The year is barely half over, but we already have a few blue-chip contenders for 2018’s biggest PR disasters. Among them:
ROSEANNE BARR – There has always been a fine line between creative genius and mental illness, and Roseanne Barr embodied that connection when she melted down on Twitter in May. Riding high from the return of her groundbreaking television show, Roseanne, the mercurial star made outrageously racist comments about a former advisor to President Barack Obama. ABC immediately cancelled her show, then revived it as a separate show, The Conners, that does not include her.
One company did emerge from the Roseanne debacle looking good, however: Sanofi, the makers of the sleep drug Ambien. When Barr said her tweets were a byproduct of using the drug, Sanofi responded by saying: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
H&M – The Swedish multinational clothing retailer became the latest poster child for a company that needs a more diverse group of employees making its marketing decisions. In January, the company released an ad that featured a young black boy wearing a hoodie that featured the phrase, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” As media such as The Washington Post covered the issue, they quickly found that this wasn’t H&M’s first issue. In 2015, the company defended a lack of black models in its South African ads, saying, “… it is essential for us to convey a positive image. We want our marketing to show our fashion in an inspiring way, to convey a positive feeling.”
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES – As a company with one of the nation’s strongest reputations, Southwest suffered a rare stumble in April when a mid-air engine explosion killed a passenger. Fallout from the incident exposed tensions between management and airline mechanics, with the latter alleging that the company had adopted a culture that put safety second to on-time performance. In the two months since the accident, Southwest reported that bookings were down as much as 3 percent, which represents tens of millions of dollars.
APPLE – The computer giant started 2018 with the corporate equivalent of a big New Year’s Day hangover when it was disclosed that the company was throttling iPhone performance to maximize battery life. While that trade-off is one that many would make, the fact that they didn’t let consumers make their own choice was at the heart of the problem. Apple apologized and quickly offered an inexpensive battery replacement program for older phones, but the company still got a tidal wave of “planned obsolescence” stories that questioned its integrity.
You can see a list of PR disaster “winners” from previous years:
Jeremy Story is a Vice President at GroundFloor Media, where he co-leads the firm’s Crisis, Reputation and Issues Management practice. He has more than 20 years of experience helping companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 100 prepare for, manage, and recover from crisis issues.