Confessions of a PR Nightmare: PR Execs, Reporters Tell All About Blunders

In PR, it's one of your worst nightmares: the laptop presentation that doesn't work; the slide display that fails at the last moment; the product launch that's more like a product death knell; or the sound system that snaps, crackles and pops. What follows are anecdotes communicators and reporters shared with us and the lessons they learned.

Ann Schmidt, director of communications, California Forest Products Commission, Auburn, Calif.

Broadcast Blunder: About a month ago, Schmidt arranged for a TV crew from KCRA in Sacramento to visit a site in Yreka, Calif., where biologists were tagging spotted owls with transmitters through an industry-sponsored project to track these birds. The crew drove five hours and stayed overnight for the planned rendezvous with biologists the next day. But the eve before the media event, Schmidt recalls listening to the rain and thinking it might interrupt the crew's ability to get a good shot if it lingered.

There was some relief, however, in knowing that she had asked the biologists to get a back-up shot in case things didn't go off without a hitch.

But the next morning, Schmidt awoke to an even more dire weather situation: a snow storm and record-breaking temperatures. Still, the crew trudged through the snow, hopeful they could get a shot.

Yet the owls didn't cooperate. "As a PR person, I was mortified," Schmidt recalls. "And we didn't have the safety shot."

Lesson learned: At a time like this, Schmidt says you have to do whatever possible to repair your credibility and relationship with the press. The next day, which was picture perfect, the scientists got a shot which was Fed-Exed to the station for the story it was putting together. And the piece later aired without any hint that the shot was an add-on.

"You learn in PR that a disaster doesn't have to be a disaster and you do anything you can at that point to make it right. Otherwise, you destroy your credibility," Schmidt adds.

David Compton, senior administrator for the Air Force Web Information Service and an independent PR consultant, Arlington, Va.

Techno Tailspin: Last Fall, Compton gave a presentation highlighting the multimedia integration capabilities of Office 97 to about 45 members of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America's Technology Section. At the outset, it dawned on him that attendees in the first few rows probably needed earplugs to get through his 20-minute demo.

Compton hadn't tested the noise level when his laptop presentation was channeled through a surround-sound system. Key to the presentation was the integration of animation with sound, but what happened was the level was deafening and trying to speed through it exacerbated the problem. About 10 minutes into the demo, Compton was able to exit the program and adjust the sound, but he cautions that the scenario could have been avoided.

Lesson learned: "Here's a word to the wary: Even though it may sound good on your laptop at full volume, on a big sound system it's going to be mega sound, so test what happens when you go bigger and better," says Compton.

Mark McLaughlin, media relations, Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Milwaukee, Wisc.

CEO Chagrin: Bill Petasnick, CEO of the hospital, was giving a presentation several months ago to about 320 people who had attended a regional gathering of the Association of Sales and Marketing Executives. But some audience members couldn't see Petasnick's presentation because a chandelier obscured their view.

People ended up moving to try to get a better vantage point because there hadn't been enough time to change the way the room was set up.

Lesson learned: It's not enough that you show up hours ahead of time - you need to visit the site several days before the event or get a blueprint of the room if a visit is out of the question. "This proves the detail to which you should go to make things go off smoothly," says McLaughlin. "And during the presentation, you can address it - acknowledge it by saying you're sorry. Don't play ostrich."

Jerry Bohnen, news director for KTOK-AM, Oklahoma City

Microphone Mishap: Bohnen recalls covering a speech by Vice President Gerald Ford where the mote box failed. "I had to put the microphone next to the lecturn and the Secret Service was not happy about it. They tried to keep us from getting up to the podium, but we had to record the speech," he says.

Bohnen says the secret service finally let KTOK record the speech but remembers the whole day being a "disaster" since the station was going live with the speech. He says he still is invited to events where there is no mote box or even a lecturn to put the microphone on. "Make sure the different media have appropriate access, particularly radio."

Lesson learned: Call ahead and ensure the event realizes you're coming and has the appropriate technology.

Robert Hawkins, "Computerlink" editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

Pitfall on PowerBook: Hawkins describes how Bill Labate, business development director for the Apple (Computers) Road Show, while demonstrating the speed of the G3, had some embarrassing problems.

"During a recent Apple presentation at the La Jolla Marriot, Bill Labate was just beginning to demonstrate the blazing speed of the new iMac G3 when his system crashed," Hawkins says. "He was trying to get the point across that the G3 was real fast, and cheap, too. But Labate couldn't get the audio to work on his PowerBook presentation. He said, 'I wish I could show this to you.'"

Hawkins says Labate tried another slide, but there was no sound, just mouths moving. Finally, Hawkins says he tried to explain what was being said on the screen. Labate said, "this is really nice sound, take my word for it."

Lesson learned: No matter how advanced or unique a new product or program is, a journalist's story still has to reflect the demonstration's failure. (Ann Schmidt, 916/972-7337; David Compton, 703/695-8562; Mark McLaughlin, 414/259-2618; Jerry Bohnen, KTOK, 405/840-5271; Robert Hawkins, 619/293-1396