What did you learn from these PR Crises?

Picture_1 Now that 2007 has passed, we’ll see a flurry of lists, reflections and commentary. 

PRWeek has done a very thought-provoking job of summing up the year in their downloadable 2007 Book of Lists.

Some of the lists are the 10 toughest communications jobs (like being the corporate communications VP at Mattel) and 10 brands that soared (Apple, Nintendo) and a list I thought we could all learn from — the top 10 events that tested PR Pros:

Jet Blue: Known to many as the Valentine’s Day Massacre, the ice storm that crippled the Northeast last February grounded planes on the runway for up to 12 hours. The PR backlash eventually led to CEO David Neeleman resigning.

Mattel toy recall: With more than 20 million toys recalled, this was probably the longest-running crisis story of the year. Regaining the trust of parents around the world will be an arduous task.

Taco Bell rats: After getting through an E.coli breakout in the Northeast, a video surfaced of rats running amok in a Manhattan Taco Bell/KFC restaurant. While it was an isolated incident, the PR hit was still nasty.

NBA’s gambling referee: Veteran NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s involvement in a betting scandal led to his firing and the league scrambling to maintain its integrity. Commissioner David Stern later altered the league’s gambling policy for refs.

Virginia Tech shooting: Only six hours after a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, the world’s media landed at the college. Larry Hincker, AVP for university relations, was forced to create a makeshift communications team from schools within the college to manage the more than 600 reporters covering the story on site.

US Attorney firings: The alleged politically charged firings of eight US attorneys put Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the White House on the defensive. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee though, Gonzales was unable to recall… anything – and eventually resigned from his position.

Blackwater shootings: When a Blackwater security detail gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, not only was CEO Erik Prince called to testify before Congress but it called into question the practices of the private security company.

GAP child labor issue: This year it was GAP’s turn to catch heat for child labor practices. The much-maligned retailer came under fire for working with a vendor in India who used child laborers.

Pet food industry recall: Recalls involving hundreds of products left shelves in the pet food aisles barren for weeks. In response, the industry created the National Pet Food Commission.

Don Imus:
Though his ratings weren’t what they used to be, the original “shock jock” had to realize people were listening when he used a racially charged term to describe the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Not only did advertisers pull out, but Imus was fired days later.

So….what was the takeaway for you, from these situations?  Do you see any trends?  Which of these do you think was handled the best?  The worst?

Related posts:
Don Imus: The dark side of social media?
Jet Blue goes bold
What would you advise: PR Nightmare

7 comments on “What did you learn from these PR Crises?

  1. Don Imus made a horrible mistake. But he was removed from his position, met with the Rutgers team and other African-American leaders to express his apology, and seemed to show genuine remorse. So I give him a little bit of credit.

    Mattel has some major work to do. The paint used on the toys wasn’t just slightly over the limit for lead, it was 180 times the limit! There is no way an organization of this size could over-look something like this. There was a reason they were using this kind of paint and I’m guessing it had something to do with their bottom line.

  2. David Reich says:

    It’s so hard to second-guess and Monday morning quarterback these PR nightmares. We don’t know all that may have been going on behind the scenes in these cases.

    Clearly, though, most of these incidents point to the crucial importance of any decent-size organization to have a crisis plan in place before a disaster occurs. The plan may not be able to forsee every possible situation, but a good plan will lay out possibilities, have a clear line of authority re. company spokespersons and key media to be in touch with, and some background ready on the company position on various issues that could explode.

    Re. Jet Blue, I remember the CEO Needleman quickly going on TV (and with a YouTube video, if I recall correctly) and admiting the problem and vowing to fix it so it would never happen again. He made himself accessible, took the heat and didn’t try to cover up or explain away the mistake. See my post at the time, http://reichcomm.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/02/jet_blues_mea_c.html

  3. JS,

    Nice to have you here. Hope you come back soon!


  4. Marc,

    It seems to me that in many of these cases, the bottom line gets in the way of doing what’s right. And sometimes…you get caught.

    Painful lessons learned for these companies. But I believe the insights come not so much from the mistakes but how they handle the mistakes.


  5. David,

    That’s a very good point — these situations are a good reminder that being prepared in advance can save a company time, money and their reputation.

    Have you ever had your bacon saved because you were prepared?


  6. David Reich says:

    I helped prepare crisis communications plans for Emery Worldwide (airfreight and shipping logistics) about 10 years ago, but thankfully, they were never called into play.

    But preparation is key even when it’s not a major crisis, such as when a CEO or other exec is being interviewed by the media. Some advance thinking and practice for what could be tough questions has proven helpful many times when I’ve had a client interviewed.

  7. David,

    I agree completely. Taking the time to plan/prep when the heat is not on or the cameras are not rolling makes a huge difference.

    It’s sort of like having a marketing plan. You can always vary from it — but you save yourself a lot of headaches just by having one in place.


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