Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why People Make Big PR Blunders--the Top Ten List

This year's list of top ten PR blunders assembled by FinemanPR has just been released. Everyone in PR including PIOs and government communicators should study this list carefully and ask the question--how did this happen and how could it happen to me?

Let's take a few examples and I'll share my thoughts about why it happened:

1) Air Force One flyover of Manhattan.
Approved by Defense Department and White House Military office. How did it happen? Everybody seemed focus on getting a great photo for positive PR purposes. Nobody seemed to stop and think about how it would look to see a big jet, let alone Air Force One flying low over Manhattan. I think this is a collaboration problem as much as a "Geez, I never thought of that problem." In other words, someone whose job it is to think about public reaction either was never included in the discussion or was asleep at the switch. This is precisely what happens in a lot of organizations in a crisis and dealing with managers with technical expertise and lawyers--it's amazing how the potential impact on the public slips the attention.

2) Six year old gets sent to reform school for bringing his Cub Scout "weapon" to school.
Yes, the school officials were following policy. So were the concentration camp guards. You don't get in trouble for following policy, right? Wrong. Somebody just has to think a little about how these things can play out. The question should always occur to organization leaders--how is this going to look if it ends up on local TV or an internet blog? A simple misunderstanding turned into the second biggest PR blunder of the year.

3) Goldman Sachs says its doing God's Work, except it has more money than God.

Double problem for Goldman Sachs--stupid comment by the CEO and $16.7 billion (yes, that's right, billion) in bonuses. We ought to be thanking somebody in financial services for making some money, but clearly Goldman Sachs as an organization and its CEO in particular appear to be operating in a bubble. And we thought that Wall Street bubble burst--apparently it is still there and protecting the likes of Blankfein from reality. What's the real problem here? Clearly a CEO who is out of touch with the mood of the nation and the fact that it too has a public license to operate. But I'm also concerned that this organization hasn't incorporated a strong communications leader into its management structure--or if it has, it needs one with a stronger voice.

4) United Breaks Guitars.
That's the name of the song that garnered over 5 million views on YouTube and turned United Airlines customer service operation (never a strong suit) into one of the biggest jokes on the internet. Paying reasonable compensation for damages done would have saved them millions, maybe hundreds of millions in bad PR. Someone wasn't thinking. Worse, when the problem escalated and went viral via the song, they still didn't respond. Lack of monitoring and noticing early warning signals appears to be one major culprit here. I hope their PR department has woken up and realize they live in a dangerous world where speed and appropriate response are essential.

OK--you can read the rest and come up with your own conclusions as to what happened in each of these organizations that went so very wrong. But let me add an 11th to the Fineman list: Tiger Woods, of course. What went wrong there? In my mind, other than a serious moral failing, the arrogance of thinking that he could actually get by with it. Or that his name in history, his celebrity status, his family, his earnings just didn't matter as much as something else important to him. Unimaginable.

Can we conclude anything? In all cases it seems that someone wasn't thinking and paying attention to the right things. With priorities focused on other areas, no one in the position to do anything about it stopped and said, but, wait, what will the public think of this? In some cases it seems, if the question arose the answer was--what does what the public think really matter? Well folks, it matters a lot.

If there is a lesson to be learned it should be that everyone from CEO to customer service manager and everyone in the organization should be taught to ask that question--what will the public think? More importantly, what will those people who matter to our future think about this? What will this look like to our important supporters if this hits the news or the social networks. If the people in the right places play close attention to that question, PR blunders will diminish. I'm quite confident, sad to say, that 2010 will provide another stellar list of blunders.

No comments:

Post a Comment