Each year I draft a half-dozen intros for this annual list, and every year they are far more cynical than I would like them (or me) to be. So, in that spirit, I will instead just go directly to the list of 2019 PR disasters:
BOEING – Boeing, by a wide margin, had the worst 2019. Following plane crashes by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines in late 2018 and early 2019 that killed 346 people, countries around the globe began grounding Boeing’s 737 Max early this year. By March, it was grounded worldwide. Boeing has since been working to fix its flight control software, which is thought to have played a role in the crashes. Nine months later, the crisis remains unresolved. The most damaging crises are those where you remain stuck without a clear resolution – think Malaysia Airlines when cable TV news covered its missing Flight 370 for months on end. Boeing finds itself in a similar situation, since it is unclear when its 737 Max planes may get the green light to fly again. Meanwhile, media are penning sidebar stories about the history of quality complaints at the facility that produces the 737 Max and whether flyers will trust the plane when it does return.
WEWORK – I’m old enough to remember when owning a company that continues to lose money and has no clear path to profitability was a bad thing. Uber changed that perception when it went public earlier this year despite being on a long-term path to bankruptcy, so you can see how the folks at shared workplace provider WeWork had visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. However, the proposed IPO dramatically increased scrutiny of both WeWork’s financial model and its corporate governance, and the company was forced to shelve its IPO when investors demonstrated they are “wary of ambitious young companies that have run up huge losses and might not become profitable for years.” In reality, WeWork’s collapse had as much to do with its flighty management and policies as it did its finances, and its failure to understand its vulnerabilities meant it couldn’t control the story, and it quickly spiraled out of control.
NFL – One of the NFL’s worst nightmares became real life in January when an egregiously bad pass interference call (technically a non-call) kept the New Orleans Saints from advancing to the Super Bowl. The NFL quickly acknowledged after the game that the referees bungled the call, but that didn’t stop it from dominating the media in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, rather than more positive story lines. And, as an aftereffect, the NFL quietly changed its rules in the offseason on what plays are eligible for video review.
NIKE – The global sports manufacturing powerhouse suffered a high-profile embarrassment when the best player in basketball, Zion Williamson, had his Nike shoe fall apart during one of the biggest games of the year. The broadcast even featured former President Obama, who was watching the game from the stands, mouthing, “His shoe broke.” To add injury to insult, Williamson suffered a knee sprain when his shoe blew out that prevented him from playing the rest of the regular season. How big of a deal was this? Nike lost about $1.1 billion in market cap in the immediate aftermath.
ROBERT KRAFT – The incredibly successful owner of the New England Patriots saw his personal life turn into a bad made-for-TV movie when he was charged “with two counts of soliciting sex as part of a wide-ranging investigation into prostitution and suspected human trafficking.” The colorful nature of the allegations – a billionaire NFL owner visiting a low-rent, strip mall massage parlor – made the story even more intriguing to journalists. He has fought the legal charges in court with some success, but the underlying facts seem clear: he paid money to women who performed sex acts on him. And with that, his stellar, grandfatherly reputation vanished.
LORI LOUGHLIN/FELICITY HUFFMAN – While dozens of people were charged in a wide-ranging college admissions cheating scandal, well-known actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman became the faces of the issue. In addition to serving jail time (Huffman) and facing considerable jail time (Loughlin), both actresses saw their professional careers nosedive. Hallmark, for example, immediately dropped Loughlin from its stable of actors (she had appeared in a dozen of its movies) and the “Full House” reboot, “Fuller House,” went back into production without her.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – At least 11 Americans have died while vacationing this year in the Caribbean island, a number that Dominican Republic officials claim is statistically normal. But intrigue into the nature of the deaths caused media to focus on the issue, which has created a vicious cycle as additional tourists have died. Is there a conspiracy, or is it simply confirmation bias? Either way, the result has been devastating to the small country. Airlines are offering waivers and credits for passengers who cancel flights to the country, and it is now reeling from a 74 percent drop in tourism.
MOUNT EVEREST/NEPAL – Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, has been the ultimate achievement for mountain climbers since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited it in 1953. As they celebrated achieving what no one else had ever done, Hillary and Norgay couldn’t have imagined what would transpire on the mountain 66 years later. This year, 11 climbers died in a 16-day period, as traffic jams of people forced them to wait perilous lengths of time for their turn to try to reach the summit. Nepal’s tourism board initially rejected calls to reduce the number of permits it issues to climbers, in part because the country is heavily dependent on the revenue, but the country finally acknowledged global criticism and proposed new rules.
CITY OF DENVER/GEESE – More than 5,000 pounds of goose droppings accumulate daily in Denver, so it wasn’t a big surprise that the city would consider options for discouraging geese from making their homes in city parks. But the city’s approach last June was surprising – killing the geese. The city tried to take the edge off the program by processing the goose meat and donating it to nonprofits that address hunger issues, but activists were outraged and immediately started protesting. The culling program ended on time after a month (before the protests could truly take hold), but all eyes will be watching next summer to see whether Denver launches another round of goose control.
DIA/GREAT HALL PARTNERS – Denver International Airport certainly has a lot going for it. It is the state’s largest economic generator, creating more than $26 billion annually and contributing to more than 225,000 jobs. It also is recognized as one of the nation’s best airports. So a lot of attention was paid when the airport announced a $1 billion project with Great Hall Partners to overhaul the main terminal. Unfortunately, the project quickly spiraled shortly after demolition started due to change orders and a rapidly increasing budget. DIA and Great Hall Partners were not able to reconcile their differences, leaving DIA to terminate the partnership. The result, by many estimates, will be hundreds of millions in cost overruns and a delay of up to four years.
PG&E – Mismanagement at California’s electric utility, PG&E, has created enormous devastation and destruction in the state dating back years. But it came to a head this year after fire officials ruled that outdated and improperly maintained equipment led to wildfires that killed 86 people and torched nearly the entire town of Paradise, Calif. Residents also blame PG&E for fires that killed dozens more in Santa Rosa and other towns in Sonoma County. PG&E ultimately declared bankruptcy and agreed to fund a $13.5 billion settlement fund for claims related to the fires.
SOUTH DAKOTA – South Dakota’s Department of Social Services spent nearly half a million dollars to let people know that, “Meth. We’re On It.” The campaign certainly sparked a discussion, but not the one state health officials had hoped for.
2019 PR Disaster Dishonorable Mentions:
- Facebook business model is to let kids make unauthorized purchases
- An Apple glitch allows Facetime users to eavesdrop on each other
- NBC’s Tom Brokaw makes disparaging comments about Latinos
- Singer Katy Perry adds, then pulls, ‘blackface shoe’ from her collection
- Burberry tells Katy Perry to hold its beer, releases a ‘noose blouse’
- Bradley University bans a longtime sportswriter after critical coverage
- Nike is criticized by its sponsored athletes for its maternity policy
- Nike is criticized for its track coach accused of doping, mental abuse
- TurboTax hides the free version of its service from search engines
- Horse racing is scrutinized after dozens of deaths at Santa Anita track
- Sackler family is shunned globally after making billions from opioids
- US Soccer plays defense on #EqualPay during the Women’s World Cup
- LeBron James weighs in on China free speech issue, quickly regrets it
- Astros fire Assistant GM after the World Series for being a sexist cad
- Peleton ad campaign ignites controversy in the lead up to Christmas
Jeremy Story is a Vice President at GroundFloor Media, where he co-leads the firm’s Crisis Communication & Reputation Management practice. He has more than 20 years experience helping companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 100 prepare for, manage, and recover from crisis issues.