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Ten biggest PR disasters of 2020

When it comes to PR disasters, the whole year of 2020 has to go down in history as a massive #fail. The government has had a challenging time and has often used terrible judgement, which is why, this year, it wins the trophy for creating the worst PR disasters of the year, if not the decade. It is not alone, there are also memorable fails from individuals including Rita Ora and Prince Harry, whilst brands including Sports Direct and Pretty Little Thing are responsible for some howlers too.

It kicked off in March…

Sports Direct
Jonathan Hemus, managing director of specialist crisis management consultancy Insignia: “When the entire nation is absorbed by a monumental crisis, it’s actually quite hard for a business to find itself singled out by the media for the wrong reasons.

“Despite this, Sports Direct succeeded in further tarnishing its already controversial reputation by announcing it would remain open during March’s first national lockdown, claiming it was a vital national asset.

“When this ploy failed and it was forced to close its stores, Sports Direct then increased the online price of many home fitness products by up to fifty per cent, further fuelling the backlash from customers, media and politicians.

“The reputational impact of a crisis is not simply about the event itself but also the context in which it occurs. When people were suffering the economic pain of the lockdown yet pulling together for the national good, the apparently opportunistic, self-centred and venal actions of Sports Direct jarred badly.”

The government’s Covid communications strategy
Tim Jotischky, director of reputation at PR agency The PHA Group: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” was a message we could all grasp. But the messages became mixed. Dominic Cummings drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight; the tier rules became incomprehensible; and scientists spun the data to justify a lockdown. Not a good look in a national emergency.


Dominic Cummings
Jo O'Connell, founder of agency JellyRock PR: “This year I'm nominating Dominic Cummings as a PR villain. He clearly felt that the rules around Covid applied to everyone else, but not him. His appearance in the Rose Garden of Number 10 didn't include an apology, and raised more questions over his multiple trips to Durham. Cummings single-handedly crashed the public's loyalty to the rules and sewed resentment and discontent. Before his scandal, it felt like we were all in it together. Afterwards, people thought, well, if top government brass aren't following the rules, then why should we? Boris and chums refused to punish him, making us feel like we were suffering from the arrogance of the Bullingdon Club toffs all over again.”


The government on social
Helen Reynolds, joint owner of training firm Comms Creatives: “Shitposting is the deliberate publishing of low-quality content, to attract attention. And in August, I began to suspect this was part of the UK government's social media strategy.

“A strangely spaced graphic on keeping safe from Covid, appeared to say: 'Wash cover make, hands face space'. The colour choices were off-brand. The online reaction was of confusion and ridicule.

“It wasn't a total surprise though, as it followed other recent tweets that seemed to get people talking, but for the wrong reason. Like the image telling us to 'Get a test', that looked like it was from a 1960s’ Pink Panther movie poster. And the use of Comic Sans typeface in a Conservative post about Brexit. Comic Sans!

“’They're trolling us!’ I thought. Maybe it worked, and made the messages have a larger reach. But I believe the government was playing with its reputation at a time when we most needed to trust our leaders.”

Government’s A’ Level results fiasco
Helen Furnivall, managing director at agency High-Rise Communications: "There’s been an embarrassment of riches with regards to PR disasters and the government this year. And with the oven-ready Brexit still to be delivered, 2020 is not over yet. But my vote this year goes for the A’ level disaster with Gavin Williamson at the helm which caused so much unnecessary upset for students and their families.

“Despite the impending disaster approaching and loads of warning – not least the example of what had gone wrong with the Scottish exam results – the government seemed determined to stand by its ‘robust system’. Then followed the volte face where the robust system became a ‘mutant algorithm’ for unfairly penalising bright students from schools which did not have a track record of high grades in their chosen subject.

“To add PR insult to PR injury – and with this government why not? – PM Boris Johnson of course then stood by the minister in charge of the chaos. No wonder Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton took  for the job – surely after the year this government has had the only way is up?”


The government’s retraining campaign
Nikki Scrivener, director and co-founder of agency Fourth Day PR: “In a year where the UK government has had a number of PR disasters, it’s hard to pick the worst. However, the campaign encouraging people who became unemployed as a result of Covid-19 to retrain has to take the prize.

“A government-branded poster, featuring an image of a ballet dancer lacing her ballet slippers, and suggesting she could ‘reboot’ her career by retraining as an IT worker, drew heavy criticism. It was branded insensitive and inappropriate in light of the damage done to the arts industry by the pandemic. To make matters worse, the government also launched a disastrous careers quiz via the National Careers Service.

“Both were viral PR fails, which saw doctored images suggesting senior government officials retrain instead, and the British public sharing quiz results on social media channels, mocking the suggestions which included lock-keeper, cinema projectionist, airline pilot, and boxer.”

Nicola Stamford, founder of The Big Bamboo Agency: “The faux-pas wasn’t the biggest, nor was it the worst blunder. This one takes my top spot because it was so easy to parody. The mockery kept up momentum for months after the fact, because this particular blunder enabled short, catchy, pithy copycat ads.

“Didi (Harding’s) next job shouldn’t be in cyber.

“Fatima’s not ****ing retraining (this isn’t her hobby, it’s her calling)
“Fatima could keep the job she loves (If the government decided to give a s**t)

“In one fell swoop, the campaign alienated the entire creative industry, and gave members of that same industry the tools and motivation to vent their emotions. Possibly a taste of things yet to come considering an absence of meaningful support to the events, creative, and hospitality industries (among many others). The one positive? The ad seems to have brought ballerinas back into the public consciousness as evidenced by Amazon’s Christmas ad.”

Samantha Levene, junior PR manager at search agency The Audit Lab: "Not only did it show a complete lack of respect for the arts – which has been notoriously underfunded during the pandemic – but it quickly became common knowledge that the picture came from a free image website. So for all the artists involved in creating the picture – from models and graphic designers to photographers and make-up artists – not one of them benefited financially from its use. Safe to say the whole campaign was widely criticised for being out of touch, disrespectful and condescending, and soon became immortalised in various meme forms."


FA chairman Greg Clarke’s select committee appearance
Tim Jotischky: “He was meant to be discussing football finance, but ended up losing his job for using inappropriate language and gender and racial stereotyping. Quite a morning’s work. Preparation is everything, whether it is an appearance before MPs or a media interview: fail to prepare and pay the price.”

Pretty Little Thing Black Friday sale
Jessica Pardoe, senior PR executive at agency The Source PR: “For me, the recent 99% off sale at Pretty Little Thing was a big fail. Fast fashion is already coming under fire for its lack of sustainability and ethics.”

“The now-infamous PLT sale saw items being reduced to as little as 8p which seemed to do more harm than good. Outrage was ignited across social media by people suggesting it is fuelling throwaway culture and questioning the environmental impact of creating and shipping products for such a low cost, not to mention ethical issues surrounding the manufacturing of these items. This post went perhaps most viral across social media and although Pretty Little Thing got great social engagement on the back of its competitions and promotions, the sale itself has done their brand reputation no good at all from a PR point of view.”


Rita Ora’s birthday party
Jo O'Connell: “Another one for the Covid sin bin. Her actions along with others such as various footballers (sex party, anyone?) and Jeremy Corbyn (a less exciting party, for sure) felt they were above us mere mortal folk. Rita Ora celebrated her 30th birthday despite a national lockdown in place. Note to Rita – most of us had to cancel our birthday bashes this year. Her apology for her ‘inexcusable error of judgement’ was in itself inexcusable. Damage done I'm afraid.”

The Duke of Sussex, the Prince of Woke
Tim Jotischky: “’What if every single one of us was a raindrop?’ His latest pronouncement, roundly ridiculed, crowned a miserable year. Prince Harry has lost his lustre and become a figure of fun. An LA approach to PR might work in Hollywood, but it does not cut the mustard back in Blighty.”

So well done everyone involved in the above, great work! Thanks for making 2020 even more memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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