake by not dealing with questions from Politico regarding accusations of past sexual harassment promptly and completely, leaving himself open for wave after wave of damaging speculation. According to John Cassidy of The New Yorker, Cain had "ample time" to prepare for the crisis and should have "sat down his staff, explained that he was sitting on an unexploded landmine, and asked them to prepare a contingency plan" early on. But despite being aware of media interest for at least 10 days, Cain and his staff appeared completely unprepared for scrutiny on the subject. According to numerous media sources, the candidate breathed audibly and glared at Politico’s John Martin for several seconds when asked if he had ever been accused of harassment before evasively echoing the question. Cain’s bizarre, reactionary responses incented his past accusers to come forward, prompting him to stumble further by dismissing their claims as "baseless" (despite five-figure NRA settlements with two women involved), suggesting race was a factor in the coverage and claiming that either rival candidate Rick Perry’s camp or the "Democratic machine" was out to smear him. U.S. News and World Report opinion editor Robert Schlesinger wrote that "Cain left the presidential race as he entered it — more a sideshow than a contender," after he suspended his campaign.
3. Oakland Mayor Quan Plays Both Sides – Against Each Other
The Occupy Movement tested city officials nationwide, but none more than Oakland Mayor and former community activist Jean Quan, whose handling of the Occupy Oakland encampment was widely and critically covered. In the first two weeks of the tense situation Quan flip-flopped frequently, first attending the encampment as a supporting speaker, then eventually authorizing a police raid to clear the site, a reversal that provoked nationwide criticism of the violent confrontation. At first, Quan tried distancing herself from the raid, saying she did not know when it was going to take place, but City Hall sources indicated she "was fully informed about the size and scope of the operation hours before it started" and had ample opportunity to prevent the raid, according to San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross. Quan invited protesters back the very next day — after spending more than $1 million to clear them out — and later encouraged city employees to join an Occupy-sanctioned general strike against the "establishment," causing the Oakland Police Officer’s Association to release a statement asking: "is it [Oakland’s] intention to have city employees on both sides of a skirmish line?" The San Jose Mercury News joined the Association, other media and residents in blasting Quan’s handling of the situation, noting that "real leaders think through challenges, make tough calls and take responsibility if things go wrong. Quan has been all over the map — an icon of what not to do."
4. Bank of America Nickels and Dimes
Bank of America wasn’t the only bank planning on bolstering revenue through new debit card fees, but it suffered significant reputational damage for being the last to abandon its plans to do so after severe public outrage in what The Wall Street Journal termed "the latest publicity nightmare for an industry that is already under fire." J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo & Co. and several regional banks dropped similar plans after widespread outcry, but being last out made Bank of America, the nation’s second-largest bank, the situational whipping boy in the media, the public eye and even in Congress, where Sen. Richard Durbin (D, Ill.) urged consumers to "vote with your feet." Consumers nationwide did just that, pulling out of major banks en masse to join local credit unions. The Huffington Post reported that at least "650,000 customers joined credit unions [in about five weeks after] Bank of America announced it would charge customers $5 to use their debit cards for purchases."
5. "Nutty View" Damages GOP Confidence in Perry
While some might declare Rick Perry’s inability to recall his own agenda his most memorable campaign gaffe of 2011, to many his most significant — and completely preventable – blunder was dredging up the birther meme in an interview with Parade Magazine. Perry was apparently "totally kidding," according to Dan Amira of NYMag.com, noting that the beleaguered candidate’s main mistake was associating himself "with a conspiracy theory that was debunked once and for all six months ago and to which only the crankiest of cranks continue to subscribe." While Perry may have been "just having some fun," Philip Rucker of The Washington Post reported that he "undercut the reach of his economic message by repeatedly injecting an issue that most Americans thought had been put to rest." GOP strategist Karl Rove summed the blunder up neatly, telling Fox News when "you associate yourself with a nutty view like that … you damage yourself."
6. Qwikster Just a Flash in the Netflix Pan
How should management handle customer discontent over, say … a controversial 60% price increase that led to hundreds of thousands of lost customers and a drop of nearly half of a company’s stock value? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings remained silent for two months,
then released a seemingly reluctant blog statement apologizing for the increase… and announcing plans to split off DVD-by-mail operations "in the same breath," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But the Chronicle also reported that "customers ripped that plan" as seriously inconvenient because it entailed zero coordination between Netflix and proposed new unit Qwikster. Netflix backpedaled in the face of consumer backlash, abandoning plans for Qwikster three weeks later, but its stock value remained severely depressed.
7. Facebook Complains About Lack of Transparency, Anonymously
Not only did Facebook contract a prominent PR firm to question how Google’s Social Circle collects and uses personal data, the social network allegedly insisted on client anonymity. But things spun out of control when blogger Christopher Soghoian — targeted (and annoyed) by the campaign — posted the agency’s pitch emails online, while USA Today reported of false claims in pitches. Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons described the "clumsy smear" in The Daily Beast and exposed Facebook as the mystery client, noting that "the mess, seemingly worthy of a Nixon re-election campaign, is embarrassing for Facebook, which has struggled at times to brand itself as trustworthy." Miguel Helft of The New York Times noted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s transparency obsession, skewering the social network for hypocrisy, "Facebook, it seems, doesn’t always practice what it preaches."
8. Dodger Owner’s Words "Very, Very Unfair" to Coma Victim, Family
Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt took a year-long pounding in the press for his handling of numerous issues, including the team’s bankruptcy proceeding and his very public divorce. But for many McCourt’s biggest blunder was his insensitive reaction to the horrific, coma-inducing beating received by San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium after the March 31st opening day game. The Los Angeles Times reported that McCourt described the assault as "tragic" but also that he was "very, very satisfied" with his organization’s effort to "make [Dodger Stadium] the safest venue in sports" and that it was "very, very unfair to take what was otherwise a fantastic day … and to have a few individuals mar that." McCourt spent much of the year defending his organization instead of taking responsibility and prioritizing the victim, creating an appearance of callousness and widespread media outrage. McCourt’s problems peaked when his attorney sought to place blame on Stow for the incident. As the Times commented, "one of McCourt’s problems has been his consistent cluelessness about the public relations effects of his decisions. Neither he nor Dodgers fans need to see his lawyers making a similar blunder."
9. "Tweeting Teen" Teaches Kansas Gov. Brownback about Social Media
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his staff should have considered the source before trying "to police a teenager’s Internet musings," according to the Associated Press, when 18-year-old Emma Sullivan sent a tweet to her 61 followers
claiming to have "told him he sucked." Brownback’s communications team contacted Sullivan’s principal with news of her online claim, who, in turn, demanded that Sullivan write an apology. But according to the Kansas City Star, Sullivan never wrote the apology. The incident gained rapid national recognition, with Sullivan’s Twitter following exploding to more than 12,000 followers. Brownback eventually apologized for the incident, and according to Gawker, noted that his "staff over-reacted." PRNewser called the actions of his communication staff "an example of how little some people know about how this whole social media thing works."
10. Ben & Jerry’s Churns Ice Cream into Schweddy Balls
Popular ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s has a longstanding tradition of edgy flavor names, but the company’s latest effort, "Schweddy Balls," an homage to Saturday Night Live character Pete Schweddy, has some families and consumer groups, including American Family Association affiliate One Million Moms, up in arms. The Miss.-based organization issued a statement calling the irreverent name "anything but appealing" and claiming that "the vulgar new flavor has turned something as innocent as ice cream into something repulsive." While Ben & Jerry’s dismissed these claims, noting that the company has always embraced irreverent names, the company may have suffered in the process as NPR, Time, the New York Daily News and other media reported that some supermarket chains, including Mass.-based Stop & Shop, were not carrying the flavor.
Fineman PR has also compiled a list of five classic PR Blunders documented in the agency’s previous Annual Blunders lists. The list is available on the agency’s new website: www.finemanpr.com.