When PR Goes T*ts Up: 2019 Edition

For every PR win this year, there was a momentous PR fail. From alienating audiences to celebrities cheating the system, here’s a handful of the biggest PR fails of 2019 – and there’s still a couple of months left to go…

America’s college admissions scandal

What do you get when you mix uber-rich celebs, their not-so-bright offspring, and a college system prone to corruption? Ill-gotten admissions galore. Earlier this year news broke that a slew of high-flyers had crossed nefarious palms with silver in order to give their kids a leg-up in life, much to the dismay of Hollywood’s PR force. Those implicated included actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity ‘desperate housewife’ Huffman, who both responded in different ways to the tsunami of public backlash they received.

While Huffman gave a rather sincere apology, Ms Loughlin rocked up to court with all the nonchalance of a cat and started signing autographs. Jon Goldberg of PR firm Reputation Architects said of her behaviour “She was all smiles as she arrived in court for her first hearing. If it was an act calculated to signal her confidence in her case, it backfired. At best, it showed just how oblivious she was to the gravity of her situation. At worst, it was an insult to prosecutors, who don’t take kindly to such things, and an affront to the court that will determine her sentence.” After pleading not guilty she now faces 50 years behind bars, while Huffman, who pleaded guilty, is serving two weeks.

The Boeing balls-up

Few PR catastrophes involve the loss of human life, so Boeing’s PR team were entering dangerous territory when Boeing’s new 737 MAX planes were eventually grounded following two fatal crashes. The Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in October 2018 and March 2019, killing hundreds of people on board. The disasters were caused by a new automated Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, which forced both planes to nosedive. All 737 MAX planes were grounded following the second crash in March, prompted by a global outcry from rightfully concerned travellers.

And then the sh*tstorm came. It was eventually revealed that Boeing hadn’t given pilots and operators all the information regarding the plane’s new features, or a heads-up on the sometimes-faulty autopilot system. The manufacturer then went on to make things even worse, by insisting to the press (and bizarrely, to President Trump) that their planes were safe, while not fully addressing the public’s concerns. All in all, they couldn’t have handled it worse if they tried.

Gillette’s least smoothest campaign yet?

It’s not unusual these ‘woke’ days for a brand to hop on a political bandwagon, and if it’s done in the right way it’s usually a smart move. Unfortunately, Gillette began the year by rubbing mankind up the wrong way, with its now infamous #MeToo campaign. The 1-minute and 48 second advert encouraged men to be better people, by casting aside their toxic masculinity and treating women with more respect. Not a bad message at all. However, the ad divided viewers with its somewhat clunky and finger-pointy delivery.

Many of the Gillette’s consumer base also felt it seemed out of place compared to the brand’s previous campaigns, while others felt it wasn’t something a razor blade company should be getting involved with at all. The original video, uploaded to the brand’s official YouTube channel, currently holds 805k upvotes, and a weighty 1.5 million downvotes – a stark reminder of the political pitfalls brands can find themselves in.

Walmart’s scapegoat scandal

Following the fatal shooting of 22 people in its El Paso, Texas store in August, Walmart faced an all-too-familiar public outcry. What did the public want? For the chain to finally take a stance against the sales of firearms and ammunition, in much the same way as Dick’s Sporting Goods did when they destroyed 5 million dollars’ worth of guns following last year’s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Unfortunately, Walmart wasn’t having any of it and continued to flog its firearms, seemingly unperturbed by the public backlash.

Instead, Walmart extended a flimsy olive branch by removing all advertising materials for violent video games from its stores, seemingly mirroring Trump’s stance that violent video games were primarily to blame for psychotic shooting sprees. Unsurprisingly, people weren’t at all impressed with Walmart. A petition by a Walmart employee finally convinced the company to limit ammunition sales in their stores and to request that people no longer carry firearms while they shop. But is it too little too late for this conservative American giant?

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