PR News Hotlist: Top 10 PR Blunders of 2012, Part 1

Another day, another PR gaffe—that's what the narrative has seemed like for the first seven months of 2012. That's not to say there hasn't been exemplary PR work, and that there won't be best-of-industry awards handed out this year, but more than ever, the Internet echo chamber is always ready to pounce on the next PR blunder—and fast. 

Some organizations have already recovered from their blunders, while for others their recovery may take years. Here are 10 high-profile PR blunders scenarios we've seen so far this year, in chronological order: 

  1. Costa Cruises Fixates on a Fall Guy: Costa Cruises laid the blame for the sinking of its luxury liner Costa Concordia on its captain and changed its story as it went. The company accused the captain of deviating from a fixed course to "show off" the boat. The captain said the cruise line pressured him to do so for publicity purposes. The finger-pointing did not play well across the media.

  2. McDonald's Promoted Tweets Don't 'Go As Planned':  McDonald's took a social media beating over the launch of two Twitter hashtags broadcast with the help of promoted tweets in late January. The hashtags, #McDStories and #MeettheFarmers, were intended to solicit positive tweets from McDonald's customers, and had the opposite effect. Rick Wion, social media director for McDonald's, told that he expected "fans and detractors to chime in." Still, he admitted that the #McDStories hashtag "wasn't going as planned."

  3. Vassar Breaks Hearts and Heads Home for the Weekend: Poughkeepsie, New York-based liberal arts school Vassar College gave false cheer to 76 early-decision applicants on Friday, Jan. 27, when it erroneously informed them they were accepted to the school—only to tell them later they had been rejected. The school then took a "get back to us on Monday, we're closed now" approach by telling students to contact the admissions office the following Monday, instead of opening up a two-way communications channel immediately. 

  4. Susan G. Komen for the Cure Drops Planned Parenthood: In the last week of January 2012, Komen halted its financing of breast cancer screening and education programs run by Planned Parenthood affiliates. For nearly 72 hours, however, there was no news out of Komen. Posts to their blogs, forums and Facebook pages went unanswered, there were no updates and their Twitter account was silent, except for an unfortunate retweet by Karen Handel, the controversial VP of public affairs who was being blamed for the decision. Finally, after two days of rage, the CEO of Komen posted a stilted and formal video to its Web site explaining the decision. Less than a week later, Handel resigned and took to cable news to give her side of the story, prolonging Komen’s embarrassment.

  5. Homeless HotSpots Rile SXSW Crowd: Advertising agency BBH transformed some of Austin’s homeless people into mobile hotspots during SXSW Interactive. Attendees were encouraged to donate money to the “Homeless Hotspots” based on the amount of time they spent online, with a suggested donation of $2 for every 15 minutes. In a statement on its blog, BBH defended its actions, “Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villainizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.”

  6. Coca-Cola Passes Blame for Graffiti Campaign: Leading into the NCAA Final Four matchups in New Orleans, street teams hired by an ad agency working on behalf of Coca-Cola stenciled ads for Coca-Cola Zero on flagstone sidewalk panels and cement surfaces in the French Quarter, the Central Business District and Treme. The ads were stenciled without permission from the city and the resulting flap made the campaign a national story—in a negative way. Coca-Cola blamed the agency, which only made things worse. 

  7. Olympians on Social Media Part 1: Professional athletes now look to social media to propel their personal brands and connect with fans. Swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk, members of Australia's Olympic swimming team, posted on Facebook an image of the two of them grinning with shotguns in a California gun shop in early June. Posting images on Facebook of yourself posing with guns is rarely a good idea, particularly if you're about to represent your gun-shy country in the Olympics in London—a city whose police force generally does not carry guns. A subsequent halfway apology only turned up the heat on the two swimmers.

    Olympians on Social Media Part 2: On July 22, 23-year-old triple-jumper Paraskevi Papahristou tweeted, in Greek, "With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food." The errant tweet was enough for Greece—a country with a large enough public image problem to start with—to expel her from the games on the day before the opening ceremonies. 

  8. @Sweden Gets Anti-Semitic: Curators of Sweden, an initiative of the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden, launched the @Sweden Twitter account in December 2011, which was then handed over to a different Swedish citizen each week to control. Each handler was encouraged to engage in their "normal Twitter behavior," but on June 12, reports filtered out that the current @Sweden curator had tweeted some ill-considered questions and comments about Jews: "What's the fuzz with jews. You can't even see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can't be sure!?"

  9. PR Pro Passes Herself Off as a Reporter on Behalf of Wal-Mart: In early July, an employee for one of the retail giant's PR firms was fired after falsely identifying herself at a labor group press conference. “Reporter” Stephanie Harnett infiltrated a press conference held by Warehouse Workers United, a labor group working to improve conditions for Wal-Mart’s L.A. warehouse workers. In actuality, Harnett was an associate of Mercury Public Affairs, which was being paid $60,000 to assist Wal-Mart in its potential store opening in L.A.’s Chinatown neighborhood. In a statement, Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said, “These actions were unacceptable, misleading and wrong. Our culture of integrity is a constant at Wal-Mart and by not properly identifying herself, this individual's behavior was contrary to our values and the way we do business.” 

  10. #Aurora Tweet Triggers Outrage: After the horrific shooting tragedy on July 20 in Aurora, Colo., online clothing store Celeb Boutique sent out the following tweet: “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;).” In reality, the town name was trending because of the massacre at the Batman premiere. Celeb Boutique then backtracked, deleting the tweet and writing a series of apologetic tweets stating that its PR team is "NOT U.S. based and had not checked the reason for the trend, at that time our social media was totally UNAWARE of the situation." 

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's recent comments about gay marriage can be perceived as a PR blunder by some and a PR boon by others—the company has received much support and much criticism for his stated opinion on the issue. But from a strictly PR perspective, the CEO's publicly stated opinion—which was in line with his already well-known views on social issues—has definitively shifted the focus away from the brand's core message to consumers, which is to "be America's best quick-service restaurant."

Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg