Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

What Can We Learn from the PR Crises of 2012?

(Photo courtesy of NY Times, CNN, LA Times)

(Photo courtesy of NY Times, CNN, LA Times)

By Carolyn Tillo, Account Coordinator

With a presidential election and debates over topics like abortion and same-sex marriage, 2012 proved to be a year of drama and controversy. At the center of much of this controversy were PR scandals that could and should have been avoided.

Recently, PR Daily posted a list of the top 10 public relations disasters of 2012. Let’s dig into five of them and see what key takeaways there are:


Background: In February, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which works to end breast cancer throughout the world by funding research and community outreach, announced that it would stop giving money to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and education programs. Critics of the decision interpreted it as a political move against Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. As a result, Susan G. Komen’s social media channels were flooded with backlash against the decision to pull funding.

Mistake: Susan G. Komen did not anticipate the tsunami of controversy this decision would make—nor did it do market research to determine how its donors would feel about this decision not to fund Planned Parenthood. It also waited 24 hours before responding to these critiques. When it did respond, the response was ambiguous about its stance on grant funding. Three days after pulling its funding, Komen then reversed its decision and announced it would start funding Planned Parenthood again.

Lesson: Do scenario analysis before your organization makes a major policy reversal. If your research shows that public opinion is against the decision, think long and hard before embarking upon a highly controversial political issue. And if you do, and it creates negative feedback, respond to a crisis quickly and clearly.


Background: Mitt Romney did not expect anyone to videotape his comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government. After all, he was the speaker at a fundraising event for wealthy donors. But, the magazine Mother Jones secretly recorded the comment in May and posted it online in September.

Mistake: Romney may have been preaching to a wealthy choir, but, as a public figure, he should expect that his comments always have the potential to reach an unintended audience.

Lesson: In today’s digital society where everyone is a reporter, nothing is off the record. Think before you speak, and, if you are a public figure, always speak as though you are on the record or on camera. The media is quick to jump on and share mistakes instantly, and off the cuff remarks often make the headline instead of the intended content.


Background: Late-night comedians may have loved Obama’s first debate performance, but public relations professionals—and the media—certainly found it to be lackluster. Next to the fiery Mitt Romney, Obama offered a less than stellar performance, characterized by a passive demeanor, during which he offered muddled explanations of his healthcare plan and tended to look down at his notes rather than making eye contact with Romney.

Mistake: Obama’s poor debate performance, which was missing his usual confidence and feisty responses, made his supporters worry that he had jeopardized the election.

Lesson: Politicians and public relations practitioners alike should learn to expect the unexpected. This means preparing for a tough interview or speech, even if you or your client does not expect a hard-hitting interviewer or an unruly crowd. Draft mock questions and answers, and practice reciting them. If your client is doing his or her first media interview, host a practice session and make sure he or she feels comfortable answering all possible questions.


Background: Don Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, told the Baptist Press in July that his company supported the “Biblical definition of the family unit.” Like Mitt Romney, Cathy may not have expected his remark to generate such fierce negative responses, but boycotts of Chick-fil-A restaurants ensued and major cities tried to keep Chick-fil-A restaurants from opening in their areas.

Mistake: Although Chick-fil-A promotes itself as a family-run, family-oriented company, the company’s president should keep in mind that his personal views about sensitive subjects like same-sex marriage will be associated with the views of the company. As a the leader of the Chick-fil-A brand, Cathy alienated many of his customers with this statement, even though it implied rather than directly stated his opinion about same-sex unions.

Lesson: Stay neutral on subjects that do not relate to your business or the products you sell. This may mean not offering negative comments about competitors during a crisis. Or, it may mean declining an interview with a journalist who is known to stir up unnecessary drama. Avoid alienating specific demographics or audience groups, as you never know what the ramifications of being partisan will do to your business or public image.


Background: McDonald’s had good intentions when it launched a Twitter campaign in January 2012 highlighting the hard work of its potato suppliers and employees using the hashtag “McDStories.” The campaign went horribly wrong when the company’s Twitter followers began using the hashtag to talk about their bad experiences with the fast-food chain.

Mistake: McDonald’s did not expect this hashtag to create a PR crisis, so it was not prepared when the issue escalated.

Lesson: Even fast-paced social media campaigns with the best intentions require advanced planning and consideration.

Before launching a campaign or a hashtag, conduct a SWOT analysis of the campaign and its messages. Think about all the possible strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the messages you are conveying and the emotions they might stir up—for or against your brand. Have a crisis plan prepared in case something does go wrong, and constantly monitor your social channels to check for any campaign backlash.

Based on these lessons, there are several things we can take away as we prepare to start the New Year:
1) Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Have a crisis plan ready, even if you expect your campaign to be a huge success.
2) Think before you speak – you never know who is listening.
3) If you do make a mistake, apologize and respond quickly to criticism.

We cannot predict the public relations crises that will occur in 2013, but we can strive to avoid the mistakes of 2012. Here’s to a year of following these tips and avoiding the PR Daily 2013 list of public relations disasters.


Carolyn Tillo, Account Coordinator





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