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Worst PR disasters of 2014

10th December 2014


What was the worst PR blunder of 2014? Senior PROs discuss the worst PR of the year, and the lessons that can be drawn from it. We also list ten howlers from this year’s ‘Good and Bad’ column.

Malaysian authority’s response to flight MH370

For Tim Luckett, global crisis co-lead at PR agency H+K Strategies, the response to the disappearance of Air Malaysia flight MH370 in March this year was an interesting incident from a PR perspective, with many lessons for those who advise clients about how to respond to grave incidents: “It carried important lessons for us all. The attempted heartfelt response from the Malaysian authorities went down badly with its audience for a variety of reasons. Relative response is a crucial piece of the PR puzzle when it comes to incident response and has to be handled promptly, rigorously and with extreme care, and empathy. It always requires far more than just a communications response.”

“Without doubt, the text sent to relatives 16 days after the aircraft disappeared was well intentioned and meant to close an important chapter in the process with regards to the status of the passengers. However, the response from relatives was universally negative to the perceived impersonal nature of the communication. It was certainly a modern channel, but it was the wrong one. Communicators will continue to struggle in this fast moving age of social media to understand which channels to use and this example is a stark reminder of how the wrong choice can have huge impact on reputation.”

Apple/U2 tie up

Nicola York, account director at communications agency Cicero Group, says that killing two birds with one stone, while efficient, is not always a great idea: “This has been demonstrated to great effect through the Apple/U2 tie-up earlier this year, which provoked enraged reactions from haters of the Irish rock band.

“It seems odd it didn’t occur to Apple that people might not like U2’s new album to be automatically installed on their iTunes libraries. Embarrassingly, Apple had to create a button to allow their 500 million subscribers to delete the album from their account after mass outcry from their customers.”

“That said, U2 didn’t do too badly out of it, with 26 million people downloading the album and many more streaming it through iTunes. To put this into context, Apple’s vice president said that 14 million customers had downloaded U2’s music since the iTunes store opened in 2003. Meanwhile, Apple is still topping the charts of the world’s coolest brands with sales still looking very healthy, so no lasting damage seems to have been done.”

“The old cliché of there being ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ still rings true. However, it does act as a warning to think twice before assuming you know your customers; people always like to be treated as individuals and it is important for companies and PROs to keep this at the forefront of their minds.”

Bass Buds stunt misfires

“The pitch invasion prank at Tottenham Hotspur at the end of November threw up a massive PR crisis for earphones brand BassBuds thanks to the three participants wearing identical T-shirts emblazoned with the brand’s logo,” says Paul Sutton, head of digital communications at PR agency Bottle.

He explains why: “The brand was quick to condemn the activity on Twitter, but later issued a statement that, while stating that it did not authorise the pitch invasions, also confirmed that it did have a working relationship with Trollstation, the pranking group in question.”

“With Tottenham likely to be fined heavily by UEFA, the Club has removed all BassBuds products and brand mentions from the shop and website and may launch legal action. Whether or not BassBuds is, or should be, responsible, and to what extent, is debatable. But either way, it’s a stark reminder that brand reputation extends way beyond a company itself now, right into its partner and supply chain. Fail to carry out due diligence in this area and promotional partnerships could be PR disasters waiting to happen.”

Marius the giraffe slaying

For Shannon Haigh, PR account director at PR agency 10 Yetis, one of the biggest PR disasters of 2014 was the incident that went down at Copenhagen Zoo with Marius the giraffe: “Despite being healthy, they killed the two-year-old animal because he was considered genetically unsuitable for future breeding, due to the risk of inbreeding. Petitions to save him and adoption offers were ignored and he was killed in February.”

“Staff dissected Marius in front of children and fed him to other animals in the zoo, like the lions. Then, not long after, the same zoo put down two 10-month-old lion cubs, their 14-year-old mother and 16-year-old father because a new male lion was being brought to the zoo who would have apparently killed all of these lions anyway ‘as soon as he got the chance‘.”

“People across the world were understandably outraged by the events and, well, Copenhagen Zoo looked pretty darn awful. Whilst the scientific director of the zoo managed to get the people of Denmark to reconsider their views of what happened, he failed to do so on a wider, international scale. The lesson? If you’re going to butcher healthy animals, at least try to educate people and help them to understand why. Alternatively, don’t kill them! Find another solution. No one is ever going to take animal death well.”

Ten PR disaster from 2014’s Good and Bad PR column

The Magical rip-off tour (26 November)

A Christmas attraction in Belfry near Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham), designed by celebrity designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, was closed after just one day of opening.

Breaking Bad dolls in Toys R Us (23 October)

Parents kicked off when they saw dolls of the hit US show Breaking Bad characters for sale in Toys R Us.

Miliband blunders (25 September)

Ed Miliband forgot to mention something very important during his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester.

Flying low (17 July)

The World Airline Awards revealed that British Airways was nowhere near top place in the Best Airline league tables. In fact, it was not in the top ten.

Suarez bites (26 June)

In Uruguay’s World Cup match against Italy, Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini claimed that he was bitten on the shoulder by Suarez.

Tesco troubles (5 June)

The CEO of Tesco, Philip Clarke, admitted that its quarterly results were the worst for 40 years.

Pharma wars (15 May)

The Pfizer versus AstraZeneca situation kicked off.

Max exposure (1 May)

Max Clifford was convicted of eight counts of sexual assault.

Bieber boobs (19 March)

Justin Bieber’s deposition video did him no favours.

Idiotic iTunes (16 January)

When iTunes had to withdraw an app promoting plastic surgery among children.



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