Top 10 PR blunders of the year—so far

Can 2018 really be halfway over? Yes, it’s true, so take a moment to appreciate the PR missteps that keep crisis communicators employed.

Where would PR pros be without reputation-damaging blunders—without clients who step in it, shoot themselves in the foot, or face-plant in the public square while the Twitter multitudes jeer?

Out of work, that’s where.

So as the first half of 2018 ends, let us consider a few of the year’s outstanding reputational goofs, so far.

Some of these were gaffes by clients, others were campaigns by PR and marketing teams that didn’t turn out as planned. The good news is, all these blunders left messes that somebody had to clean up, guaranteeing full employment for crisis response teams.

Feeling left out? Don’t worry. You’ve got another six months to ride to the rescue after others tweet something stupid, host a convention party with topless dancers, or otherwise strive to make our year-end wrap-up in December.

To the winners, congratulations. Following is the list we’ve rounded up here at and Ranking these seems highly subjective, so feel free to print out this article, snip it up, and rearrange it in your own descending ladder of knuckleheadedness.

Various rats at Burger King

Ewww. Jennifer Donahoe, public relations and social media account director at Planit, considers Burger King a PR loser for its for multiple blunders this year. Most graphic, however, was the video showing rats skittering about on its hamburger buns.

Want to go viral? Rats in fast-food joints will do it every time. This video garnered almost 1 million views, 24,000 shares as well as national and international pickup from outlets such as The Daily Mail, Men’s Health,, and Yahoo News, Donahoe notes.

“Not only did the brand lose first mover advantage,” Donahoe says, “but its response and messaging was sterile, deficient of any care and clear steps taken to prevent further issues—both critical in maintaining trust with their customer base.”

Let’s not forget Burger King’s offer of rubles and a lifetime of free Whoppers to Russian women impregnated by World Cup stars. Burger King (stop me if you’ve heard of this tactic) apologized.

Hawaii’s fake missile warning

Near as anybody can tell, no one purposefully sent emergency alerts to mobile phones and TV and radio broadcasters in Hawaii, warning of an incoming ballistic missile in January.

At a time of tensions with North Korea, the alert sent to cellphones said, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Sirens went off. People panicked and phoned loved ones to say goodbye before the big one hit. Turned out some bozo had pushed the wrong button. (Thanks to PR Daily editor Ted Kitterman for suggesting this blunder.)

Racially charged missteps: H&M and Yellow Fever

The goal of marketing isn’t to create crises for PR to resolve, but that’s what the ad department helpfully did in another goof nominated by Kitterman. H&M advertised a hoodie with the phrase, “COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE” by modeling it on an African-American kid. This drew charges of racism. When a New York Times columnist admonishes you in a tweet, you know you’ve misfired.

Lindsey Baumann, a communication specialist at Circa Interactive, nominates the restaurant named Yellow Fever. In April the pan-Asian restaurant opened a new outlet in a Whole Foods 365 market in Long Beach, California.

“Even though the restaurant was founded four years prior, the new high-profile location in Long Beach caused a social media firestorm from people finding the name tone deaf, shocking and offensive,” Baumann says. “The backlash has quieted down now and the restaurant still remains, but it will be interesting to see if Whole Foods decides to open another location.”

Rosanne Barr’s self-destruction in a single tweet

Speaking of racially charged missteps, let us not forget Rosanne Barr’s self-immolation when she tweeted—before deleting—a racist comment about a former Obama adviser. She apologized, but ABC deemed the reputational damage too great and canceled the top-rated show.

Roseanne Barr blamed Ambien and told her fans, “I’m not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.”

In defending its own reputation, Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, landed a zinger: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

The tweet won widespread coverage and seemed to head off a potential flurry of articles about sleep-driving and other alleged bizarre behaviors by people taking the drug.

Melania Trump’s border visit

Count me among the first lady’s fans—an elegant former model who has been subject to unfair barbs about her clothing and demented attacks on her family. (Astonishingly, Twitter hasn’t closed the account of actor Peter Fonda, who wanted her son locked in a cage with pedophiles. He later apologized.)

Nevertheless, I’m with Chris Boehlke, principal at Bospar: It was mind-boggling that Melania Trump would visit a children’s center on the border in a jacket that blared out, “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” This will go down in history with “Let them eat cake.”

The jacket torpedoed what should have been a PR win, Boehlke says. “But what about the rest of the White House?” she says. “The question for us PR folks is a process one. Did White House communications staff really miss that? Or were they afraid to push back on the client? When PR process protocols break down, PR blunders happen.”

Melania’s hubby defended her with a tweet that either (A) put the issue to rest and united the nation in an appreciation of his tact, or (B) further enraged critics while lobbing a stink bomb into the press bleachers. (Guess which.)

Topless dancers at a biotech convention

What is this, J.P. Morgan? At an offsite party during the annual Biological Innovation Organization convention in Boston, topless dancers gyrated with corporate logos painted on their bodies. The companies were quick to distance themselves.

“If you were a sponsor, how would you like to have your corporate logo used that way?” notes Lisa K. Hawes, vice president at Sterling Communications. “Most said they did not know that their sponsorship package included this type of promotion.”

Maxine Waters’ call for confrontation

In late June, a restaurant owner kicked out White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family, then reportedly followed her in-laws to another restaurant and organized a protest there. In response, Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, called on her supporters to confront Trump Cabinet officials in restaurants and department stores to protest the Trump administration.

“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” she said.

Waters stood by the comments, but not everyone thought this was a good PR approach for the party. Naturally, President Trump came cannonballing into the controversy. She also drew rebukes from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, ex-education secretary Arne Duncan, and former Obama adviser David Axelrod.

With a raft of controversial High Court decisions out this week, libertarian Twitter humorist David Burge thought he saw the future: “Can’t wait for all the tweets exhorting mobs to surround and Nazi-punch the Supreme Court.”

International House of … Burgers?

IHOP (a.k.a., International House of Pancakes) announced it was changing its name and expanding its burger offerings on the menu, flipping the P upside down to make it IHOb. Then—just kidding!—company then reassured pancake-lovers that the name change was merely a promotion for its new line of burgers.

Foursquare, the “location intelligence” company, says the campaign didn’t result in any increased traffic, Fast Company reports.

“IHOP seems to have followed the Trump playbook for PR: It doesn’t matter what people are saying about you—as long as they’re saying something,” says Jonathan Rick of Jonathan Rick Group. “Of course, this is a stunt. To be sure, stunts demand guts and creativity, but ultimately this one just confused people and dented a brand that was once singularly, gloriously associated with pancakes.”

Doritos’ daintier lady chips

In an interview, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said gender differences are driving product development of its Doritos. Women “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public,” she said, “and they don’t lick their fingers generously, and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth.”

Doritos scotched the talk of different chips, but not without a hearty round of jeering as only Twitter knows how to do.

Facebook’s clumsy crisis comms

Facebook faced a crescendo of questions this year about how user data has been harvested for political purposes. Investors dumped its stock over the risk the scandal posed to its business, CNN reported. The crisis continued through June with the news that Facebook has data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including a manufacturing giant that has a close relationship with China’s government.

“The company turned what could have been a case of proactive issue management in 2015—when it learned of this data problem—into a full-blown, reactive crisis,” Vanessa Fioravante wrote for PR Daily.

Some said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handled himself well during two days of Senate testimony. Others found him a tad robotic, as multitudes of mocking memes made clear.

The elderly stalwarts of the U.S. Senate, however, came out looking as if they could use a little reputational help, too. Gramps, here’s how you download the Facebook app.

Readers, stay tuned: We’ll also have a story on the half-year’s PR wins. Meanwhile, it’s safe to predict that crisis communicators will have plenty to keep them busy over the rest of the year.


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