Was This the Worst Week Ever for PR Blunders? Probably, but Here Are 4 Stretches That Come ClosePhoto by Mark Wilson/Getty Media Lists Bad Press
If you had a friend in a coma over the past week, just show them this tweet to catch them up on the news.
if twitter this past week was a person here he is pic.twitter.com/r9JM0tP7ee
— Chris Melberger (@chrismelberger) April 11, 2017
Last week, Pepsi kicked off the festivities by declaring that sugar water and a Kardashian were all that we needed to end police violence, The New York Times‘ clueless ombudsman was called out by their own sports section on Twitter, United had a paying customer dragged off a flight, Cosmo wrote an article about a new weight loss strategy (SPOILER ALERT: it’s cancer), then Sean Spicer capped it all by saying that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons and called concentration camps “Holocaust Centers.”
After that unprecedented run of madness, I’d venture to guess that PR folks will be responsible for at least half of all alcohol sales this weekend. This saga forced all of us at Paste to wonder if this was the worst week ever for high-profile PR blunders, and so the responsibility naturally fell to me—our media and business editor—to do some googling to find any stretch that resembles this week. There isn’t, but if we expand it to a two-month window, there are four contenders that emerge.
On April 5th of last year, Amy Schumer ripped Glamour for including her in their “plus size” bonus issue.
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I think there’s nothing wrong with being plus size. Beautiful healthy women. Plus size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and an 8. @glamourmag put me in their plus size only issue without asking or letting me know and it doesn’t feel right to me. Young girls seeing my body type thinking that is plus size? What are your thoughts? Mine are not cool glamour not glamourous
That same day, Kerry Washington went after AdWeek for photoshopping her to a degree where she said that she didn’t recognize herself in the photo.
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So…You know me. I’m not one to be quiet about a magazine cover. I always celebrate it when a respected publication invites me to grace their pages. It’s an honor. And a privilege. And ADWEEK is no exception. I love ADWEEK. It’s a publication I appreciate. And learn from. I’ve long followed them on Twitter. And when they invited me to do a cover, I was excited and thrilled. And the truth is, I’m still excited. I’m proud of the article. And I like some of the inside images a great deal. But, I have to be honest…I was taken aback by the cover. Look, I’m no stranger to Photoshopping. It happens a lot. In a way, we have become a society of picture adjusters – who doesn’t love a filter?!? And I don’t always take these adjustments to task but I have had the opportunity to address the impact of my altered image in the past and I think it’s a valuable conversation. Yesterday, however, I just felt weary. It felt strange to look at a picture of myself that is so different from what I look like when I look in the mirror. It’s an unfortunate feeling. That being said. You all have been very kind and supportive. Also, as I’ve said, I’m very proud of the article. There are a few things we discussed in the interview that were left out. Things that are important to me (like: the importance of strong professional support and my awesome professional team) and I’ve been thinking about how to discuss those things with anyone who is interested, in an alternate forum. But until then…Grab this week’s ADWEEK. Read it. I hope you enjoy it. And thank you for being patient with me while I figured out how to post this in a way that felt both celebratory and honest. XOXOXOX
A few weeks later, Snapchat debuted a Bob Marley filter that literally put blackface on its users.
Snapchat’s half-baked 420 nod is a Bob Marley blackface filter?! Dude was Jamaican! Did waaaay more than smoke weed. pic.twitter.com/t6tazxnMxT
— Brian Ries (@moneyries) April 20, 2016
The first week of May brought more famous women pushing back against over-zealous editors, as Meghan Trainor had her own music video pulled, telling USA Today:
“I saw fans posting it and was like, ‘Why are fans ruining my waist? Are you kidding?’ Then I went to the video and was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I texted the editors like, ‘I never asked you to touch my waist. I want my waist back.’”
“I screamed in my hotel room. I was like, ‘Why would they do this?’ I cried. I had to try not to cry because I had my (makeup) done, and was like, ‘Don’t ruin this. Go work and ignore it,’ but I couldn’t help it. I (posted a video) on Snapchat and was like, ‘Hey, took down my video because people are still breaking me and Photoshopping me and I’m sick of it. I’m over it. I’m so done.’”
This PR firestorm concluded at the end of May with the infamous death of the gorilla Harambe, which was exacerbated when the Cincinnati Zoo defended the decision to shoot it.
This stretch was kicked off by the #ConcernedStudent1950 protestors at the University of Missouri exercising their first amendment rights while simultaneously restricting the first amendment rights of the press—which completely undercut their message and did more to turn public opinion against them than anything else in that saga. It’s pretty hard to argue that you want people to hear your message while also chanting “hey hey! Ho ho! Reporters have got to go!”
Former Mizzou professor Melissa Click, who can be seen calling for extra muscle in this video, apologized in a statement, saying:
“I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.”
The next day, the Washington Nationals released a new team calendar whose cover featured a baseball stadium located 430 miles north of Nationals Park.
Nationals are having a rough Monday, as the cover of their team calendar features Fenway Park ????(via @edit_susan) pic.twitter.com/5O4D3SPts2
— 120 Sports (@120Sports) November 9, 2015
Ten days later, quintessential Subway pitchman Jared Fogle was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for child pornography and traveling across state lines for commercial sex with a minor. One month later, this happened at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.
This stretch of madness was capped off with what at the time, seemed like an incomprehensible awards show screw-up that would never happen again.
Steve Harvey must have been so damn happy watching this year’s Oscars.
In my research, I found that November and December are always big months for corporate idiocy—which makes sense given the immense holiday pressure to create original and viral content (as exemplified by Urban Outfitters’ tasteless shirt referencing the Kent State shooting that just missed the cut to join these ones by a couple months).
The month began with Best Buy tweeting out a joke about murder. In 1999, high schooler Hae Min Lee was murdered in a Best Buy parking lot, and prosecutors allege that her killer made a call from a payphone after committing the crime. The hit podcast Serial is about this saga, and Best Buy tried to harvest some of the heat from its popularity when they tweeted:
We have everything you need. Unless you need a payphone. #Serial
Instead, the flames engulfed them, because for some reason, the internet didn’t take too kindly to a major corporation joking about child murder in order to drive Christmas sales. A few hours later, Best Buy began the long walk back to respectability.
We deeply apologize for our earlier tweet about Serial. It lacked good judgment and doesn’t reflect the values of our company. We are sorry.
— Best Buy (@BestBuy) December 11, 2014
The next day, it was revealed that Old Navy charged $12-$15 more for plus-sized women’s jeans than for men’s. Gap spokeswoman Debbie Felix told The Huffington Post that:
“Old Navy is proud to offer styles and apparel designed specifically for our plus-size female customer, which includes curve-enhancing and curve-flattering elements such as four-way stretch materials and contoured waistbands, which most men’s garments do not include. This higher price point reflects this selection of unique fabrics and design elements.”
It’s a reasonable explanation, but this nuance gets lost in the fact that this is yet another burden that the fashion world places on women ahead of men. Several days later, Uber—who seems to average one PR crisis per quarter—took their turn in this vicious cycle of incompetence. Emil Michael, a senior executive, suggested that the company dig up dirt on reporters, specifically to spread personal details about one female journalist who had been critical of Uber.
That revelation dominated the headlines until Malaysia Airlines—they of the infamous missing plane that CNN is still probably looking for—tweeted “Want to go somewhere, but don’t know where? Our Year-End Specials might just help! #keepflying”
Earlier in the year, the airline got into more trouble for a promotion called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” Pro-tip: if people have died on your plane that you couldn’t locate, don’t say anything that seems like you don’t know that happened. Luckily for the airline, Hallmark took them off the front pages a few weeks later with Sean Spicer’s new favorite topic: Hitler.
Took me a while to see it. RT “@FastCompany: Hallmark apologizes for swastika wrapping paper http://t.co/4LNOoDaSDKpic.twitter.com/LleVeB9VK0”
— 5igh. (@5aad) December 12, 2014
Delta began this stretch with a six-hour global shutdown, sparked by a power outage at its Atlanta HQ—which resulted in a week of massive delays. Luckily for them, Snapchat decided to debut their second super-racist filter of the year in the middle of this, and much of the internet’s outrage was channeled towards a much more blatant offense.
Dear @Snapchat , thanks for the overly-racist new filter…when can we expect Blackface? pic.twitter.com/vKZn18NDYM
— Brian (@bkisnah) August 9, 2016
About a week later, Ryan Lochte and other members of Team USA Swimming drunkenly trashed a bathroom at the Rio Olympics and then said they were robbed, despite the fact that security camera footage shows the “robbery” was simply the owner of the gas station demanding they pay for their damage. Luckily for Lochte, Well Fargo knocked him out of the headlines a few weeks later, as it was revealed that they created millions of bank accounts without their customers’ knowledge. This one still hasn’t gone away, but some heat was diverted from it when the founder of Oculus (which was sold to Facebook for $2 billion), Palmer Luckey, admitted to funding a pro-Donald Trump shitposting/meme factory.
Facebook clammed up and refused to comment, probably because they knew that at the rate companies were screwing up, it would only be a matter of time before that saga was wiped from the front pages.
That’s about it. There have been plenty of PR blunders in the past, but the combination of social media and our over-saturated media environment has accelerated the pace, so there are very few pre-Twitter stretches that can compare to the week that we just endured. That said, there are still a wealth of hilarious PR missteps that didn’t make the list simply because not enough companies screwed up around the same time to compare. Here are the best of the rest.
— The New York Police Department tried to get the community to engage in their #myNYPD promotion, and well, you probably see where this is going.
Free Massages from the #NYPD. What does YOUR Police Department offer? Tweet at #MyNYPDpic.twitter.com/IFWr8exuqH
— Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallStNYC) April 22, 2014
— On the 4th of July, American Apparel tweeted out an image of the Challenger spacecraft exploding, killing all seven on board, thinking it was an image of fireworks.
— US Airways tweeted a photo of a naked woman with a plane between her legs when responding to a customer service inquiry.
— Union Street Guest House said they would charge customers $500 for bad online reviews, and well, just take a wild guess as to where that one went. They are no longer in business, likely due in part to their one-and-a-half-star rating on Yelp.
— #WhyIStayed is a powerful hashtag that deals with domestic violence, and apparently, no one told DiGiorno that.
Example of a brand using a trending topic without understanding the context #Advertising#SocialMedia#WhyIStayedpic.twitter.com/iTSmfaT6Xv
— Scott Paul (@scottfpaul) September 9, 2014
— The EPA turned a river in Colorado toxic and orange in what was a harbinger of its future role under the Trump Administration.
— Alaska Airlines misplaced their CEO’s bag…twice.
— HSBC fired its staff for filming a mock-ISIS execution video.
— Mountain Dew let their fans name their new drink, and the most popular results were “Hitler did nothing wrong,” “Diabeetus” and “Gushing Granny.”
— In 1993, Pepsi offered customers in the Philippines $40,000 for every bottle cap marked 349. They wound up printing 800,000 349 bottle caps and absolute chaos ensued.
— In 1992, Hoover nearly bankrupted themselves running a promotion for two free flights to America or Europe for their English customers spending 100 pounds or more on a vacuum.
— Philip Morris published a study alleging that the early deaths of smokers were actually a boon to the Czech Republic’s finances.
— Oprah announced a deal where people could download a coupon from her site for free chicken at KFC, and somehow, no one saw the inevitable chicken shortage coming. It wasn’t a Pepsi in the Philippines-level clusterfuck, but it could have been had the promotion lasted longer than 24 hours.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.