Top PR Fails 2013

2888102664_8a07d8d0bc_oAs I’ve stated in other posts, the key to understanding how to successfully communicate during a crisis, is to look at what others have done and learn from their mistakes.

There are countless examples of failed public relations in the world every year. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to give a list of what, in my opinion, were the top three worst PR fails of this past year.

In no particular order:

Lance Armstrong – One of the most inspiring and reputable athletes in recent history, found his image in shambles after evidence surfaced that he used steroids. This situation was doomed from the get-go, as he publicly denied doping for nearly a decade before this information came out. He found himself in an amazing little crisis. In the aftermath, he went on an highly publicized interview with Oprah, in which he seemed insincere and lacking remorse. I wonder if this was due to lack of planning, or he just wasn’t able to reflect the emotions we expected from him. Regardless, he let all of his supporters down. Luckily, the LiveStrong foundation was able to separate themselves from him and this catastrophe.

Carnival Cruise Triumph- After a fire broke out in the engine room of Carnival’s Triumph ship while afloat in the Gulf of Mexico, passengers were stranded onboard for five days in horrible conditions. Human waste, limited water, extreme heat and horrible odors burdened the ship. While passengers were stuck on board, they were constantly tweeting about how horrible the experience was and this social media use took hold in media. Carnival’s restitution to passengers, $5,000 and a ticket for a free cruise. Since I’m sure so many of those people want to take another cruise… But now several of the passengers are suing Carnival claiming they have PTSD.

Justine Sacco – The tweet heard around the world. Justine Sacco is a communications director for the internet company InterActive Corp. When traveling to Africa, she tweeted an incredibly offensive remark, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This coming from a professional communicator? Hard to believe she would make such an arrogant mistake. And she paid for it. Despite publicly apologizing she was fired from her position at the company.

Honorable mentions include Target’s credit card information breach, JP Morgan’s twitter conversation fail and the Chick-fil A CEO’s homophobic comments.

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Social networking with a purpose

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Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Networking online is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the PR industry. Well, any industry for that matter. I’ve spoken about how you present yourself on social media influences your ability to get a job, but now let’s look at how social networking sites use innovative tactics to potentially create job opportunities. Specifically LinkedIn.

As the premier professional networking site, LinkedIn aims to connect people with other professionals by interest or personal connections.

The article, How to nab a job using LinkedIn’s “Who’s viewed your profile,” gives insight into techniques the site uses to help users become better networkers. By strategically using these features, you can increase the likelihood of gaining job opportunities with organizations or people in your industry.

The “Who’s Viewed Your Profile” feature is one that if used correctly,can provide a common ground for communication between another person. Whenever someone else looks at your profile it notifies you and shows their profile. As the article explains, this is similar to knocking on someone’s door. You meet them, they meet you and then both of you have some common ground to talk about.

LinkedIn doesn’t stop there, they also provide a slew of analytics including how often people viewed your profile, who viewed it and how people have found you. This data allows the user to formulate a sort of situation analysis for your interactions on the site. It’s essentially the who, what, when, where, how of your social networking interactions.

The only part they don’t answer for you… Why. The way I see it, that’s the fun in it though. They give you a foundation of information to make educated an guess about why people seek you out. This also motivates interaction with the other person. I know at least for me, when people I don’t know view my profile, I am incredibly curious about why they sought me out and want answers.

I personally have a LinkedIn profile that I keep up-to-date with all of my experience and projects I have worked on. But, until recently I haven’t done much more with the site than endorsing skills of people I know or have done business with. The insight given in this article was particularly helpful in strengthening my understanding of how to use features like the “Who’s Viewed Your Profile” in my own personal networking strategy.

Blaming the Intern


It is likely that most people will go into the professional world as an intern, or at least have internship experience at some point. This is an inevitable fact in any profession. I myself, have held several internships throughout the years.

I can’t help but notice the undeniable presence of “blaming the intern” in crisis communication. Seemingly a go-to tactic for organizations that have controversial mishaps while communicating.

This was brought to my attention by my roommate who gave a presentation about the PR fail surrounding the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash last July. In the aftermath of the crash, the NTSB released the names of the pilots to the KTVU news station. The problem was that they were fake names. Not only were they fake, they were offensively racist. “Sum Ting Wong,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” “Wi Tu Lo” and “Bang Ding Ow” were the names given to the media by NTSB. Remarkably KTVU, in a major failure of oversight, reported the names on live television. Long story short, the NTSB blamed the offensive “joke” on a summer intern.

This story sparked some inspiration, so I did a little research and found that it is not a rare occurrence to blame an intern when communication errors take place.

Here are some other famous instances of blaming the intern for PR faux pas:

  • During the 2008 presidential election, a website was created for “McCain Family Recipes.” Essentially supposed to be a cookbook to make the public feel “at home” with John McCain and family. Problems arose when the recipes listed were directly copied from Food Network recipes. Needless to say, goodbye intern.
  • Habitat, a furnishings retailer based out of London, blamed and fired an intern after trying to use the election protests in Iran as a promotional vehicle on twitter in 2009.
  • In May 2011, when Allure magazine sent out an emails to the blogosphere urging them to “say something nice, or don’t say anything at all” they blamed the intern for not understanding editorial policies.

Their are countless examples of interns becoming scapegoats, especially when it comes to social media.

So what is it about the intern?

I mean, they are the obvious scapegoat material – unpaid, expendable, temporary. But I can’t help but wonder if all these mishaps were actually the fault of the intern.

There are several possibilities to why this takes place. The organizations may be giving to much freedom and responsibility to under experienced employees (interns), they may be asking their interns to take part in risky communication with the knowledge that they have a scapegoat, or the intern isn’t actually involved but they divert blame in order to protect the organization as a whole.

I’m sure that the reasons behind blaming interns changes on a situational basis. In terms of the NTSB blunder, I can’t imagine a scenario that would contradict an intern being at fault. In what world would any intern do something like that though? Maybe they were disgruntled. Maybe they were under the influence. Whatever the reason, it was poor form.

The moral of the story… Tread lightly if you’re an intern.

Driving Less with an infographic

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As the final assignment in my Strategic Public Relations Communication class, we were asked to create an infographic for a client of our choosing. As I racked my brain for an issue that I could express in infographic form, I found inspiration from the Drive Less. Save More. campaign I worked on while interning with Pac/West Communications. The campaign focused on reducing driving in Oregon.

For this infographic I chose the Oregon Department of Transportation as my client and primarily focused on data for Portland, Oregon. Portland is a city that takes pride in reducing the environmental impact of its residents to preserve the natural beauty of the Northwest. With that said, there’s always work that can be done to decrease the amount of pollution we are putting into the atmosphere from transportation.

The purpose of the infographic is to raise awareness of the impact driving has on the environment, show the benefits of alternative forms of transportation and hopefully convince people to drive less.

So why an infographic?

Infographics can be an extremely effective way to present information to people in an visually stimulating way. They are entertaining and make sometimes-complex data easily digestible for the average person.

So here are some of my tips for making a successful infographic:

  • Find data content that is interesting and supports your objective.
  • Find a way to present that information in a stimulating way.
  • Use a consistent color scheme when designing the infographic
  • Pick two fonts to use throughout – one sans serif, one serif.
  • Wire-frame your infographic before hand.
  • Position images and text in a way that emphasizes most important data.

A couple of these tips I will briefly delve into. To present your data in a stimulating way, you may take an ordinary statistic and compare it to something relatable to the average person. For example, there are 319 miles of bike paths in Portland. This statistic alone lacks imagination. You can put that number into perspective by showing that distance is enough to span the entire length of Oregon.

Specific data points can be emphasized on an infographic by noticeably positioning them, using high contrast colors and larger font size.

There you have it… Adam’s advice on making an infographic.

Managing Your Online Reputation

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Image by Lapideo

Reputation management is the primary underlying goal of crisis communicating. I will take this opportunity to look at ways to manage your personal and professional reputation online, focusing on how to present yourself for potential employers.

Social media has become one of the most, if not the most, important aspects of communication in recent years. At any given moment a massive audience is able  to see content and messages you post.  So how do you know what is safe to post and what to leave out?

This infographic posted by CKsyme Media Group provides a roadmap for making a responsible decision with posting content on social media.

79 percent of job recruiters said they will look at a candidates online presence before hiring and 70 percent say they’ve rejected a candidate due to something they saw online. As a soon-to-be college graduate aspiring for a career in communications, I am constantly looking for information about how I can maintain an admirable reputation for myself on social media.

53 percent of employers said they’ve discarded candidates based on posting provocative or inappropriate pictures online. Guess I’ll have to think twice next time I want to show some skin on Facebook.

The infographic goes on to break down issues regarding drinking and drug use, posting about significant others, slandering coworkers, and posting suggestive song lyrics.

Personally, I struggle with understanding the extent to which I should “clean-up” social media sites. How far back do I have to go in this clean up process? For example, my Facebook activity is of sensible repute as of late. But go back far enough and I still have suggestive pictures from high school most of which involve drinking. I would prefer not to erase those memories from my profile, as they are part of who I am and my past. Will this content cause me to get nixed from a potential position, despite dating back several years? Allie Klein gives good insight into what images should be taken down or at least hidden in her article How to Clean up your Facebook Before You Apply for a Job or Internship, “Ask yourself if you would be comfortable sitting next to your boss as he/she looked at it. If the answer is no, delete.” Fair enough.

The pervasive final criteria for whether or not to post content; will anyone care? I find this to be the most difficult part of creating content. I am constantly piecing together an understanding of what will produce a response with peers on social media. The way I see it, the more information you take in and gaining an understanding of what other people are talking about is key in this search for creating interesting content.

As a quick segue to corporate or brand reputation I will refer to a piece of insight given to me on a recent conference call with TJ Kelly, the Vice President of Digital at Edelman San Francisco. He said that everything you/your company does in the past establishes reputation, everything you do going forward builds trust. This knowledge is especially important in managing the reputation of your company, but is also be useful to your own personal social media strategy.