The last few decades have seen a drastic change in the way companies approach Public Relations due to changes in media, technology, and society.
Managing Public Relations (PR) is a complicated task and while mastering this art, many companies have committed huge blunders.
It is always advised to learn from someone else’s mistakes instead of committing a few of your own. Because such mistakes can not only impact you negatively but also the company you are associated with. Fortunately, for new businesses, there are plenty of Public Relations blunders and fails to learn from.
In this article, we are going to take a look at our list of Top 5 PR Lessons to be learned from History.
1. Martin R. Himmel and “Ayds” – 1981
In 1981, Martin R. Himmel bought the rights to several consumer packaged goods from Purex, which is a detergent company. His main aim was to buy the products and then reintroduce them with new marketing and Public Relations tactics.
However, after one year he bought those products from Purex, The Centre for Disease Control announced that they would be adopting a new terminology for gay-related immune deficiency and decided that they would now refer to GRID as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or simply, AIDS.
The Centre for Disease Control is a national public health institute in the United States.
How does it relate to Martin? Well, one of the brands that he had bought was called Ayds. Ayds was a very popular line of appetite suppressant candies in the 1950s. What Martin did was that he aired an advertisement for Ayds at the same time when the CDC changed its terminology and introduced the term “AIDS”.
Ayds and AIDS sound completely similar and the advertisements were badly timed and worded. The whole situation also lacked the proper implementation of PR strategies. People started associating the brand with the disease.
However, though the company later recovered from the financial losses from this unintentional Public Relations disaster, the sales of Ayds never recovered.
The lesson learned here is that it’s important to cross-check the name of your products and properly time the advertisements as well as their advertising copy.
It is also important to even alter it according to the latest happenings. In the case of any unintentional Public Relations disaster like this one, it is important to address the issue rather than neglect the severity of the situation. It can hamper the growth of the brand, and even kill it.
2. Gerald Ratner and Ratners Jewellers -1991
Gerald Irving Ratner is a British businessman and a motivational speaker. He was formerly the CEO of the British jewelry company Ratners Group. He is often remembered as the man who destroyed his multimillion-dollar company in 10 seconds. In 1991, he wiped $820m from the value of his company with a single speech.
Gerard was a guest speaker at the Institute of Directors on April 23, 1991. It was attended by over 6000 journalists and people. In a speech to the Institute of Directors, he said: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say because it’s total crap.”
However, it was clear that his joke was immature and foolishly targeted the customers and the common man. He accused his customers of having no taste and being “total crap.” This earned him and his company a lot of negative media attention and public disdain.
Due to his speech, people immediately stopped shopping at the Ratners chain. Gerald, in return, lost his job and his lifestyle. The situation got so dirty that the company had to rebrand and rename itself “Signet Group”.
The lesson learned here is that while addressing a large group of people, it is important to consider the message you are conveying. Not only this, it is crucial to take ships you build with people. Harming those relationships goes completely against the sentiments of the people.
A company is nothing without its consumers, and harming, degrading or demeaning them in any way, will ultimately harm your company. Public Relations, as is obvious by the name, is relatively nothing without public.
3. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill – 2012
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an industrial disaster that began on the 20th of April, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. It occurred on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect and is considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Now, how did it become a Public Relations disaster?
British Petroleum was ultimately held responsible for the whole incident and their public response further worsened the situation. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, committed a lot of PR Blunders in response to the situation.
Not only he tried to trivialize the severity of the situation, but he also attempted to compare it to the ocean and called it “relatively tiny”.
Moreover, in a very immature response to some journalists, he also expressed his desire to have his old life back as the incident was destroying his personal life. The quote made headlines and even cost him his job. Not only this, but he also faced backlash for taking a sailing trip amid all the chaos.
To add to all this, BP released a one-minute apology video. It featured none other than Tony himself saying, “I’m sorry”, which many considered to be just a formality. The stock, which is a good indicator of public perception and mass psychology, plunged to BP’s 18-year low.
The lesson here is that it is better to take full responsibility if you have committed a blunder, as huge as that of the oil spill. Instead of aiming for sympathy, it’s better to be accountable and act responsibly for your actions. Further denying it will only worsen the situation. A great Public Relations disaster, indeed!
4. Adidas’ Congratulatory Post-Race Email – Boston Marathon 2017
Even a multinational corporation can commit PR blunders. Adidas is a well-known brand worldwide. The brand is also one of the most well-known sponsors of the Boston Marathon.
Boston Marathon is an annual marathon race hosted in Greater Boston, United States. In 2017, Adidas sent a congratulatory post-race email to all the participants. Sounds good, right? But the headline of this congratulatory email was, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
However, instead of focusing on the email, many people related it to the Boston Marathon bombings. A pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs detonated near the finish line of the race that killed 3 people and injured hundreds of others on the 15th of April 2013.
Recipients of the email immediately took to the internet to draw attention to Adidas’ unexpected carelessness and oversight. However, Adidas owed up to the situation and took full responsibility for whatever happened. They even issued a public apology owning up to their mistake. However, despite this it did damage their overall reputation.
The lesson learned here is that Mistakes happen. But it is crucial to think about what you post, especially when addressing the public. It is always advised to double-check and proofread the content before sharing and to look at it from different perspectives.
5. United Airlines Re-accommodation Disaster – 2017
In 2017, United Airlines overbooked a flight. An overbooked flight means, the company sold more tickets on the plane than there were seats, which is a common occurrence in the industry.
An elderly doctor found himself in a similar situation and refused to leave the plane. In response to this, the airline handled the situation disastrously. They outdid themselves when the security was called to drag the man from the aircraft. Many passengers recorded this whole incident and blunder on their mobile phones as well.
The clip went viral and the airlines faced severe backlash from everyone., initiating another Public Relations blunder. The video went especially viral in China, which is a crucial market for the airline.
However, the cherry on the top was the apology issued by the CEO of the airline, Oscar Munoz. It is very easy to differentiate between a heartfelt apology and a mere formality.
Instead of apologizing for the assault of the elderly man, he focused on apologizing for “having to re-accommodate” customers. He tried to make the whole issue about overbooking instead of about appropriate behavior.
Just like BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, Munoz’s apology did not serve its purpose and made the whole situation even worse. It not only damaged their reputation but also their company.
If he had taken responsibility for the situation, and if the staff had been trained better, the whole situation could have been completely different, and not a Public Relations blunder.
This shows a clear lack of a well-researched and documented Public Relations plan. The lesson learned here is that a sensitive crisis requires a well-researched and organized PR strategy with proper implementation and choice of message.
Without proper crisis handling, a difficult situation can transform into an actual Public Relations disaster impacting the whole company as well as its shareholders. Which one of these Public Relations disasters has the most learning potential? Which one of these Public Relations do you think was the silliest? Also, did we miss anything?
Do let us know in the comments section down below!