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The reasons behind PR #fails

From putting the brand centre stage to letting the CEO go rogue, here are 12 ways to make sure your next PR campaign is a big, fat failure. The first piece of advice comes from our own Good and Bad columnist Shannon Peerless, head of public relations at 10 Yetis, who points out that there is such a thing as bad press, no matter how many times you’ll hear otherwise in the PR rat-race: “Some brands are good at turning bad PR into a positive story, but oftentimes it’s not as easy to polish the proverbial PR poop.” 

From Shannon Peerless:  

1. Lack sensitivity “The biggest – and probably most sure-fire – way to ensure a PR or marketing campaign goes badly wrong is to lack sensitivity and take a blinkered approach to your activity. Take Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi advert, for example, which was criticised for depicting a “privileged, white” model as a peacemaker between police and activists; seemingly undermining the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When the advertising team set out to create this campaign, they weren’t thinking about how it could come across… that it might seem to suggest that a can of Pepsi is all it would take to stop years of well documented police brutality and racial disparity in the US.” 

2.   Don’t consider timing – “There are times when brands or agencies don’t take steps to pause planned activity in the event of a serious or overshadowing breaking news story. At best, decent PR stories get buried beneath sombre news; at worst, PR stories can be so badly timed that they appear to lack any sort of tact. Timing is everything in PR and you should always sense check your campaigns and plans to ensure they won’t be misconstrued or exacerbate a bad situation.” 

From Sarah Harris, group commercial director at communications agency TVC Group:  

3.   Misread the zeitgeist – “'s campaign which labelled red hair and freckles as imperfections (as a red-head with freckles I was particularly offended) saw a creative route misread millennials’ celebration of difference.” 

4.   Don’t do any testing  “Pepsi's infamous Kendall Jenner campaign was a perfect example of a campaign that lacked a balanced review and rigorous testing by those outside the company – or certainly by a seasoned communication specialist.” 

5.   Be caught napping  “TSB's slow and chaotic response from a communications and an operational perspective to its online banking migration fiasco has led to FCA dissatisfaction with communication and accusations of lack of transparency – and a rolling CEO head... with £1.7m in his pocket mind.” 

6.   Let your CEO go rogue  “It'll be interesting to see if Elon Musk's current behaviour on Twitter has a lasting effect on his or Tesla's long-term success and reputation.” 

7.   Be arrogant  “For those of you old enough – remember how Gerald Ratner wiped £500m of his jewellery business with a single ill-timed joke that took an arrogant swipe at his loyal customer base? Mind you, arrogance and going rogue doesn't seem to be harming the Leader of the Free World, but then he is made of orange Teflon.

From Josephine Ornago, account director at marketing agency ThoughtSpark:  

8.   Be ignorant – “Terrible PR campaigns have one key factor in common – lack of in-depth knowledge! Specifically, in-depth knowledge of the real issues facing your audience; in-depth knowledge of what is happening in the market you are working on; in-depth knowledge of how your audience really ticks.

“If any practitioner thinks they can remain a generalist with 'clever ideas', they'll fail their clients. You've got to do your homework, do the intellectual heavy lifting. Otherwise you are doomed to making a fool of yourself and your client as well as wasting journalist’s time.”

From Alison Dyson, communications lead at pharmaceutical company Mundipharma:  

9.   Fail to think outside-in – “Most PR campaigns that fail do so because people only focus on pushing their brand out, and fail to spend time looking in. It is not good enough to have a great idea and a great product – you need to anticipate the customer reaction and customer journey when the campaign is delivered in order to achieve success. As comms professionals we’re often the ones asking the business the difficult questions, but better to do this at the start of the campaign planning than have your customers do it for you.”

From Abe Smith, president EMIA at software company Cision:  

10.   Ignore the data – “Terrible PR campaigns have one thing in common – lack of data. Data and analysis must be involved at every point of the campaign in order for it to be successful; from the planning and execution, right through to the measurement of the campaign on completion. If you don’t have accurate data or know how to analyse it, you’ll fail to realise the true potential of a campaign or grasp the impact it has had on your audience.

“Using data to thoroughly and accurately to measure the results of a campaign means you can see the true value on business results, rather than relying on outdated ways of measuring success, such as AVEs and other such vanity metrics. The big danger is that if you don’t adapt, and quickly, you will risk turning a transformative campaign into a terrible one. And even worse, other companies will do a better job of engaging your target consumers meaning you’ll be left with the scraps.” 

From Jack Peat head of digital at news agency SWNS Media Group/72Point:  

11.   Let the brand take the starring role – “Bad PR campaigns often take root in the same problems, but the death knell sounds, more often than not, when the brand takes precedence over the story. Very few journalists are interested in running positive news stories about a brand, but they are interested in running good stories, and if you can formulate a good tale with the brand centred at the heart of it then you are half way towards creating a good campaign.

“The worst examples of PR campaigns that come across our news desk are the ones that include a brand mention in the headline, the email subject and the first line of the copy, because they are the ones that undoubtedly show a flagrant disregard for the story.” 

12.   Add stupid links – “Campaigns that are littered with links that bear no relation to the story and those that include brand mentions in every other line are also common culprits. The trick here is to bear in mind the old journalist trick of 'inverting the pyramid'. Start with the story, add in a supporting line or two and then get to the citation. If you run a press release like a marketing pamphlet then you are doomed from the start.”

The easy way in PR is often the stupid way. It may take time to do fact checking, look at data and analyse the media, but the more time is spent in the planning, the less time will be spent apologising later.

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