11 of the Biggest PR Disasters of the Decade

The favorite cringe-worthy PR incidents of the decade

bridgestone-tire-debacle-20001. Bridgestone tire debacle (2000):  According to CBS News, it was announced that nearly 200 deaths and more than 700 injuries had been caused by Bridgestone’s faulty tires before they would cough up and admit the problem. Afraid of a PR disaster? Yeah, that calls for losing lives. Not.
Violation of First Rule in Crisis Management: ‘Fix it if it’s broken.’

2. Philip Morris says smoking deaths have “positive effects” (2001): How did the tobacco giant try to spin smoking deaths? “Smoking actually resulted in a net gain of around $147 million, including saving “between 943 million and 1.2 billion korunas (about $24 million-to-$30 million) in health-care, pension and public-housing costs due to the early deaths of smokers.” You cannot make this stuff up, people. Glad to hear they “care” so much about their customers.
Violation of Public Relations: ‘There is no relation if your target market dies.’

thongs-for-little-girls-and-racist-t-shirts-double-bad-move-af-20023. Thongs for little girls and racist t-shirts = double bad move, Abercrombie & Fitch (2002): “T-shirts we felt Asians would love.” “Racy thongs for 10 year olds we thought were cute.” I’m not surprised these campaigns caused huge consumer backlash, boycotts, protests, and a storm of media criticism.
Violation of Common Sense: ‘Take idiots off your PR accounts.’

4. Urban Outfitters sells racist board game (2003): Do we have to explain why it made USAToday headlines that black leaders were outraged at the ‘Ghettopoly’ game?
Violation of Common Sense: ‘Take idiots off your PR accounts.’

5. Merck recalls Vioxx (2004): Big pharma gets greedy. Trials suggest painkiller causes heart problems. “No way,” says Merck. The company faced an SEC investigation and hundreds of lawsuits as a result of thousands of deaths. According to the Wall Street Journal Merck settled litigation for merck-recalls-vioxx-2004$80 million to lay the scandal to rest. Whatever. Lies in PR is deadly…literally.
Violation of PR Policy: ‘Never lie in PR.’

6. ABC’s Locker-Room Scene (2005): In case you didn’t know it, American football-viewers are of the family-friendly. And a raunchy promo during Monday Night Football, featuring sexy “Desperate Housewives,” caused complaints to pour into the FCC, reported by ESPN.
Violation of PR Strategy: ‘Know your target market.’

7. Automaker CEOs take private jets to D.C… then ask for bailout (2008): If you were heading to Washington to beg for a $25 billion bailout, would you be smarter than to show up in an expensive private jet? Unfortunately, the CEOs of GM, Chrysler, and Ford  were not. Ridicule from the public and the press generated later headlines about the trio: “GM CEO heading to Capitol by way of Malibu – Ford, Chrysler CEOs also plan to travel by car to Washington hearings.” How embarrassing.
Lack of PR Professionals with Guts: ‘Get PR Pros that aren’t yes men and will tell management like it is.’


8. AIG gets bailed out… then hosts $443,300 corporate retreat (2008): If you got $85 billion in government rescue money (really taxpayers money) would you host a corporate retreat? AIG did. And they wonder why the public hate them?
Violation of many things on many levels: ‘AIG has no PR.’

9. KFC’s chicken coupon riots (2009): You want to get on Oprah? Watch what you wish for. KFC thought it was ready – it wasn’t. Headlines like this rake KFC over the coals: KFC diners with free coupon from Oprah ask: Where’s the chicken? And KFC earns Adweek’s number-one spoton its list of the most-memorable product launches of the year…ouch!
Violation of PR Readiness: ‘Always be prepared.’

10. Domino’s YouTube scandal (2009): Results from two Domino’s Pizza employees posting videos of themselves doing disgusting things to food that they were getting ready to send out were catastrophic. Domino’s waited two whole days to respond while nearly one million people viewed the videos on YouTube. According to dominos-youtube-scandal-2009the New York Times, consumer perception of the brand had turned negative within hours.
Violation of Internal PR: ‘Tough hiring practices and an HR Department that doesn’t blow.’

11. DOD thinks that low-flying planes over Manhattan are a good idea (2009): It’s post-9/11, downtown Manhattan. A plane flys unusually low over the city, pursued by a fighter jet. This “stunt” resulted in widespread panic with many people evacuating their offices and reporting the incident to police. The 24 hour news cycle had a field day. The official responsible for the mistake resigned.
Violation of Government PR: ‘Don’t let the government do PR.’

Which was your “favorite”?

Read all of the biggest PR disasters of the decade by Bianca Male in Business Insider.

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