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A Fresh Start to the New Year: Learning from PR Disasters of 2012

by Katie Koenig on January 3, 2013

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Every year, a handful of PR slip-ups go down in history as PR disasters. Last month, Laura Stampler from Business Insider wrote about the cringe worthy PR disasters of 2012. While these situations have faded from the news cycle, they will always be an example of what not to do as a company or an agency. As Stampler puts it, “All it takes is a single employee’s bad tweet — like a Burger King staffer standing in a tub of lettuce — to send corporate headquarters into damage control mode.”

As communications professionals, we look at these situations and think what’s the next step? How would we resolve this issue and recover from its reputational impact? The following mishaps serve as reminders of what not to do to be a successful PR pro in 2013. 

Be Sensitive in Times of Tragedy

It’s always exciting to see a story hijacking or trend intervention opportunity that is the perfect place for your spokesperson to comment, but it’s of utmost importance to be sensitive with particular news stories. No matter where you were located during Hurricane Sandy, everyone was aware of the devastation that slammed the East Coast. Very soon after the storm hit, I received an email from American Apparel encouraging me to take advantage of a 20% off sale if I happened to be “bored” during the storm. This may have seemed like a good opportunity initially, but tying a promotional message to a devastating tragedy was viewed as insensitive, and resulted in a lot of backlash. Do your research and identify the situations where you need to be most sensitive.

Keep Personal Opinions Under Wraps

When it comes to representing a company via public comments or appearances, it’s typically best to check personal opinions at the door. The Ken Coleman Show maybe wasn’t the best place for Dan Cathy, president and COO of Chick-fil-A, to make his objection to gay marriage known. While there is an appropriate way to incorporate personal opinions, make sure your spokesperson has solid media training. Walk through which topics are appropriate and which should be avoided. If your spokesperson hasn’t had a media briefing in a while, suggest a quick refresher so they are ready to respond to any curveball questions.

Be Aware Of The News

Hours after we all learned about the tragic Aurora shooting in July, The National Rifle Association tweeted “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend Plans?” Apparently, the individual who posted the tweet was unaware of the previous events in Colorado, which is a perfect example of why you should be aware of the news before you make a remark on social media, whether it pertains to a tragedy or not. Make it a daily to-do to look at the news a few times a day, and set up the appropriate Google alerts so you are in the loop with the news, industry specific or not!

Ask For Public Feedback If It Will Be Primarily Positive

McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign in January that asked users to tweet their favorite #McDStories. Little did they know that this seemingly harmless campaign turned into an area for people to post their personal complaints and terrifying stories related to their McDonald’s experiences. If you have a spokesperson that is active on social media, be sure they are careful when asking for opinions of their followers. While increasing engagement is a common priority, cater your opportunities to engage with users to solicit positive engagement.

Which PR “disasters” did you learn from in 2012?

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