It might seem 2012 was riddled with public relations disasters. It was, after all, an election year, marked by a steady stream of “gaffes” by various candidates.
The gaffes didn’t stop with the politicians. Rarely a week went by when PR Daily or any number of publications weren’t highlighting a brand’s misstep on social media.
Those missteps, however, were often brief flare-ups that burned brightly for a matter of days—sometimes mere hours—before fading into the ether of the Web.
Most incidents on this list go beyond political gaffes du jour and histrionic social media blunders. Many on this list represent mistakes so large, and sometimes so systemic, they shook companies, startups, and nonprofits to their core, derailed (or nearly derailed) billion-dollar political campaigns, and destroyed the legacy of an icon.
In descending order (from No. 10 to No. 1), here are the worst PR disasters of 2012:
10. President Obama’s first debate
In the run-up to the first presidential debate, President Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead over GOP challenger Mitt Romney. Most pundits agreed that if the president logged even an average performance, he might coast to a second term.
Just minutes into the Oct. 3 debate, it was clear that average would be the best-case scenario for the commander-in-chief. The president stammered through several loping answers on policy and seemed out of his league against the confident, tough-talking Mitt Romney. By the time it was over, Romney had dispelled much of the stuffed-suit persona for which he was known, and had breathed new life into his campaign. The polls quickly tightened.
Though the strong performance of Romney can’t be discounted, it was the president’s failure that made the debate such a one-sided affair. Obama managed to claw his way back thanks, in part, to his playful acknowledgement of his lack of preparation for the debate, as well as stronger showings in the candidates’ second and third meetings. Still, the poor performance could have cost him the election.
9. Hashtag hijacking
Numerous brands experienced a new social media pitfall this year: the Twitter hijacking. It occurs when a group of people steer a Twitter conversation that’s hosted by an organization to a negative or humorous place. The conversations are usually based on a hashtag and often promoted by the company (meaning they pay for it).
For example, McDonald’s launched a promoted hashtag, #McDStories, in March, asking Twitter users to share their stories about the fast-food giant. The conversation quickly veered off course, when people used the hashtag to bash the company. Critics called the incident a “McFail.”
McDonald’s wasn’t the only organization to fall victim to Twitter hijacking. Newsweek, the White House, and Starbucks all experienced similar instances.
Perhaps its time brands rethink their use of hashtags.
8. Homeless Hot Spots
It was the big story out of the 2012 South By Southwest Interactive Festival—Homeless Hot Spots. New York-based marketing firm BBH Labs, which is part of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, equipped homeless people in Austin with devices that made them wireless hot spots. Internet seekers paid them what they wanted—via cash or PayPal—to access the Web. The homeless men and women kept all the money.
Media universally panned it—for instance, Wired referred to it as something out of a “darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia”—forcing the people behind the program into full damage control.
The ploy certainly drew attention to the program—and to Austin’s homeless population—but it failed to create meaningful, enduring conversation on the topic. Instead, it suggested homeless people were little more than “helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure,” as ReadWrite put it.
7. Lance Armstrong
This is less a PR blunder, and more a crisis PR effort that ran out of steam.
Lance Armstrong is one of sports’ most polarizing figures because of accusations that he had doped during his historic run of seven Tour de France victories. Amid the criticism, Armstrong maintained that he had never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He denied interview requests—most notably to “60 Minutes”—blunting his critics with well-worded social media updates and statements.
However, an investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency proved too much for Armstrong and his PR and legal counselors. Following the USADA’s release of a 200-page report packed with lurid details of doping accusations, Armstrong said he would no longer fight the charges, though he still asserted his innocence.
As a result, the USADA stripped him of his Tour de France wins (among other penalties). Although PR Daily gave high marks to some of Armstrong’s PR moves in the past, the approach he took was ultimately a losing one.
Blame the presidential election perhaps, but 2012 was the year of companies’ taking political stances, from Nordstrom supporting a same-sex marriage bill in Washington to companies such as Papa John’s bemoaning their new financial burdens under Obamacare.
Statements from the president of Chick-fil-A exemplify this trend, and the fast-food company saw the most negative (and, at times, positive) press from them.
In July, Don Cathy told the Baptist Press that “we,” as in Chick-fil-A, “are very much supportive of the family—the Biblical definition of the family unit.”
He added: “I think we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation.”
The backlash was swift and fierce and lasted for months as opponents boycotted the fast feeder and major U.S. cities moved to block the opening of Chick-fil-A stores. Sadly, the company’s longtime PR chief, Donald Perry, died of a heart attack during the PR melee.
Chick-fil-A supporters rallied to the company’s defense, resulting in record single-day sales, but one day of round-the-block lines was not enough to account for the months of bad press the company endured.
5. Superstorm Sandy inspired social media gaffes
Without fail, a tragedy or crisis occurs and brands tweet or post something off-topic or downright offensive in relation to the event. Such blunders were in full display during Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged portions of the East Coast in late October.
American Apparel, for example, shamelessly offered a 36-hour Hurricane Sandy Sale, while the Gap cheerfully suggested that people shut in during the storm shop on its website. Social media users pounced on the companies, while media outlets—including The New York Times—questioned the retailers’ judgment.
Both companies recovered from the Sandy gaffes, but it sent another message to brands on social media: Pay close attention to what you’re saying during a crisis.
4. GOP missteps
As the 2012 general election neared, two Republican Senate candidates looked to be coasting toward victory. In Missouri, Todd Akin was poised to handily defeat incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill; that is, until August, when the GOP frontrunner made his infamous statement about abortion in cases of rape:
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
Akin refused to step down, despite pleas from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and ultimately lost to McCaskill.
Two months later in Indiana, GOP candidate Richard Mourdock was on pace to beat Democrat Joe Donnelly; then came a late-October debate, in which the Tea Party-backed Republican said:
“The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen.”
Mourdock’s lead evaporated, and he lost to Donnelly just weeks later.
The losses dashed the GOP’s hopes of taking over power of the Senate.
3. Pink Slime
For better or worse, lean, finely textured beef—otherwise known as “pink slime”—has been an additive in most ground beef in the U.S. for the better part of a decade. Numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have written about the possible dangers of the additive, yet the industry continued to march on—until March 2012.
At that time, ABC News reported that the product, dubbed “pink slime,” is treated with ammonia. The report, coupled with an unappetizing picture of “pink slime” that went viral online, created a PR firestorm for the manufacturers of the product, which ended with the near-destruction of the industry.
As consumer concern grew, a number of food companies pledged to drop pink slime from their meat, or they reiterated they already had ditched the product. Meanwhile, a manufacturer of pink slime, Lubbock, Texas-based Beef Products Inc., created a response website called beefisbeef.com to offer “truth and reality” to its product as well as took out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal defending itself.
The PR response wasn’t enough, leading to the shuttering of three of its four plants. Another pink slime maker filed for bankruptcy.
2. 47 percent
Make no mistake, Mitt Romney’s campaign for president was hobbled by PR mistakes, beginning with his statement in summer 2011 that “corporations are people.” That might be true in the eyes of the Supreme Court, but the attendees at the Iowa State Fair didn’t want to hear it.
The goofs and gaffes continued as his campaign gathered steam. There was his top aide making the infamous “Etch A Sketch” remark on TV, and his traveling press secretary grabbing headlines by cursing out reporters at a Warsaw memorial.
Romney’s own “binder full of women” remark didn’t help, either.
None of those PR blunders compared to the grand poobah of campaign disasters—the infamous “47 percent” remarks.
During a fundraiser in early 2012, Romney told a group of wealthy donors behind closed doors that 47 percent of the nation is willingly dependent on the government.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”
The statement was caught on video and released on the website of liberal magazine Mother Jones in September. The remark became a central theme for the rest of campaign and quite possibly led to his defeat in November.
1. Susan G. Komen for the Cure
In late February, Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would stop giving money to Planned Parenthood for breast examinations and other services.
The nation’s largest breast cancer foundation was caught flatfooted by what happened next.
Critics unleashed a virtual tidal wave of criticism on Komen’s Facebook page, expressing shock and anger and pledging to drop their support of the organization. On Twitter, in the media, and around water coolers, the situation wasn’t any better for Komen.
The foundation waited 24 hours to respond—a devastatingly long amount of time.
The response was too little, too late, and it did virtually nothing to quell accusations that the decision to defund Planned Parenthood was motivated by its new vice president, Karen Handel, a staunch opponent of abortion.
Within a week, Komen reversed course in an ambiguous statement that failed to soothe its wary supporters. Days after the apology, Handel resigned.
In the months to come, Komen would feel the effects of its controversial decision and its tardy, tepid response. Executives resigned, local groups canceled events, and fundraising fell off. Ultimately, Komen’s founder and president Nancy Brinker stepped aside, taking on a different role at the organization.