GroundFloor Media & CenterTable Blog

As 2018 quickly comes to a close, I reflect on some of the year’s biggest PR disasters, debacles and mistakes …

ROSEANNE BARR – There has always been a fine line between creative genius and mental illness, and it can be argued that Roseanne wobbled along that line 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 canceled 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 Roseanne said her tweets were a byproduct of using the drug, Sanofi responded by saying, in part, that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.

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 might willingly choose, the fact that they didn’t let consumers make their own decisions 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.

STATE OF HAWAII – January is a lovely time to visit the warm shores of Hawaii, but tourists and residents alike got more than they bargained for this year when an emergency alert was erroneously distributed across the islands via television, radio and text. The alert – “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL” – was even more ominous given the rising tensions between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s missile tests. A second alert describing the first as a false alarm wasn’t issued until 38 minutes later. The FCC and the Hawaii House of Representatives investigated the incident, which resulted in the state’s emergency management administrator resigning.

H&M – The Swedish multinational clothing retailer became the latest poster child for a company that needs more diversity and global awareness behind its marketing decisions. In January, the company released an ad that featured a young black boy wearing a hoodie with the phrase, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” When media such as The Washington Post dug deeper into the story, they quickly realized that this wasn’t H&M’s first debacle along these lines. In 2015, the company defended a lack of black models in its South African ads by stating, “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 following the accident, Southwest reported that bookings were down as much as 3 percent, representing tens of millions of dollars.

NEW YORK CITY and NORTHERN VIRGINIA– Give Amazon credit – it has grown to be one of the world’s 10 most valuable companies by ruthlessly weaponizing data and information. It is no surprise it would take the same approach to selecting its second headquarters, dubbed Amazon 2. The company pitted cities against each other as it extracted every concession possible from those vying to be its future home. 

As the process played out and media starting disclosing exactly what cities were offering the $775 billion company – everything from billions of dollars in tax incentives to dedicated Amazon-only cars on local light rail systems to an exclusive Amazon-only lounge at the local airport – public sentiment turned against the process and the company. Citizens were outraged at the perks being offered, and when Queens, N.Y. and Crystal City, Va. won the new headquarters in a dual decision, leaders in those cities suddenly had to answer to angry constituents

TURNER SPORTS– A one-on-one, televised matchup between golf stars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson seems like it would be a ratings winner, so much so that Turner Sports underwrote a huge pay-per-view event dubbed The Match in November. Everything went great – sports media extensively previewed the matchup and subscriptions were strong – until the day of the event. For one, the quality of the golf was below the stars’ standard. However, the biggest challenge was technical. Golf Digest reported that “minutes leading up to The Match, the company lost the ability to process payments, so Turner decided to make it free for any viewers who tried to purchase it. Subsequently, those who actually paid for The Match through cable providers Comcast and Spectrum were issued full refunds. The financial hit to Turner Sports was estimated to be in the area of $10 million.

FACEBOOK I – Oh, Facebook. Where to begin with the company that seemingly battles Uber each year for the title of Most Duplicitous Company? In March, Facebook admitted that it knew for three years that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed the data of more than 50 million Facebook users. As a result of the disclosure, the social media company lost approximately $37 billion in market value in a single day. 

FACEBOOK II – In November, The New York Times reported that Facebook had hired a black-ops PR agency to neutralize and discredit critics of the company by alleging they were on the payroll of controversial billionaire George Soros. Soros is often made the bogeyman by anti-Semitic individuals and organizations who put him at the center of various conspiracy theories. Designated Facebook “grown-up in the room” Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the company’s actions and promised to do better, although questions continue about her exact role in the issue.

FACEBOOK III – Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Facebook gave its partner tech companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, Sony and Yahoo access to user accounts. The result is that some of these companies could go as far as to read, write and delete private messages for many users. In addition to being yet another privacy black eye for the company, the breach calls into question whether the social media giant is in violation of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that prevents Facebook from sharing user data without explicit permission.

DOLCE & GABBANA– What’s the best way for a global luxury brand to promote itself to a country that has an estimated one-third of the world’s luxury market customers? If you answered wildly racist videos – good news – Dolce & Gabbana would like you to join its marketing team. In November, the “Italian luxury fashion brand, launched three short videos on the Chinese social media network Weibo to promote its upcoming Shanghai runway extravaganza, dubbed ‘The Great Show,’” according to NPR. “The videos feature an Asian woman in a lavish Dolce & Gabbana dress attempting to eat pizza, spaghetti and cannoli. With Chinese folk music playing in the background, a Mandarin-speaking voiceover kicks in: ‘Welcome to the first episode of ‘Eating with Chopsticks’by Dolce & Gabbana’ — pronounced incorrectly on purpose in a way that mocks Chinese speech.” Dolce & Gabbana immediately yanked the videos and apologized, but the damage was done. Designers, models and others associated with the “The Great Show” withdrew, and it was ultimately canceled. 

DENVER BRONCOS QB CHAD KELLY – A combination of questionable off-the-field behavior and a knee injury caused the Ole Miss quarterback to fall to the very last pick of the 2017 NFL draft – the spot dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant.” Kelly spent the 2017-18 season rehabbing, learning the Broncos offense and proving he could be trusted. And it seemed to be working. Kelly displaced former first-round pick Paxton Lynch as the team’s backup quarterback. But, in October, Kelly had a meltdown following teammate Von Miller’s annual Halloween party. He appeared incoherent and was arrested for suspicion of first-degree criminal trespassing when he wandered into a woman’s home uninvited. The Broncos immediately cut Kelly, and he has yet to find a new team to bring him in.

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.

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