Spectacular Flameouts: In PR, Failure Is Not an Option, It’s a Given

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill

It is often said that the greatest teacher is failure—for it is only through trying and failing that we eventually learn how to succeed

This is especially true in public relations, where the line between success and failure is so blurred and, even worse— subjective. How many times have you felt that a campaign or event was a success, only to be told by your client or boss that it was a failure?

“In PR, the goalposts are not always visible, or sometimes they even get moved,” says Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of the George Washington University Masters in Strategic Public Relations program, and principal at LJ Parnell and Associates.

Then there are the times when everyone, including yourself, sees an effort of yours as unsuccessful for whatever reason. Accepting that and moving forward is a real challenge, says Parnell, but it is one PR pros must master to survive and thrive in the field. Getting up and solving the problem after a fall is hard, but essential.

In that spirit, PR News, which regularly chronicles the successes of PR professionals in its case studies and how-to articles, asked the following veteran PR professionals to reveal one of their most spectacular failures, what they learned from them, and how they moved forward (albeit with one close call).

Helene Solomon

CEO, Solomon McCown & Company

The Situation: It pains me to say that one of the biggest lessons I learned was in a meeting I did not take to determine whether or not a potential piece of business was viable for us. I spoke with the founding CEO and listened closely as she explained her business concept, funding and the opportunity.

It was during the dot-com era—although it was not a dot-com—and I just could not wrap my mind around the concept. She had a very limited budget for PR, but wanted the sun, moon and stars.

I researched the space, took the pulse of others in the industry and yet the opportunity was still not clear. So I took a pass.

Today, this company is a publicly traded global brand and category leader. I will never know what the outcome and impact was in loss of revenue and future opportunity for the agency, but I can imagine.

Lessons Learned: Clearly, the top-line lesson is to always take the meeting.

Secondly, if you can’t understand the business concept, that is an opportunity to offer services in messaging, branding and research.

And, last, with a nod to Steve Jobs, give dreamers and innovators the benefit of the doubt—at least through the first meeting.

Michael McDougall

Managing Partner, McDougall Travers Collins

The Situation: In 2005, a new trend was emerging in the public relations industry: the pop-up store. As a global PR director for a multinational consumer electronics company, my team and I dove headlong into this phenomenon, making plans to open 30-day pop-ups in New York, San Francisco and London.

On the surface, the idea seemed to be a good one: We would be able to tell our story directly to consumers as they entered the holiday buying season, while placing some buzz behind the brand via the pop-up concept itself.

While the New York and San Francisco stores launched as planned (London falling victim to budget cuts and location issues), we quickly realized that we’d made a significant error: Our projections for foot traffic were grossly overestimated. Why? We didn’t involve true retail experts, and we relied too heavily on basic footfall data.

One week in, we had received decent trade media exposure, but the sizable investment appeared to be a failure.

Campaign Adjustment: We quickly learned from the failure, and regrouped in both cities.

Over the coming days, we shifted the approach from a product to service offering (i.e., enticing passers-by to communicate with a friend using the devices).

We better understood the neighborhood foot traffic, and catered to it. And we made a much stronger use of after-hours events, opening the doors to various groups in each city for private parties.

Ultimately, given the luxury of an extended program, we were able to turn short-term failure into long-term success, recouping our investment and hitting our original goals.

Brenda Siler

Director, Best Communication Strategies

The Situation: I was director of communications for a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit. We collaborated with a major research university in Boston on a national institute on the campus. The keynote speaker for the institute was Vice President Al Gore. A media briefing was scheduled three weeks in advance of the institute launch to build momentum for coverage.

Only one reporter showed up for the briefing, which was very disappointing. The media briefing logistics had been planned in a face-to-face meeting with the university’s public information officer. Our planning clearly outlined responsibilities. I relied on the PIO to manage distribution of media materials and follow up to his contacts. The PIO, however, had no buy-in for the success of the institute launch, even though the university was hosting the event.

Lessons Learned: I failed to keep detailed documentation of all of my communication with the PIO, so it was easy for him to blame me for what appeared to be a failed media briefing. In the end, the launch was a success. But tracking and documentation of responsibilities is key to successful collaborations.

Julie Gross Gelfand

Executive VP & Director of Public Relations, Harrison Leifer DiMarco Public Relations

The Situation: Some 14 years ago, I had just joined my agency as its first PR director, and I inherited a major technology client in the VAR (value added retail) market. The agency partner who supervised the account had promised the client, before my arrival, that we would do a press conference at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) to announce the company’s pending name change. I found this out at the conference table during my very first meeting with the client. My heart sank.

Even in those days, press conferences were called only for the most significant announcements. Promising the client a packed press audience for a non-event was a nightmare. There was no budget and no time to stage another platform to unveil the new name.

Worse, Cirque du Soleil was performing a custom piece HP had commissioned to unveil its newest products in the booth immediately next to ours. My heart sank (again).

Lesson Learned: The saving grace was that my client had retained a sports legend to make the name change announcement, and people (not reporters) queued up for his autograph. When I suggested to the client that all was not lost, since the booth was filled with prospective customers, he laughed and told me not to sweat the spin. That’s a good lesson to remember.


Larry Parnell, lparnell@gwu.edu; Helene Solomon, hsolomon@solomonmccown.com; Michael McDougall, mmcdougall@mcdougalltc.com; Brenda Siler, silerb@comcast.net; Julie Gross Gelfand, jgelfand@hldnow.com.