The biggest PR disasters of 2019

Here is a calendar of the lowest PR moments of the last 12 months – and who takes the crown for providing the lowest of the low moments? Two words: “Prince Andrew”.

January

Gillette’s campaign flops

Elena Davidson, CEO at Liberty Communications, says: “2019 has had its fair share of PR faux pas, including Gillette’s “The best men can be” advertising campaign at the start of the year.

“Airing around three months after the #MeToo movement had started to gather global attention, Gillette’s decision to run an ad capitalising on the positive messages of empowerment was at best naïve, and at worst emasculating and virtue-signalling.

“The implication of the ad is that most men are guilty of sexual harassment, with toxic masculinity rife across society. Regardless of whether or not you believe this to be the case, the real question is why Gillette felt it was well placed as a brand to engage in the debate?

“The reaction and impact? Well, Gillette’s buzz score on the YouGov BrandIndex dropped by nearly six points to -3.4 in the week after the ad aired, and the company also fell from seventh to the bottom of the list of 45 health and beauty brands.”

March

Thoughtless policy from TripAdvisor

In our Good and Bad column of 7 March, Shannon Peerless, managing director of agency 10 Yetis Digital, tells of this shocking lack of sympathy from TripAdvisor: “The Guardian wrote up a report regarding two women who claimed that they had been raped by members of staff that worked for companies promoted on TripAdvisor. One was attacked by a tour guide from a business that was profiled on TripAdvisor and so she reached out to the site to tell it what had happened in the hope that she could warn and protect others.

“However, she was allegedly asked to just leave a first-person review regarding the incident and her traumatic ordeal on the business page on TripAdvisor, which she said left her ‘in disbelief’.”

This story put a spotlight on TripAdvisor’s policies and made people question the brand’s commitment to safeguarding the public.

June

North Face cheats
Mark McMeekin, digital PR consultant at marketing agency AGY47, says: “Everyone wants to get to the top of Google, but in May, North Face thought it could cheat its way to the top by replacing Wikipedia photos with its own product shots – in some cases it actually used photo shop to add in North Face products! Needless to say, within hours of the campaign going live, Wikipedia's army of editors noticed and changed the images back and made Wiki aware of the rule breakers. A huge PR own goal for the brand!”

July

Facebook fined $5 billion
Susan Hallam, founder of PR agency Hallam, says: “Facebook lurches from one scandal to another, and the ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ exercise in rebranding the Facebook family of products certainly isn't the answer to its PR crisis problems. 

In 2019, Facebook was fined a record $5 billion over privacy lapses, and Wall Street Journal revealed Facebook could have emails demonstrating Mark Zuckerberg knew all about Facebook's shady track record when it comes to compliance with personal privacy. Allegations of unscrupulous behaviour has dogged Facebook ever since Cambridge Analytica, but it still hasn’t learnt its PR crisis management lessons.

“Despite making pledges to make Facebook a more private place and protect its users in 2019, Zuckerberg didn't exude the necessary credibility when it comes to demonstrating a commitment to user privacy. Not does its messaging build confidence when it comes to eliminating the lack of transparency surrounding data security issues or Facebook product vulnerabilities. From the failed launch of Libra, to Facebook Dating, the road to Facebook PR is still littered with banana skins.”

Richard Cook, director at agency Champion Comms, adds: “2019 has been horrific for Facebook. The brand has become regarded as toxic, dangerous and unethical. First, it was fined $5 billion in July and in September it leaked 400 million records in Ireland. In October, The Verge leaked internal memos from Zuckerberg which revealed that the company feels under siege because of Elizabeth Warren’s plans to break it up. Later in October, Elizabeth Warren placed her own fake ads on Facebook to expose the weakness in its fact-checking service which led to 46 State attorneys joining the Facebook Antitrust probe party.

“And now it wants to put cameras in everyone’s living room and manage our money? No thanks. Not even Nick Clegg acting as a special advisor would persuade me that Facebook should have a camera in my house or know what I spend money on.”

August

Markle loses sparkle

Ellie St George-Yorke, head of PR agency Definition in Leeds, says: “poor old Meghan Markle. It’s fair to say Meghan has suffered a barrage of unashamedly vile media coverage since becoming Duchess of Sussex last year and, even more worryingly, since becoming a mother in May. However, Meghan taught us a valuable lesson in practising what you preach this summer when just days after championing a sustainable lifestyle she was seen boarding a number of gas-guzzling private flights to attend social occasions with friends.

“Despite a number of royals and celebrities jumping to her defence, it doesn’t do much for public perception or sympathy and the negative coverage rumbled on. Meghan is not the only public figure to suffer from not heeding her own advice, with a number of CEOs, including the boss of Greenpeace no less, having been criticised in the past for their less than sustainable travel options. It’s important to remember how these actions will be perceived and make sure you say as you do and do as you say.”

EasyJet #fail
Ruth Walker, senior digital PR and outreach manager at agency Evolved Search, says:A passenger flying from London Luton to Geneva was expected to sit in a backless seat until the plane took off. When their partner took to Twitter to complain, EasyJet asked them to remove the offending image of the seating situation. As you can imagine this led to a backlash of complaints against EasyJet on Twitter and a barrage of negative press for the brand. Rather than putting the customer first, EasyJet chose to protect its brand and this has done it more harm than good.”

October

Boeing profits crash
Jonathan Hemus, managing director at agency Insignia Communications, says: “Boeing, one of the world’s biggest businesses with a history stretching back to 1916, provided compelling evidence for Warren Buffett’s contention that ‘it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it’.

“Boeing compounded the human cost of two crashes involving its 737 Max aircraft with a lacklustre crisis response. With allegations of a culture which failed to listen to the concerns of pilots, an apparent focus on keeping planes flying at all costs and a tight-lipped approach to communication, it transgressed many of the cardinal rules of crisis management and paid the price. According to its third quarter results in October, Boeing spent $8 billion responding to the crisis and had lost one-sixth of its value since the grounding of its aircraft.

“It’s a salutary reminder that no matter how big or successful a business, nothing can protect it from the damage of a mishandled crisis. Boeing’s road to recovery will be long and arduous.”

Jules Herd, managing director of marketing agency Five in a Boat, adds: "The Boeing and 737 Max crisis unearthed damaging evidence after two crashes and lost lives, that Boeing had failed to alert operators about new features on its airplane. It transpired that the plane’s autopilot system which kicked in during take-off actually had the potential for errors – a fact about which pilots were not aware. This was then made worse by the CEO of Boeing who immediately insisted that the plane was safe, proposing that the issue could be managed with pilot training.

“Ultimately the planes were and still are grounded which forced the cancellation of numerous flights, which entirely compromised consumer trust in the brand and which had a huge financial impact on Boeing. A total shit show in my opinion."

November

Tesla Cybertruck farce

Olivia Wiltshire, senior content marketing consultant at marketing agency Builtvisible, says: “Tesla’s Cybertruck unveiling is a PR disaster. Stating a car has ‘bulletproof’ windows and then seeing a steel ball shatter those very same windows during a live demo is fairly damning. Although many in the industry have been speculating whether this was just another Elon Musk prank, Tesla’s stock did drop by more than 6% after the event, albeit Musk has since been shouting out about the Cybertruck’s order numbers. PR stunt or not, my confidence in that product and that brand has been shattered.”

Sexism from PeoplePerHour
Evolved Search’s Ruth Walker says: “PeoplePerHour launched a series of ads saying ‘You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing.’ The ad was tone deaf, sexist and offensive. There was public outrage especially in the marketing industry. PeoplePerHour issued an apology, but it really missed the mark and ended up pretty much being a non-apology. A key number of industry professionals including Lisa Myers, Emma Sexton and myself shared our disgust online. I got in touch with Huffington Post and brought the ads to its attention and it issued an article on the ads. The I Weigh account then got involved and shared the piece. One day later the ads were pulled and replaced with revised non-offensive ones.

All-year disaster

Annus horribilis for royals
Pamela Lyddon, CEO and founder of agency Bright Star Digital, says: “The Royal Family are brand ‘Britain’ and they are going through another significant crisis.

“However they are changing with different houses popping up – the Sussex’s and Cambridge’s with very different views on their own PR – some taking advice and some clearly not. It seems a lot more fragmented and not so controlled and I don’t know if they can ever get that ‘control’ back.”

Worst of the year

And the prize for the biggest PR disaster of 2019 goes to… Prince Andrew! No surprise there.

William Knight, MD of agency Early Morning Media explains: “It simply has to be Prince Andrew. The Windsors have lived and recovered from Edwards’ abdication and marriage to an American divorcee, Diana and Charlie’s divorce, Fergie’s toe sucking, Harry’s Nazi costume. However, inviting a convicted sex offender to the sacred palace and then that carriage-wreck of a Panorama interview takes the royal biscuit. Ostracized by his own mother. Unbelievable damage to the British Institution with reverberations felt by hundreds of charities he gave his patronage too. Who in their right mind allowed him to take that interview? Was it not war-gamed to see how he would come across? Was the risk to reward discussed at any level? Do these hazardousness TV interviews ever work at royal level? Andrew has gone from the Playboy Prince to Rancid Royal most certainly, but further revelations could fatally damage his family institution.”

Lucy Capaldo, account director at agency Cartwright Communications, says: “Without question it has to be the Prince Andrew Newsnight interview. This story is still going strong and shows no signs of calming down. Taking part in the Newsnight interview appeared to be the Duke’s choice, with one advisor resigning as a result of this. He was woefully underprepared and equally unable to calculate Emily Maitlis’s careful strategy to draw out the gaps and absurdity of his story.

“He came across as remorseless, self-absorbed and not the sharpest. In what will now go down as Annus Horribilis II for the Queen, this marks a difficult end to the year of 2019, which has included rumours of family rifts and infighting and the press vilification of The Duchess of Sussex. Andrew’s decision and messaging will create shockwaves for years to come. However, the real losers are the charities who have been forced into the public eye for their associations with the Duke and who will now have to work twice as hard to fix their reputations.”

We end the year with a general election, and politicians are doing their best to put their feet in their mouths as always. Whether the biggest loser will be Boris or Jeremy is yet to be decided.


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