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Top 10 PR disasters of 2011

Thursday, 8 December 2011 | By Oliver Milman

Given the never-ending pressure on brands to stand out from the crowd, sending out 55 goldfish appears, at first glance, a striking point of difference.


Unfortunately for Advantage SA, the body tasked with promoting South Australia, such a plan backfired horribly this week when reports came in that scores of goldfish, sent to media agencies across the country with the tagline “Be the big fish in a small pond and come test the water”, quickly perished. 


Advantage SA's CEO Karen Raffen insists that every goldfish was alive on delivery and suitable provisions were made for the animals' welfare, stating: "Advantage SA took the utmost care delivering the fish."


"Every single fish was happy and healthy when it arrived at its destination, and was left in the custody of someone who had agreed to care for it."

"Advantage SA has offered to find suitable homes for any unwanted fish. It was never our intention to cause any harm or distress to the fish, and we unreservedly apologise for any concern this has caused."


Raffen can take small consolation from the fact that 2011 has been a particularly busy year when it comes to public relations disasters. Businesses have been shooting themselves in the foot with alarming regularity.


Here are the 10 worst PR gaffes of the year.



1. Qantas

A pretty obvious choice given the highly controversial grounding of its fleet in October, but this year has been a particularly gruesome one for Qantas all-round.


In August, Qantas awarded free flights to two competition winners who ‘blacked’ themselves up, to appear similar to their favourite rugby player.


Things just got worse. In November, Qantas sent the following message out on Twitter:



The Tweet provoked a furious response from Twitter users, with the hash tag quickly used to berate Qantas for everything from cancelled flights to executive pay.




2. Gasp

Opinion was evenly divided over whether Gasp pulled off a PR coup or mishap over the recent customer complaint furore.


While the stunt certainly made headlines for Gasp, they were almost entirely negative. It’s pretty safe to say that not only allowing your staff to be rude to customers but also publicly defending them with further insults is a monumental error that no start-up should repeat.




3. Yahoo

While most PR disasters occur when a particular stunt backfires, your brand can also be trashed by something that you imagine would leave your workplace.


When the Yahoo decided to fire their outspoken CEO Carol Bartz via the phone, it wasn’t just a shoddy personal management decision. It also proved a terrible PR mis-step, with Bartz sending a widely leaked email to staff stating: “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board.”




4. Group buying complaints

The mushrooming group buying industry may be worth $400 million in Australia, but could this be the year when the Aussie public began to tire of daily deals?


A flood of complaints has hit the sector over unfulfilled deals and spurious advertising, as well as anguish from merchants claiming to have been misled as to the benefits of daily deals.


In response to the continual barrage of negative headlines, the eight major group buying players cobbled together a code of conduct.  But will it be enough?

5. Netflix

Customers of Netflix had a pretty good deal – for $10 a month, you could rent DVDs through the post as well as watch movies online.


Inexplicably, Netflix decided to separate these two options and hike the price. Cue outraged customers. Netflix apologised and backed away from its plans to split the services, but not before its share price was decimated and it lost 800,000 subscribers in the September.


The lesson? If your business’ proposition is simple and popular, tread carefully and involve your loyal customers when making any changes.




6. Kenneth Cole

Start-up can get great marketing leverage from major events in the news. Whether it’s the AFL Grand Final or the latest political uproar in Canberra, quick-thinking businesses can exploit public recognition of a current issue.

It can go horribly wrong, however, as fashion house Kenneth Cole discovered in the wake of the popular uprisings in Egypt earlier this year. It decided the time was ripe for a Twitter offer:



The swift apology wasn’t enough to spare Kenneth Cole from widespread scorn.





7. RedBubble

The problem with PR mistakes is that it doesn’t really matter whether the subsequent outrage is justified or not.


When online retail portal RedBubble started getting complaints over its stocking of ‘Hipster Hitler’ t-shirts, it took a firm line that freedom of expression should be protected. Vocal opponents claimed that the merchandise glorified Hitler and made light of his crimes.


RedBubble finally relented and pulled the t-shirts, but not before six tortuous months of negative headlines and customer fury. If you are faced with a customer backlash, act quickly, whether they are in the right or not.




8. The banks

A familiar news cycle has taken hold in 2011 when it comes to the ‘big four’ banks – ANZ, Westpac, Commonwealth Bank and NAB.


Grumbles over executive pay have bubbled under the surface, but the real backlash came when the Reserve Bank decided to cut interest rates twice.


Focus immediately turned to weather the banks (combined 2010 profit: $24 billion)  would pass the rate cut onto their customers.


Even a small delay in doing so, as witnessed this week, triggers an avalanche of criticism from newspapers, small business groups and Treasurer Wayne Swan. While your start-up won’t be in quite this position, it’s important to remember that overt penny pinching is likely to disillusion your customer base.




9. Hilary Swank

When Hollywood actress Hilary Swank made an appearance at the 35th birthday party of Chechnya's president Ramzan Kadyrov, she wouldn’t have anticipated the backlash it would provoke.


Kadyrov has been widely accused of being one of the world’s human rights violators, putting Swank in a rather awkward position.


She promptly fired her entire management team and did a series of grovelling TV appearances to make amends.


As a start-up, you need to think carefully about who or what your brand is associated with. Is it a good fit? Is there the chance it could backfire? Do you really want to tie your reputation to a third party?




10. Kyle Sandilands

Kyle Sandilands, the radio and TV presenter, is one walking PR disaster. Whether he’s grilling school girls about their private lives or verbally abusing journalists, negative headlines are sure to follow him around.


Of course, if your brand is edgy and thrives on the kind of divisive content that Sandilands thrives upon, there is a clever way of doing this. Mindlessly insulting people, however, rarely works.