Learning From 2010’s Public Relations Missteps

by Jason Mollica on December 29, 2010

Hard to believe we are closing the books on 2010 already.  There are probably a few companies that are wiping their brows though, and thanking their lucky stars this year is over.  Yes, it’s time to start fresh and begin 2011.

But, what exactly can we learn from those that could have used a refresher course in good PR? 2010 provided some examples of how not to handle crises.

Certainly one of the biggest stories of 2010- on many levels- was British Petroleum. In April, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico caused an oil leak of 1,000 barrels a day. It was a catastrophic environmental disaster. From the public relations side, it was disastrous as well.

Former CEO Tony Hayward stuck his foot in his mouth a number of times, including saying, “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”  The company was skewered in traditional media, but social media took it to another level.

A fake Twitter account for BP’s PR office has lampooned all the missteps, driving home the point that many things have changed in just the last three years. Social media has created another avenue to keep a story in the mainstream.

No matter how much good publicity you have built up, one event can turn the tide against you.  Tiger Woods is a perfect example this.  The world’s most successful and recognized golfer saw his life begin to unravel when Woods’ 2009 Thanksgiving car accident in his gated Florida community raised eyebrows.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FA7ty2LQwc0] It turned out to be the first in a series of events that changed his life.  Woods was no longer just on the sports pages, but on the front and gossip pages.  At least 13 women came forward to claim affairs with him.  The scandal ultimately cost Woods his marriage and, on the golfing side, Gatorade backed away as a partner. This also hurt Tiger’s “brand.

The overarching problem was that Woods did not publically address the allegations, in person, until a Feb. 19 televised press conference.  By then, the firestorm was already blazing out of control.  Sure, he issued a statement earlier on his website, but it did nothing to squelch the gossip.

Could Woods have prevented the scandal from reaching the heights that it did? It is hard to say.  With every allegation of an affair, Woods took a bigger hit. The most important take away is that in the court of public opinion, you are guilty until proven innocent. He did nothing to change that.

Lastly, we have Toyota.  The automaker was up to its steering wheels in trouble this year, when a sudden acceleration issue caused Toyota to recall over eight million vehicles worldwide.

The problem caused several accidents related to when the gas pedal would stick.  Toyota promised to correct the issue, with dealers staying open late to fix the vehicles.  On the PR side, Toyota attempted to counteract the negative publicity by producing commercials that depicted a commitment to their customers. It was a good step, but apparently not good enough for the U.S. government.

The Department of Transportation got involved and requested documents from Toyota about the recall to see if they acted quickly enough. A House panel criticized Toyota, with the company apologizing how it handled the crisis.  Car buyers appear to have lost some trust in Toyota because of the recall and lack of transparency. According to the Financial Times, auto sales for Toyota were down in 2010.

The most important take away from these examples is to be prepared for any crisis, big or small. If a crisis should come your way, a plan emphasizing openness and transparency can go a long way to helping you maneuver rocky waters.

Here’s wishing you and yours a smooth and successful 2011!