Biggest PR Blunders & Lessons Learned

28 09 2009

Remember when you were a toddler and your mom told you not to touch the hot stove because you’d burn yourself? What did you do? You touched the stove. You burned yourself. And you learned a lesson that you will never forget.

Years later, when you told your own toddler not to touch the hot stove, what did she do? She touched the stove. And she burned herself. Not because she didn’t want to believe you, but because she had to learn from her own experience. She wasn’t going to learn from yours.

English humorist/novelist Douglas Adams once said that human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

I might add, especially teenage human beings. But I digress …

So let’s go against our disinclination, tap that unique ability Adams talked about and see if we CAN learn from each others’ PR mistakes.

Now, don’t tell my staff, but I’ve made a few mistakes during my career.

Oscar Wilde once said experience is the name we give our mistakes. So my claim to have LOTS of experience is true in so many ways. Sometimes they were hugely embarrassing incidents of experience, including one faux pas I made more than 20 years ago that was mentioned in a national business magazine (you know, the one famous for its “500” list).

But that’s another story for another time.

We’d like to hear from you … what’s the worst, the funniest or the most embarrassing PR mistake you or “a friend” have ever made?  Share it with us. It may be cathartic for you … I mean, for your “friend.” Comment anonymously if you want. Use a pen name. Or better yet, use your bosses’ name.

Perhaps we all CAN learn something from your mistake. And if we do laugh, remember that we’re laughing WITH you, not AT you – probably because we’ve made a similar gaffe!

In the end, the only experiences lost are the ones we don’t share.

Go ahead. It’ll be fun …

Lessons Learned: Launching a Brand Identity

22 09 2009

Over the years, we’ve assisted clients in several corporate identity roll-outs. Each was different, but all shared some common characteristics. Most recently, we helped the former division of a large global company launch its new brand identity and underscore its position as a focused, stand-alone company.

This time, we were called in to assist the spin-off just one week before the name change was required to be implemented. Not a lot of time for planning. And compounding the short timeframe was the fact that we were heading into the Labor Day holiday weekend.

Here are a few of the key lessons learned from these kinds of projects:

1) A short timeframe can clarify the mind. Decisions come quickly, because they have to! There’s little time for second-guessing. And in this kind of environment, you find you may not need as much time to prepare as you might think.

We were initially called in to handle the external media relations effort and some message development for key internal and external audiences exactly seven days (four business days) before the launch. Our role expanded as other needs were identified. The key to succeeding in a short timeframe is to get the right number of people involved … too few and they’re overwhelmed, too many and you add confusion and communication gaps.

2) Attitude is everything. Henry Ford was right when he said whether you think you can do it or think you can’t, you’re right. Pick team members who have a “can-do” attitude. Despite the tight deadline and the prospect of working long hours over a holiday weekend, the client staff – to a person – was helpful, positive and upbeat. Individual agendas were set aside and team goals were paramount. Likewise, at our agency, several people willingly set aside their personal plans, rolled up their sleeves and got the job done in record time.

3) Continuous communication among all the parties involved is key. We had daily (sometimes twice a day) conference calls to identify issues, remove obstacles and make decisions … and in-between we shared detailed timelines which tracked progress and kept everyone on the same page. Team members on both the client and agency sides made themselves available at a moment’s notice, when necessary, to resolve immediate issues.

4) One person needs to “own” the management of the project. Preferably, select someone with superb project management and organizational skills. This project manager’s job is to keep all the tasks organized, assure all team members  are on task, ensure the tasks are on track, share progress reports and remove obstacles. In addition having project management chops, this person should also have a good sense of humor, which may be needed at crucial moments to break the tension when the pressure mounts.

5) Consider all of your stakeholders.  Develop strategies, tactics and messages to reach every one of your company’s audiences … spelling out what the change means to them, how it will affect them and what they need to do. This includes employees at all locations and all levels, customers, shareholders, analysts, suppliers, partners, local officials, etc. While the messaging will be consistent overall, it will vary slightly to address each group’s unique interests and perspectives. 

6) Identify local or regional spokespeople for media inquiries. This is especially important if your company operates multiple locations that span countries, cultures and/or continents.  Ensure that your chosen spokespeople know the key messages for their area and can provide local or regional perspective on the impact of your announcement.

7) Remember that nothing goes perfectly. Expect a few glitches and speed bumps, address them head-on, make quick decisions and move on.  

Finally, remember that, while the launch of your brand is important, your “Day One” is only one day … and just the beginning of a long journey. Every day thereafter, you’ll have the opportunity to continue to build your brand and deliver on your brand promise. So, enjoy the ride!

What other lessons learned would you share?

Obama Comment on Kanye: Off the Record?

16 09 2009

It was reported today that President Barack Obama “apparently was speaking off the record” Monday when he characterized Kanye West as a “jackass” for Mr. West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech during Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards.

ABC News claimed “in the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview.”

An ABC newsman had tweeted the President’s off-hand remarks about West to more than 1 million of his followers. The newsman, Terry Moran, removed his tweet from his Twitter feed, and ABC apologized for the slip-up … but, alas, the genie was already out of the bottle.

Whether or not you agree with the President regarding West’s behavior … and whether or not you think the ABC reporter was wrong to post his tweet … from a PR perspective, one has to wonder:

Did an experienced communicator like the President really expect his off-the-cuff comment to stay off the record?

It’s hard to say. If so, we might suggest a new strategy moving forward.

With very few exceptions (where we know and trust the reporter, and have well-established ground rules) we have always counseled our client executives to AVOID off-the-record situations. To be safe, assume there is NO SUCH THING as off the record. If you don’t say it, it won’t be quoted.

Beyond formal media interview situations, remember that:

1) Reporters are ALWAYS working; and

2) In today’s wired world, every bystander with a camera phone, a blog or a Twitter account can play reporter and turn an off-hand comment into a worldwide news story.

For almost any setting, the best policy today is not to say, write or do anything that you don’t want to see in the newspaper tomorrow, on the TV news tonight or on Twitter or YouTube in the next two minutes.

Or you run the risk of someone calling you a “jackass” — off the record, of course.

Social Media – What is Business Afraid of?

8 09 2009

Interesting data from recent research conducted with business executives for Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law suggests that many business executives have mixed emotions about social media:

  • 81 percent of business executives see corporate use of social media as a security risk;
  • 51 percent fear social media could be detrimental to employee productivity; and
  • 49 percent assert that using social media could damage a company’s reputation.

Yet, in spite of the perceived risks, social media use is being increasingly accepted as a key business communication strategy (73 percent say their use of social media will increase over the next year). Why? Survey results provide some insight:

  • 81 percent of executives polled believe social media can enhance relationships with customers/clients;
  • 69 percent feel social media networking can be valuable in employee recruitment;
  • 64 percent see social media as a valuable customer service tool; and
  • 46 percent view social media as a vehicle to enhance employee morale.

Here are the top three things companies say they’re using social media for:

  • 82 percent – brand-building
  • 60 percent – networking
  • 32 percent – customer service

So from our view, while social media are gaining ground with businesses, there is still a lot of opportunity, especially in the business-to-business space. Those opportunities include:

  1. Empowering employees to use social media to become brand ambassadors (40 percent of those surveyed said their companies block employees from using social media);
  2. Eliciting input from customers/clients and prospects through conversation to improve your product/service or create a new one;
  3. Encouraging two-way communication through social media (rather than just pushing out promotional messages) to build community, conduct research and gather feedback;
  4. Engaging and building relationships with key journalists and bloggers; and
  5. Enlisting social media into crisis communications plans to tap their incredible immediacy (only 13 percent of companies surveyed have).

What other opportunities do you see? And what are we waiting for?

For the full research report, which includes advice on setting corporate social media policy (as only 13 percent of companies have one), visit


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