From corporate social fails to “pink slime” scandals to Apple launching a widely hated mapping feature, 2012 was filled with epic PR disasters.While many of the public relations nightmares were due to typical company failings, others were unique to the digital era.
All it takes is a single employee’s bad tweet — like a Burger King staffer standing in a tub of lettuce — to send corporate headquarters into damage control mode.
We’ve collected 10 of the worst PR disasters of the year.
10. KitchenAid tweeted about Obama’s dead grandma.
During one of the presidential debates, KitchenAid tweeted to its 24,000 fans that “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’. #nbcpolitics”.
KitchenAid immediately deleted the quote and tweeted an apology.
A spokesperson said that “The tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid, and that person won’t be tweeting for us anymore.”
9. American Apparel exploits Hurricane Sandy.
The retailer were offered a 20 percent off sale if they typed “SANDYSALE” in the online checkout “in case you’re bored during the storm.”
American Apparel decided to ignore the PR disaster and didn’t apologize.
Gap, on the other hand, also did a Sandy sale and then tweeted apologies for offending people.
8, The NRA’s magazine posted an insensitive tweet after the Aurora shooting.
Hours after the nation learned about the tragic Aurora shooting that left 12 people dead at a late night showing of “The Dark Night Rises,” American Rifleman, a magazine for the NRA, tweeted: “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”
The tweet went up at 9:20 am EST and was taken down three hours later.
A spokesman for the NRA stated, ”A single individual, unaware of events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context.”
PR lesson: be careful with pre-scheduled tweets.
7. Apple Maps was so bad, the CEO had to issue a public apology.
When Apple banished Google Maps from the iPhone in September, consumers were concerned.
Apple’s own maps app turned out to be riddled with errors, and didn’t even include public transportation mapping.
CEO Tim Cook had to issue a public apology, conceding that the maps “fell short” before suggesting users download competitors’ products from the Apps store. Cook specifically called out Bing, MapQuest, or going to Nokia and Google’s website.
The product manager who oversaw the maps team was fired months later.
6. The Internet exposes a Burger King employee who stood in tubs of lettuce.
In July, a Burger King employee thought that it would be a fun idea to post pictures on 4Chan of him standing (shoes on) in two large tubs of lettuce. The caption read: “This is the lettuce you eat at Burger King.”
Within minutes, other 4Chan members tracked down the culprit.
Burger King addressed the PR disaster in a public statement regarding the chain’s “zero-tolerance policy against any violations such as the one in question” and fired three employees for the incident.
5. A Taco Bell employee tweeted a picture of himself urinating on a plate of nachos.
Even though the Indiana worker assured people that the plate was going to be thrown out anyway, Taco Bell dealt with the crisis immediately by firing him.
4. Chick-fil-A’s president bashes gay marriage.
Chick-fil-A caused quite a stir when its president publicly came out against gay marriage.
Dan Cathy, who also serves as the COO, told “The Ken Coleman Show”: “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
This caused a national outcry — some for, and others against. Citizens held boycotts and kiss-in protests at local chains, and mayors threatened to ban the chain from their cities. (Which mayors can’t actually do.)
More controversy arose when Jim Henson Co. slammed Chick-fil-A for its public stance, and then Jim Henson toys were prematurely pulled from the chicken chain.
3. “Pink Slime” is discovered.
In March, ABC News released a series of reports raising concern over a hamburger ingredient dubbed “pink slime,” a mechanically separated and disinfected beef product officially known as lean finely textured beef.
BPI eventually filed a lawsuit against ABC for $1.2 billion for allegedly making about 200 “false and misleading and defamatory” statements about the product.
2. McDonald’s #McDStories Twitter campaign gets out of control.
McDonald’s January Twitter campaign asked readers to tweet their own special #McDStories.
The problem: people used the hashtag for horror stories like: ”Fingernail in my BigMac” and “Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became Vegetarian. Should have sued.”
McDonald’s had no way to control what people tweeted, and all the stories showed up whenever anyone clicked the hashtag.
McDonald’s social media director Rick Wion emailed BI that:
While #meetthefarmers was used for the majority of the day and successful in raising awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign, #mcdstories did not go as planned. We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.
Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.
With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.
1. Penn State covers up the Sandusky scandal.
Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and later convicted of repeated counts of child molestation while at Penn State.
Although the scandal was unveiled in 2011, the university felt the full fallout in 2012 when the Freeh report stated that Joe Paterno and the administration covered up Sandusky’s abuses, Major companies pulled sponsorships of the program.
Part of the PR disaster was due to Penn State’s initial difficulty addressing the problem. Pulitzer-winning stories in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg initially uncovered the scandal in March 2011. But Penn State remained tightlipped. PR firm Ketchum was hired in November of 2011, and the school hired Edelman and La Torre for crisis management in April 2012. The school pledged to spend $208,000 a month for 12 months on PR support, but the damage was done.