Celebrating the Best PR Failures of 2018: A Look Back on the Lessons Learned

Aaron Blank / January 7, 2019

 

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2018 was quite the year to remember – no?
Throughout the year, we at The Fearey Group took the time to reflect on the meaning of “failure.” A loaded, uncomfortable term to think about, but important nonetheless. After all, the common thread that connects each failure is talking about it and wondering how things could’ve gone better for everyone involved. We aren’t laughing or eyerolling, we are commiserating and learning, because everyone makes mistakes. We’re human.
For our most recent example, check out last month’s PR blunder here.
As we kick off a new set of learnings from various levels of PR failures in 2019, we’d like to share with you the top five lessons we learned from last year’s PR no-nos. While 2019 is sure to bring its own unique set of challenges, it will also offer up some amazing opportunities, and we hope the lessons we’ve selected resonate with you as much as they do with our own PR team at Fearey.
Fearey’s List of the Top PR Lessons Learned in 2018:
1. Be Proactive – The Apple Slow Down
Early in 2018, Apple was accused of slowing down its older phone models whenever a new iOS update was installed. Not on purpose, but the public didn’t know that. Understanding how a product can enhance or potentially worsen a consumer’s life is imperative to the success of not just the product but your whole brand.
When Apple found itself in the public’s not so good graces, the lesson was clear: Always try to think from the mindset of the customer. Follow PR’s golden rule book, which is to always be transparent on how your product or service will impact your brand’s reputation and future right from the get-go. Craft messaging that provides reasoning to your product changes and avoid any further distrust from your loyal customers
2. Empathy matters – Uber and the Self-Driving Car Accident
Empathy is especially essential when someone dies because of an accident with your company’s self-driving car. It’s important to note that empathy can be displayed without admitting guilt. For example, assure the public the cause will be found and corrected, even if that means permanently grounding self-driving cars. If the public knows you hold safety at the upmost importance versus profits, they’ll be more forgiving. Be considerate and understand the severity of any kind of statement or action you execute moving forward.
3. Create a fool-proof plan – Build-A-Bear Gets Stuffed
And when that fool-proof plan goes awry, adjust swiftly and accordingly. Although a great idea in theory, Build-A-Bear’s “Pay Your Age” promotion where families could visit Build-A-Bear stores and pay the price equal to your age (a two-year-old pays $2 and so on) turned to be disastrous in execution.
The lesson? Determine your worst-case scenario and plan for it. Employing a “try it and see” model for a promotion of this magnitude has dire consequences. Air it out, say you’re sorry, then say it again. Take the time and steps needed to mend the bridges burned. Turning off social media notifications the week after and hoping everyone forgets “Bearmaggedon,” then charging forward as if nothing happened sends the wrong message. Engage in dialogue with your customers for as long as it takes to fix the problem, and maybe give them a little bit more than a $15 voucher. Bottom line: be better prepared for any kind of promotion you plan to roll out. Organize yourselves!
4. Be sensitive to the surrounding cultural, social and political conversations going on around you – Jack in the Box’s Tone-Deaf Ad
That was a long-winded lesson, but worth the word count. In 2018, our culture witnessed many movements gain momentum and take on viral status. One of the best examples is the #MeToo conversation against sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially in the workplace. Jack in the Box released a commercial promoting, “Jack’s Bowls,” which is a new menu item that sent out a controversial message and not-so-subtle sexual innuendo. Yikes.
How your brand or company executes its messaging and marketing efforts impacts your reputation and it’s important to know your audience. In the case for Jack in The Box, perhaps thinking you know your audience too well can cause your messaging to backfire, pushing your customers to question your company’s culture and values. By not taking a more nuanced approach in handling the fallout from this campaign, their simple joint statement fell flat. Remember to communicate with your audience, stay transparent and own up to any insensitivities your marketing efforts may bring up.
5. Be a leader and mean it – Tesla’s Elon Musk and the Importance of Sensible Leadership
There are many characteristics that make up a good leader. Integrity. Humility. A clear vision. Elon Musk is undoubtedly one of the brightest innovators of our generation, but the immense pressure of upholding the promises he’s made started to take its toll last year.
When you’re a leader of any organization (and a very visible one at that) you must communicate your own vision to the people who arguably matter the most — your employees. When Musk tweeted that he would take Tesla private, it caused a spur of worry and distrust from his board of directors. Not good. As a leader, it is up to you to not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Be mindful of the things you say and be aware that you are not only some of the brains behind the organization, but the face of it as well.
2018’s deep dive into public PR missteps helped us learn that failure is a part of everyday life. But so is learning. Without mistakes, we wouldn’t be able to grow and develop into better versions of ourselves and our work.
We can’t wait to see what 2019 will bring — both in celebrated successes, inevitable failures and valuable lessons learned. We’ll keep at it in the coming months because we’ve heard from many of our friends and partners that you want to continue to join us in celebrating our industry’s failures.
Stay tuned for our next blunder and in the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us here at The Fearey Group!
Be Fearless,
Aaron Blank
CEO + President
The Fearey Group
For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at www.feareygroup.com.
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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!