By Judith Thompson, Director
I know it’s wrong, but I love a PR disaster (as long as it’s not one of my own). My favourites generally involve a CEO speaking before he thinks (or in some cases after he thinks) or a large corporate displaying extreme arrogance and a total misunderstanding of the public’s mood. Currently Donald Trump is providing lots of material but I am excluding him from my top PR Disasters, in part because revisiting his outrageous statements is not good for my blood pressure.
Here are my favourite PR gaffes:
- It’s all about me. The sinking of the Deepwater Oil Platform killed 11 people and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The share price also plummeted 26% yet CEO Tony Hayward seemed a little self-absorbed and certainly lacking in empathy when he told journalists: “I want my life back”.
- Good staff communications. In 2006, John Pluthero, the UK chairman of Cable & Wireless, sent a memo to staff, which said: “Congratulations, we work for an underperforming business in a crappy industry and it’s going to be hell for the next 12 months.” He warned of job losses and added, “if you are worried that it all sounds very hard, it’s time for you to step off the bus”.
- A regular offender. United Airlines was highly criticised when footage of a 69-year-old doctor being violently dragged from an ‘overbooked’ plane went viral. The passenger suffered significant injuries and concussion. Rather than apologise CEO Oscar Munoz, said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” He also sent an email to employees calling the passenger, who was pictured with a bloodied face, “disruptive and belligerent”. This came just weeks after the company, whose slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies”, was ridiculed for refusing to allow two teenage girls to board a flightbecause they were wearing leggings that did not meet the ‘dress code’.
- He will be sorely missed. I know I said I wouldn’t include any Trumpisms but I am making an exception for the recently departed Sean Spicer who I personally will miss desperately. Spicer stood at his podium addressing the White House press corps and claimed that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never stooped to using chemical weapons. In one sentence he somehow forgot the Holocaust and the horrors of the gas chambers. He did apologise profusely, but not until much later, thereby sealing his fate.
- An oldie but a goodie. Finally, no list is complete without a mention of Gerald Ratner, who, when addressing the Institute of Directors in 1991, wiped £500 million from the value of Ratner’s jewellery chain in one speech. He said: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.”
There is no doubt that all of these ‘disasters’ could have been avoided with some common-sense briefing and good media training – something we provide regularly for our clients. Please get in touch if we can help and I’d also love to hear your favourite PR disasters.