PR is a vital tool for businesses to connect with their clients, consumers, investors, and other stakeholders. Further, the birth of online platforms has made it even easier for companies to execute PR campaigns and reach wider audiences, but it also increased the risk of encountering a disaster. And if you are a constant dweller of the internet, you would know that when a PR campaign fails online, it fails bad. Even greater dangers lurk in social media, where users are free to post practically anything, and where “respect seems to be an alien concept. 2012 has taught us that anything is possible with the Internet: well-meaning hashtags may backfire, a single tweet may mar a company’s reputation, a prank call made in the spirit of fun and entertainment may cost a person’s life, and a political aspirant may be turned into a meme just because of his poor choice of words. With all these in mind, I can only hope that 2013 be a year of careful and responsible online PR.
So without further ado, here are top 10 lists of the biggest PR disasters of 2012:
10 – Sweden’s twitter campaign
Sweden made the unconventional decision of letting different ordinary citizens handle its Twitter account to promote tourism. It was inclusive and participatory, and it allowed for multiple perspectives to be heard. It sounded genius, until one Twitter “curator” posted tweets that sounded anti-Semitic, spurring tweet after tweet of negative feedback. The controversy that arose from this instance is the perfect illustration of crowd-sourcing gone wrong.
9 – Energy Watch CEO Ben Polis
CEOs rarely participate actively in social media; and when they do, they are usually careful and meticulously cautious of what they post (most just relegate the task to the PR department entirely). This is why when Australian company EnergyWatch’s former CEO Ben Polis posted racist comments on his Facebook page, it was a shock, and a damaging one at that. This only goes to show how in addition to a business’ corporate image, its CEO’s individual reputation must also be handled and monitored with care.
8 – BIC for her Amazon reviews
While BIC’s Cristal for Her line of pens was introduced last year, it was only in 2012 when people of the internet started to take notice of this odd product line—pens made especially for females. Soon enough, the absurdity of this idea reached extreme levels and people started posting a flurry of sarcastic product reviews in Amazon. I would have written a much longer examination of where this campaign went wrong, but when you have a product as ludicrous as a pen particularly made to fit women’s hands (with an “elegant design – just for her!”), reading the product description would suffice.
7 – #HashtagFailures
Horrible and reputation-damaging #McDStories. People expecting a not-so-wholesome kind of fun from Susan Boyle’s #Susanalbumparty. These are only a couple of things that might happen if one hastily creates a hashtag. Twitter’s 140-character limit and open nature has given businesses and celebrities the opportunity to connect and communicate with the general public; but it has also made their little lapses susceptible to be blown to epic proportions, as these #hashtagfailures would tell.
6 – Apple Maps
Massive flak following the launch of a new product is a common thing in the history of manufacturing, and this year is no exception; but Apple Maps— the backlash of all product backlashes— undoubtedly takes the cake. With the world eagerly waiting for the iOS6 with great anticipation, Apple’s faulty attempt at replacing Google Maps with its own was greeted with much contempt—and not the silent kind. It was getting so out of hand that Apple CEO Tim Cook even had to issue a public apology himself. The apology was a wise move; so although the product was a grave error on Apple’s part, at least they knew how to do crisis management properly.
5 – Insensitive tweets
Just as a carelessly-crafted hashtag can prompt an overblown backlash, so can a seemingly harmless promotional tweet posted at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances. Take it from the NRA (National Rifle Association) which posted a clearly insensitive tweet greeting “shooters” and asking them of their “weekend plans” shortly after a mass shooting incident in Colorado; and clothing giants American Apparel and Gap which took advantage of the height of the devastating Hurricane Sandy to tweet promotions.
4 – Pink slime
In yet another fitting illustration of how “going viral” doesn’t always mean good news, the extensive coverage (or rather, exposition) of an ingredient dubbed “pink slime” used in many fast food products put major American fast food companies in jeopardy. Eventually, despite attempts to defend their side and regain their products credibility, several pink slime manufacturers such as Beef Products Inc. ended up going down the drain.
3 – Chick-fil-A
Business and highly-sensitive cultural issues rarely converge, but when they do, it creates massive uproar. Take the much-publicized Chick-fil-A episode, for example. Last year, the company was revealed to have been actively supporting anti-same-sex-marriage groups. Moreover, its COO Dan Cathy released statements that further confirmed the company’s stand against gay marriage. This was then followed by several politicians and business partners expressing disapproval and even going as far as severing ties with the company.
2 – 2DayFM prank call
Earlier in December, two DJ’s from Australian radio station 2Day FM made a prank call to King Edward VII’s Hospital, where Catherine Duchess of Cambridge was admitted. Soon after, the nurse who got the prank call committed suicide, blaming the radio presenters for her decision to take her own life. It’s not exactly a PR disaster in that it’s not the marketing/PR people who made the tasteless decision to make the prank call (anyone with a decent sense of ethics and journalistic responsibility would know it’s ridiculous), but it’s so magnanimous and tragic an event to remind everyone of how media is so powerful that when used recklessly, can go as far as imperil lives.
1 – Binders full of women
How does one know that his campaign has gone totally out of control? When it becomes a full-blown internet meme. Unfortunately for former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, he had to learn this the hard way. During one of the presidential debates, Romney answered a question about gender equity by recounting how “binders full of women” were presented to him when he was putting together a cabinet when he was still governor of Massachussetts. And just like that, as if on cue, the whole of internet-dom went off on a meme-posting frenzy. This kind of fortune is not new for celebrities—Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney knows this well—but if you’re a presidential aspirant running against a strong re-electionist, in a country where feminism has been given a powerful voice, being turned into a meme sure hurts bad for your reputation (and, as in Romney’s case, maybe even undermine your number of votes).