GroundFloor Media & CenterTable Blog

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good time to review the top 10 PR blunders of 2010 – and there are some doozies. Here are some of the best of the worst with input from Forbes.com and The Huffington Post.

Landing near the top of every list is British Petroleum (BP) CEO Tony Howard. Clearly, “wanting his life back” should have been the least of his worries after countless people along the Gulf had had their lives ruined after the BP oil rig exploded, killing 13 and spilling million of gallons of oil. To top it off, he also commented that the Gulf is “a very big ocean” and later attended a swank regatta days after being questioned by Congress about the spill. So much for getting his life back.

This next one is a bit more controversial, particularly if you are a Miami Heat fan. Up until this year, LeBron James sat on top of the basketball world. He had the poise, skills and savvy to back it up. But then came the media storm surrounding “The Decision” – LeBron’s announcement on live television about his decision to join the Heat. Fans from Cleveland and beyond now have a new player they love to hate – so much for humility.

Oftentimes, in media training with clients, GroundFloor Media warns that the moment they are in the presence of a television camera or reporter that everything is “on the record.” Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and California Senate candidate, learned this the hard way. While doing a sound check for a television interview, a live microphone recorded her commenting about opponent Barbara Boxer’s hair. And the evening news quoted her as saying, “God, what is that hair? So yesterday.”

Toyota was riding the wave of record car sales when news about unintended acceleration on some of its best selling vehicles hit the media. Instead of controlling the issue by providing clear and accurate communications, the company fumbled by passing the buck, and at one point, even blaming drivers. Now Toyota has the honor of being the brand behind the biggest automotive recall since Firestone tires in 2000.

Here’s a rundown of some more of the most memorable “what not to do” PR moments of the past year:

  • Messaging, messaging, messaging: U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon, who once ran World Wrestling Entertainment, admitted that she didn’t know whether WWE paid any of its employees minimum wage and that she didn’t even know the dollar figure for Connecticut’s minimum wage.
  • Spin isn’t the best defense: Craigslist standing behind its “Adult Services” category and not owning up to the fact that everyone else in the world knew what it was for. Fumbling through an interview on the topic, Founder Craig Newmark simply stopped talking and ended the interview by walking out of the room.
  • Beware of what you say online: Chocolate maker Nestlé showed its thin skin when it went after naysayers on Facebook, which just added fuel to the fire. The company’s Facebook page will never be used as a proactive marketing tool again.
  • One bad experience goes viral: Alaska Airlines didn’t win any customers over when one flyer’s ticket was given away because she was one minute late (because she was dealing with a child’s diaper emergency). The family posted the item on a blog, which caught the world’s attention and soon the media started calling. Instead of making it right, the airlines cited rules and procedures. Weeks later, they finally agreed to refund the family, but the damage had already been done.

As we head into 2011, there are a couple of lessons to learn from this year’s PR disasters. First off, social media networks are more and more becoming the median to highlight missteps. And tried and true media training is still a great defense for avoiding making next year’s list. Our team can help create a solid social media response plan and prepare your company for common and not-so-common pitfalls. Plus, we can offer you some good strategic counsel when best intentions fall off the deep end. LeBron, give us a call next time you switch teams.

– Gil Rudawsky

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