There’s no business like the PR business. Our job is to make clients look good and get positive media exposure, which in turn should help grow their business. But sometimes PR goes woefully wrong. Today, not only must companies deal with reporters asking the tough questions, but they also have to deal with the mass disapproval of customers who, via social media, are quick to voice their disapproval.
As we come to the end of the year let’s take a look back at five of 2015’s PR and social media mishaps.
You can just hear the excited chatter that must have taken place before state-owned Banco de Costa Rica launched Banca Kristal, a subsidiary dedicated exclusively to female customers. “What a great idea,” some male executives must have said. “Let’s create a bank that looks like Barbie’s dream house, women will love it.” And, “Yes, and let’s have a giant pink castle outside one of the branches so they will feel like royalty when they walk through the door.”
The five branches that have opened so far are decorated in white and pink, which has many calling it the “Barbie bank.”
With the launch has come a firestorm of criticism from just about everyone, including its target customers – women. Hundreds have taken to social media to blast Banca Kristal, calling it, among other things, sexist. Wrote one woman on the bank’s Facebook page “GIVE US WOMEN BACK THE 100 YEARS YOU HAVE TAKEN AWAY BY DOING THIS BARBARIC THING.”
Maybe they should open a bank just for men decorated all in blue with a Thomas the Train motif and a tunnel entryway.
Lesson learned: You might want to conduct a survey of potential customers to get their thoughts before launching your concept. Ask them what they want in a bank, don’t tell them what they want.
Another social media blunder that comes to mind is one I wrote about in September. It had to do with Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli who quickly became one of the most hated men in America after jacking up the price of one of his company’s drugs, Daraprim by some 5,000 percent.
The drug is used to treat a parasitic infection that can be life threatening to some including those with AIDS and cancer. Shkreli greeted the backlash with a big “F you” on social media. Although he later backtracked and said his company would reduce the price, it came too little too late for Turing. Two competitors recently announced they will create a low-cost alternative that will cost as little as $1 per pill
Lesson learned: If your company comes becomes the target of a backlash, don’t take to social media and stoke the fire. Bring in someone with PR experience to conduct damage control.
You don’t have to own a Volkswagen to have heard about its emissions scandal. The German company admitted to having installed emission cheating devices on millions of its cars. Unlike Turing’s Shkreli, VW fessed up to the error of its ways with one executive, VW America boss Michael Horn, saying "We've totally screwed up." Not only did VW lose the trust of its customers and potential customers, but it took it in the pocketbook with U.S. sales plunging 25 percent in November.
Lesson learned: Lying has a way to come back and bite you and sometimes even when you admit your mistakes you’re still going to lose public trust.
ExxonMobil Corp continues to take heat over allegations it deliberately misled the public about climate change. The U.S. Department of Justice was asked by several environmental groups to investigate ExxonMobil after several media outlets reported earlier this year that the oil giant’s executives downplayed warnings on global warming by the company's own scientists. The company has since hired attorney Theodore V. Wells to represent it. He’s the same attorney who is known for investigating the NFL's “Deflategate” scandal.
Lesson learned: Ditto to Volkswagon
Subway was caught up in a child pornography scandal involving its spokesman Jared Fogle. He pleaded guilty to receiving child porn and traveling across state lines for sex with minors and was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. Although the company immediately distanced itself from Fogle, stories about his predilections continue to plague Subway. Most recently a reputation consulting company reported that Subway’s reputation took a huge hit as a result of its relationship with Fogle.
Lesson learned: Guilt by association can be just as bad as having committed the crime.
There are plenty more PR blunders where these came from, and if history is any indication we can expect more to come in 2016. Stay tuned.
Susan R. Miller is founder of Garton-Miller Media, a full-service, South Florida based public relations firm. Susan is a former journalist with more than 30 years of experience. She has two daughters, two golden retrievers and two cats, but just one guinea pig who is happy not to have to share his cage or his daily stash of veggies with anyone.
Garton-Miller Media is a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Founder Susan R. Miller has 30 years of experience as a writer, journalist and PR professional.