5 Biggest PR Fails of 2019

Jan 29, 2020

In our 24-hour news cycle increasingly driven by social media virality — public relations disasters occur and are crowded out so quickly that many people, including me, don’t even notice them. In 2019, there have been a few exceptions to that rule, which are listed below.

These companies and individuals didn’t just commit one PR blunder, but rather a sustained or repeated series of PR fails that withstood the shortening attention span of the news media and public. The biggest PR disasters in of 2019 include:

PR Fail #1: Boeing Appears Callous After Crashes

After crashes involving its 737 Max airplane in late 2018 that killed 189 people and in March 2019 that killed 157 people, Boeing continued to publicly insist that its planes were safe instead of recalling all the aircraft immediately and launching an investigation.

It didn’t help that a National Transportation Safety Board investigation¬†revealed later that the aircraft’s new MCAS software was a contributor in both crashes or that whistleblowers emerged to allege the company cut corners to reduce costs and speed production while not documenting safety faults. Boeing continues to lose
orders from airliners and its stock price and revenue dropped precipitously throughout the year.

Boeing treated a major crisis involving the loss of hundreds of lives as if it were passengers complaining on social media about uncomfortable seats and lack of luggage space. Their response should have been contrite, swift and comprehensive.Heren gym T-shirt grijs bodybuilding trainingsshirt training ijzeren tanks proviron kopen tbol strikt als een pre-workout.

Even if human error was a factor in both crashes, such major catastrophic events involving the same airplane required the company to demonstrate that it was
doing everything possible to investigate and protect passengers. Instead, it denied anything was wrong and let public opinion take control.

PR Fail #2: Facebook – Here We Go Again

After a very rough 2016 presidential election where the social media giant was accused of enabling the spread of misinformation from fake accounts, it was revealed the site sold user data to Cambridge Analytica and other outside groups for political research. This led the company being ranked as the “least
trusted
” tech company, according to a Fortune poll.

In 2019, even after Google and Twitter issued strict guidelines limiting political advertising, Facebook, as of this blog post, was still undecided about what it would do about the ads.

Its first public comments stated the site would do nothing in fairness to free speech, regardless of how false the claims were. Recently, a story leaked that Facebook might flag all ads as not fact-checked, which some pointed out would paint even well-cited ads with the same brush as those with fabrications.

Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars Facebook takes in from these and similar ads, it’s not surprising they are reluctant to push back, but the indecisiveness only ramps up the lack of integrity and untrustworthiness perception it has in the market.

PR Fail #3: College Admissions Scandal

Two famous TV actresses were implicated with at least 51 other parents in a scheme involving bribes and hired test-takers to help their children gain admission to prestigious colleges.

One would assume that the celebrities would have memorized and rehearsed a carefully worded script within 48 hours to perform before the news cameras. Instead, there was silence.

One of the actresses, Lori Laughlin, even signed autographs before a court appearance. The colleges involved in the scandal, namely Yale and UCLA,
were far more transparent about what they knew about the fraud committed by the parents’ hired conspirators and then revoked offers to the students involved,
which was a much better PR response to the crisis.

These institutions also have strong reputations that can withstand this tertiary involvement in such a scandal. I can assume the actresses’ legal teams urged them to remain silent. I would also bet their publicity teams had a crisis communications game plan ready, but they just weren’t allowed to execute it.

Regardless, in a society obsessed with celebrity, it seems like a missed opportunity by the actresses’ legal teams to sway the court of public opinion before the accused appeared in federal court.

PR Fail #4: IHOP Wearies the Market

In 2018, IHOP pretended to change its famous acronym to IHOb (for burgers), which, albeit quite intentionally, generated a news and social media storm. Depending on who you talk to, the stunt was either ill-advised because it was just a trick, or quite successful because it got people talking about and buying the restaurant’s burgers and it gained 60,000 Twitter followers.

After such a big response, IHOP went back to the well in 2019 to launch a new line of burgers with a marketing campaign that referred to them as “pancakes.” Get it?

Well, it didn’t generate quite as much news or social media attention as the fake rebranding and it just further confused the market. While more of a marketing misstep than PR, it does show how important brand trust is, even with tongue-in-cheek marketing.

After the name-change stunt and follow-up, what are consumers going to believe? Will they even bother paying attention to from the pancake-restaurant chain?

PR Fail #5: Uber is Lost

The PR and reputational struggles of the ride-sharing service continued in 2019.

After hiring a new CEO and its first chief marketing officer, the CMO and chief operating officer resigned and Uber laid off 400 marketing employees. This is despite a $500 million rebranding and reputation management effort launched after news media coverage of its toxic culture and driver underpayments emerged in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s stock price plummeted after its IPO in May 2019, although not solely related to its PR struggles. Not helping the reputational renewal was a report the company released in December 2019 showing nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assaults involving rides in the U.S. in 2017 and 2018.

The only positive aspect of this horrific PR moment is that Uber released the report itself, demonstrating some degree of transparency. Its top competitor, Lyft, which has its own similar problems, has yet to release such a report.

Bottom line

There is plenty to be learned about crisis communications and reputation management in these incidents and others, namely the importance of responding quickly, being transparent and controlling the narrative.

There are plenty of experts on such matters here at Amendola and you can read their insights here and here. Better yet, give us a call and our media relations and crisis management team can help you design a plan and keep your stress levels down and reputation up if such an incident occurs involving your organization.

Morgan Lewis

Morgan Lewis is an award-winning business and healthcare writer that brings 20 years of journalism and PR writing experience, focused almost exclusively on business and healthcare. Most recently, Lewis was a writer at MERGE Atlanta (formerly Dodge Communications), where he wrote thought leadership articles, white papers, case studies, blog posts, website copy and other pieces of PR and marketing content for dozens of healthcare and healthcare IT clients over four years. Prior to that, he was an independent writer and editor focused on healthcare and health IT, creating content for clients that appear in national publications and websites. Lewis started his writing career at a daily newspaper and then business publications in the Greater Cleveland, Ohio area, where he won eight feature writing awards from Cleveland regional and state journalism organizations. Lewis then joined Medical Economics magazine, the leading business resource for primary care physicians, where he won three writing awards from the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (ASHPE), including two Gold Awards. He earned a bachelor's degree in English-Journalism from Miami University of Ohio.