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PR and learning from disaster

PR is supposed to be about putting companies and organisations in contact with stakeholders.  Good PR is about effective communications and, in a digital age, meaningful dialogue.

Having been in PR for a long time, and journalism before that, understanding the PR landscape is as much about the lessons of failure as it is about understanding PR’s success stories.

The fact is, we all make mistakes in our professional lives.  The important thing is to learn from them, and make sure that the same mistake can’t happen again.



Foot-in-mouth syndrome


It’s always good to set up a media interview with a client, particularly if that media outlet has reach and influence.  Sometimes, however, it can all go horribly wrong.


Probably the best example is Gerald Ratner (remember him?) who over years built up his jewellery empire and then, in a few seconds, virtually destroyed it.


In 1991, in an interview, Ratner said that his outlets “sold a pair of earrings for under a pound, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich… but probably wouldn’t last as long.”  

He also said that another product in his range “was total c***.”


Result?  £500 million wiped from share value, Ratner forced out, and the company rebranded.


Equally stupid, a senior executive of Topman, describing their customers as “hooligans,” remarked that “very few of our customers have to wear suits to work.”  He then suggested that their first suits were for their first court case.  Ouch.


Or the boss of Papa John’s who suggested that, because of health issues, customers shouldn’t eat five or six slices of their pizzas – despite the fact that the smallest pizza in their range consisted of…um, six slices.


Sometimes, the message gets lost in the telling.  For example, the Barclay’s boss who, back in pre-credit-crunch Britain, told a House of Commons committee that he didn’t use a Barclaycard because they were too expensive.


He was trying to make the point that borrowing on credit cards is an expensive way of obtaining credit, but the damage was done.

Sometimes, certain individuals just shouldn’t give interviews.  Witness Lee Ryan of boy-band Blue back in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11.  “What about whales?” he asked.  “Who gives a f*** about New York when elephants are being killed.”


Lesson:  Anticipate what questions will be asked, and rehearse answers.  Unless you know a journalist well, don’t speak off-the-record, and don’t give flippant comments that can be taken out-of-context.  A spot of media training is also a good idea.


Good wheeze, utter cock-up


My favourite remains Hoover’s promotional campaign to offer free flights to anyone spending more than £100 on their products.  The 1990s campaign was hugely popular, the company was overwhelmed and court cases ensued – a PR disaster.


(The reason it’s my favourite is that my wife and I, after many tetchy dealings with Hoover, obtained two free air tickets to the Canary Islands.  Alas, the Hoover is now history.  We now own a Dyson).


Lesson:  While everybody can come up with a good idea, not all ideas turn out to be that good.   It’s as well drilling down into every potential downside…from a PR as well as marketing perspective.


Non-verbal communication


We all need downtime away from the office, particularly if the going is tough.  Sometimes, however, what we do can be just as important as what we say.


It’s a lesson that BP’s Tony Hayward learned the hard way when he decided to go racing on his yacht while his company was struggling to deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.


The US Chief of Staff summed up what many thought when he said, “I think we can conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR.”


Lesson:  Every company or organisation should have a regularly-updated crisis plan.  That plan should also be about how senior executives

behave in private as well as in public.


Social media


The old media, based on ink and dead trees, has one great advantage: you can draft and redraft press releases or articles until they reflect perfectly what you want to say.


The new media’s great advantage is that it offers absolute immediacy – digital platforms to create dialogue and engage with stakeholders.  Done well, social media engagement can build transparency, trust and brand value.


But social media can also be the architect of PR disaster.  We’ve become used to celebs – film, music and sporting - saying idiotic things, mostly on Twitter. 


But idiot Tweets from celebs don’t do a great deal of lasting damage, except to themselves.  For companies or organisations, the damage can be very real.


For example, a Skittles promotion in the early days of Twitter, with all Tweets being posted on the front page of the confectioner’s website.  It should have been a celebration of all things sweet and yummy, but quickly descended into profanity and farce.  The campaign was pulled.


What Skittles learned is that, while the likes of Twitter can reach millions, not everyone is going to be a fan, and some just like to cause

trouble.  Someone at Skittles should have been monitoring incoming Tweets and filtering out the more offensive.


But it’s the Aurora cinema shooting in Colorado last year that provides the best contexts for social media strategy, and how to avoid publicity for all the wrong reasons.  In that massacre, 12 people died and many more injured.


A clothing company, UK-based but selling in the USA, Tweeted that: “@CelebBoutiqe #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;) Shop: .”


The Tweet referred to a dress worn by Kim Kardashian, and the company was mortified when the real reason for Aurora trending became apparent.


On the same day, equally innocently, the US National Rifle Association, Tweeted, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”  The post was quickly deleted but, once again, the damage had been done.


Lesson:  The immediacy of social media is its greatest advantage, but that immediacy comes with significant challenge.  Adopt a strategy, think ahead, check and double-check, and don’t use every social media platform unless you really understand how they work. 

© 2013 DavidGray PR. All rights reserved

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