5 Cringe Worthy PR Blunders that Closed out 2014

December 31, 2014 Matt Allison: Founder, Chief Strategy Officer

shutterstock_163887464Everyone makes mistakes. Luckily for most of us, our mistakes are usually on the order of misspelling a customer’s name in a press release, or writing a snarky response to an email, then hitting “reply,” when you meant to hit “forward.” But once in a while, we come across mistakes that seem so enormous, they leave us scratching our heads and wondering, “How?” Here are 5 PR blunders that you can be glad you didn’t make.

1. Walmart invents a new Halloween costume category

Adults dressing up for Halloween has become big business, and there are many costume choices. You might want to be scary, or funny, or sexy. So, it makes sense that the team at Walmart wanted to categorize their costume offering making it easy to online shoppers to find their preferred style and size.  However, if they wanted to appeal to the more than 57% of American women who wear a size 16 or above, “Fat Girl Costumes,” was probably not the best way to label the category for larger sized holiday apparel. The company quickly changed the label and apologized.

2. Would you like a side of Communism with that?

Yum Bands, the fast food giant who brings you Taco Bell and KFC, decided to reach out to a new market and open a Vietnamese sandwich chain in Dallas, TX called, Banh Shop. They adorned the location with a sign featuring a giant red start. Apparently, the folks at Yum know that Texans like stars. Apparently, they did not know that the red star was the symbol of the Vietnamese Communist regime that gained control of the country in the mid 1970s and forced thousands, some of whom ended up in Texas, to flee the country. Yum brands got a bit of a history lesson and the requisite apology, plus new signage, ensued.  

3. Context, Context, Context

In a vacuum, a social media contest that offers participants a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to do the one thing they most want to experience in their lifetime, sounds like a great idea. But alas, context matters, which is why the “My Ultimate Bucket List” campaign was not a great choice for Malaysia Airlines, coming just months after the tragic losses of flights MH17 and MH370. The traveling public was not amused and references to the campaign quickly disappeared from the beleaguered airline's website and social media properties.  

4. Oh, that’s what this hashtag is about. Oops. Our bad.

You never, ever want to be in a position to have to Tweet, “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.” But, that’s exactly what happened to DiGiorno Pizza when they posted a Tweet that said, “#WhyIStayed You had Pizza.” Had the social media team spent 45 seconds looking at the content of other posts using the hashtag #WhyIStayed, they would have realized it was being used by women opening up about violent relationships in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence episode. We do give the company credit for the many apologies offered to particular individuals who were hurt and offended.

5. Best Buy blows it

This fall, the internet was abuzz with talk of the most popular podcast ever, Serial. The 12 part podcast delved into the real-life 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a popular high school senior, and the ensuing accusation and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed for her murder.  Best Buy is mentioned many times in the story as the potential location of the murder. A call allegedly placed from a payphone, that may or may not have exsited, outside the Best Buy was also a pivitol piece of the investigation.  In an effort to capitalize on the series’ popularity, Bust Buy tweeted, “We have everything you need. Unless you need a payphone. #Serial.” Given that the murder of a teenage girl was at the heart of the story, it isn’t surprising that the company faced immediate backlash. Soon after, in a formula that is becoming all too common for corporate Tweeters, the company posted, “We deeply apologize for our earlier tweet about Serial. It lacked good judgment and doesn’t reflect the values of our company. We are sorry.”

Lacked good judgment indeed. Each of these blunders reflects poor judgment, seamingly willful ignorance, or a combination of both. Reputation damaging events are tough on brands, but much more painful when they are self-inflicted. We’re sure you’ll all manage to stay off next year’s, “What were they thinking?” list. 

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