The Top 15 PR Fails of 2015

By Shawn Paul Wood Comment

lucy-pr

This year was one for the PR and crisis communications books.

For brands and individuals that thought they had a chance to escape the ire of the public, social media made sure no one forgot about their various blunders.

While we could scroll into perpetuity on one post, we chose the top 15 public relations fails of 2015 for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy and share.

15. AT&T Calls Up Some Racism.

att racismAaron Slator had a cushy gig once upon a time. Back in the spring, Slator was president of content & ad sales for AT&T, as well as head of U-Verse. He enjoyed free data, Internet service, and the occasional pay-per-view.

The one thing many didn’t know is that he wanted to be a comedian, because he threw out this meme to a friend thinking no one would see it, until his assistant was asked to transfer data from his old phone to his new one.

She came across this offensive image, sued AT&T for racial discrimination because the brass knew about the meme (and the bigotry) and did nothing, was laughed out of court for the amount of $100 million, and Slator rightfully was shown the door.

14. Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis Not Being en Vogue.

fashionistaVogue’s Style editor in chief has a name — and a personality — only a mother could love. Her name is Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis. Yes, that’s real. And that’s the short version from Elisabeth Margarethe Maria Anna Beatriz Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis. 

Anyway, the lady, who is accustomed to the finer things in life, found some humor in a homeless man perusing her publication in Paris. Her brilliant quip of pretension and bitchiness caused Vogue to get pelted with Twitter hate.

Of course, Ms. Thurn und Taxis sent another gram extending her sincerest apologies for the offense her post has caused. However, we’d bet her salary that she hasn’t given a donation to the Salvation Army recently.

13. Tinder’s Back Door Issue.

Tinder-SodomyThe dating app Tinder has never really had a fair shake in the media. It has long been considered the anti-relationship app where hook-ups are welcomed. One would expect a surly reputation like that would attract a peculiar kind of person. Sean Rad was one such CEO, who eventually found himself on the outside of Tinder.

He proves why talking points are necessary in this business. The flash of the cameras. The brightness of the lights. The perfume of the reporter. Any number of things can be distracting to a spokesperson. Rad’s problem? He’s a douchebag. He did an interview explaining why he was once let go from Tinder for sexual harassment. Evidently, dude was addicted to his own creation… and then he said this:

“Apparently there’s a term for someone who gets turned on by intellectual stuff. You know, just talking. What’s the word? I want to say ‘sodomy’?”

 Yeah, that one hurt a little, bruh.

12. Seattle Seahawks New QB: MLK Jr.?!

mlk day seattleThe problem with fans and marketing departments of professional sports teams is that they have the uncanny ability to believe their athletes are more than boys and girls who get paid ghastly amounts of money to play around with a ball.

The Seattle Seahawks are like that, as seen in the press last January. Despite many pundits saying it wasn’t possible, the team made it to its second straight Super Bowl. Woohoo! It could have been called a victory, a celebration, even a triumph. But does it compare with the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? No. No it does not.

MEMO to Seattle: Next time you want to quote a civil rights leader and compare him to your quarterback, maybe just don’t.

11. Amazon.com’s Not-So-Prime Day.

prime dayImagine a Cyber Monday sale in the middle of summer. Sweet, right? You log on when things are quiet at work and it’s a bonanza. Who needs a vacation when you have access to Amazon.com’s Prime Day?

One problem — all the cool stuff you can buy on the online clearinghouse — like stuff from Brookstone and the Sharper Image — isn’t quite what Amazon had in mind. They were thinking more like a swap meet in the middle of East Los Angeles.

Instead of electronics and fashionable threads, shoppers found clearance items such as: knee braces, rotary telephones, granny panties, and a random roll of toilet paper. There were plenty of more items that even your local Goodwill store would tell people, “Yeah, we’re good.”

But, that’s what makes a #PRFail so fun… the goodness of it all.

10. IHOP Flips For Misogyny.

ihopWhen you’re looking for a place to have breakfast following church, IHOP fits the bill. Then the restaurant goes and compares its pancakes to A-cup boobies.

In October, IHOP tweeted a picture of pancakes because it’s IHOP. However, it was the copy that got them in hot water.  The tweet read: “Flat but has a GREAT personality.” You see, it’s funny when a flat-chested woman talks about her attributes and stresses the size of her personality. And, pancakes are flat so that’s high comedic value, right?

Yeah, America didn’t think so either. The tweet was deleted and replaced with a nice talking point apology.

9. FIFA Corners Corruption.

money fifa presserSometimes sports transcends life. Other times, life can do the same to sports. And the love of money can do it to anyone at anytime. Just ask the leaders of professional soccer. FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter has spent most of 2015 denying that his sticky fingers got anywhere near FIFA’s coffers but it seems all Euro fans knew the guy was full of more crap than a Christmas turkey.

In May, 14 FIFA officials were indicted on charges of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption following a major inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Six months later, 16 more officials were provided a one-way ticket to the pokey for more than $200 million in kickbacks.

Blatter, 79, held a press conference announcing his resignation but admitted he was just kidding a couple of weeks later. Everyone — outside of his board of directors — hates the guy in charge of FIFA. And they know as long as Blatter is in charge, the players will think about kicking something else other than a soccer ball.

8. Urban Outfitters Holocaust.

uo620When you are in the competitive and hypersaturated world of fashion, a brand needs something to stand out. This year, Urban Outfitters stood out, but for all the wrong reasons.

Urban Outfitters’ buyers, fashionistas, and designers were all sitting around a table one day thinking about a stylish way to reach the metrosexual male and the fashionable female. And then they thought of it — a garment that is pink, but called “salmon” or “coral,” and something that is slimming, like with stripes.

And this was it — circa the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s. An upside-down pink triangle just like the marked Jews used to be forced to wear and some charcoal and black stripes that can be linked to prisoners of yesteryear. Once the Anti-Defamation League got involved, this blemish in the world of haute couture was gone. Just like the brand appears to be now.

7. AirBnB is Not Welcome.

airbnb bus adAirBnB is no stranger to walking down the halls of #PRFail fame. However, this snobby mockery of community outreach earned the app a place on the wall.

In San Francisco, just weeks before the city council were to vote on a measure to restrict AirBnB’s ability to operate in the city, its marketing gurus thought the timing would be perfect to launch a campaign that basically said San Francisco the city should be fawning because of all the tax contributions AirBnB provides.

Only that was the problem — the tax contributions it provides, or at least, tried to deny the year prior. Pity when the PR team doesn’t keep records.

6. Brian Williams and His Pants on Fire.

brian-williams-misremembers-memeWith many veteran broadcasters retiring (Brokaw, King.etc), America had but one major player to get its news from: Brian Williams. His deadpan appeal to the news was refreshing in the world of overhyped sensationalism.

The audience loved Williams, until he decided his life just wasn’t kick-ass enough. He decided to pad his resume, saying that instead of covering the news about the War in Iraq, he was actually there in a helicopter that was shot down.

Williams was caught, by fellow reporters calling him out no less. He was suspended without pay for six months and was later let go all together. NBC had plans for him though to head up its junior cousin, MSNBC. While people considered this a good move for the network, no one was expecting a ratings spike. They were wrong.

Moral of the story? If you have skills, you can always pay the bills. Just, um, stay away from LinkedIn there, B.

5. Starbucks Race Together.

race togetherWhen you’re at Starbucks, the first thing you want to discuss with your barista is race relations, right?

CEO Howard Schultz admitted “we didn’t expect universal praise” for the ham-handed idea of stimulating conversation and compassion around race in America. However, what happened on Twitter was unlike anything the beloved brand has ever seen. In fact, Starbucks PR chief quit Twitter because of the mess.

Baristas wrote #RaceTogether on cups, mockery and trolling ensued.

What, were patrons supposed to talk about Michael Brown and Eric Garner with their baristas, all cozy in a loveseat next to the bathroom? Surely, that’s how MLK did it, right?

4. 19 Kids and Counting.

people duggarsProbably no other reality TV show captured the heartstrings of this country more than TLC’s 19 Kids & Counting featuring the affable Duggar family. Enriched with more high moral fiber than a box of toasted mini wheats, the Duggars were enveloped in a cloud of wholesome adoration by millions of fans. And then the cloud burst and the rain fell. Hard.

Jim Bob and Michelle were immediately caught in a quagmire of PR angst when their eldest son Josh admitted he molested several underage girls, including some of his sisters. Jim Bob did his best to hide that whole drama to salvage the family’s reputation and that handsome paycheck from TLC, which incidentally had been oddly quiet amid these claims for two months until they finally canceled the show. To add extra fuel on this PR fire, Josh was among one of the many names leaked by hacktivist group Anonymous when they cracked the code of infidelity website Ashley Madison.

Today, Josh and Anna are on the splits. Jim Bob and Michelle are on the rocks. And the Duggars are on the unemployment line.

3. Jared Fogle (but not Subway).

jared fogleHe was once considered the darling of TV pitchmen. Jared Fogle was a real-life customer of Subway who wanted to lose weight desperately. So, he took that “Eat Fresh” moniker to heart and ate only the fresh menu of the world’s largest franchisor. That was 1998 when he weighed 425 pounds. It took 11 months but he lost 245 pounds and the rest is history.

Subway, and easily its PR department, saw the tugging of heartstrings here and heard some sweet music. They didn’t think about having him fill out his W-9 and answering “Are you possibly a twisted sicko pedophile?” He now finds himself divorced, disgraced, and dissolved into the U.S. Penal System for 16 years of hard labor. Fogle has been heard on tape bragging about his sardonic interests. He has been seen discussing how great it is to have “dates” with underage boys. And the jokes about Subway’s measured sandwiches came rolling in.

Good thing Subway rolled out quickly and began investing a completely different ad campaign.

2. Volkswagen Sucked…or Blows.

shady VWProfessional athletes aren’t the only ones who have to cheat on their tests to stay ahead and keep up a front. Evidently, so do car companies, and no other automotive manufacturer cheated worse than Volkswagen. After getting a terse phone call from the EPA, Volkswagen admitted it intentionally and knowingly installed software on its test vehicles to cheat emissions tests. This issue — and the respective findings from the EPA — uncovered 482,000 cars in the U.S. only… but 11 million cars worldwide.

This “Defeat device” was supposed to mask the amount of pollutants put back into the environment by its vehicles. Too bad it didn’t mask the VW headquarters address because following the admission of guilt, Volkswagen was forced to pay a fine of $37,500 per car. For those scoring crisis communications at home, that’s a maximum fine of $18 million. The scandal had immediate repercussions with a damaging 25 percent drop in sales brand wide.  VW America boss Michael Horn was quoted as saying, “We’ve totally screwed up.” That’s one talking point that should appear on every case study from now on.

1. The Cos and His (Spiked) JELLO.

bill cosby facepalmNo one fell harder and faster from grace than the once beloved — and now, bemoaned — Bill Cosby. The man owned television in the ’90s and is still considered one of the most influential comedic storytellers in history. The 77-year-old comedian has previously been held in the PR fail spotlight with rumors of womanizing and the potential rough stuff, but no one saw this coming.

Well, no one outside the more than 50 women that have accused him of having a 30-year campaign of alleged sexual assault.

His apologists spoke up and were quickly silenced as more and more women went public. His commercial partners pulled the plug. His numerous friends in higher education yanked their honorary doctorates from the man. And even the hallowed The Cosby Show and Fat Albert is no longer aired in syndication.

Today, he is hated and beguiled like most politicians. And soon to be forgotten like most of them too. When the mighty fall, it really makes a thud. Hey. Hey. Hey.

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