Home Centennial College Blog 2019 January 03 The five biggest public relations fails of 2018

The five biggest public relations fails of 2018

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Every year, like clockwork, it feels like companies keep messing up, and doing embarrassing, awkward, or outright offensive things in the public eye that then backfire on them. Well, it’s a new year, so let’s look at some of last year’s foibles and lowlights. This has become a semi-regular thing here, mostly because I think they’re incredibly funny (here’s some older ones). For the sake of keeping this list short, I’m leaving politics out of it, and sticking to the corporate world.

When public relations fails, it makes headlines. As a PR professional, one of your jobs would be to anticipate these problems, head them off, and if you can’t contain them, minimize damage. Most of them are the result of someone just not realizing there’d be a problem, not running it by a PR professional, or said professional just not being trained properly, something Centennial College’s Public Relations programs can readily address. In fact, in your public relations classes at Centennial College, you’ll probably hear about a bunch of these cases, and talk about how they should have been handled appropriately.

Roseanne gets fired over social media meltdown

In this case, the PR mistake was not anticipating a problem before it happened. When ABC revived the old sitcom, Roseanne, it was well-known that its marquee star, Roseanne Barrr, would frequently go on conspiratorial, unhinged Twitter rants. Rather than take any preventative measures, she kept tweeting, and after making racially-charged remarks about Barack Obama's advisor, Valerie Jarrett, she wound up being kicked off her own show, which was eventually renamed The Conners and retooled to not involve her. The general consensus on social media came down to wondering what ABC thought was going to happen when they hired her, exactly. As a side-note, she later blamed her rants on Ambien, and Ambien’s maker, Sanofi, responded by stating racism isn’t one of the drug’s side-effects.

The New York Times forgets to turn browser extensions off

This next one didn’t necessarily harm a company, but did make people laugh at it. Back in May, a New York Times article made the rounds. It was fairly rote, focusing on Donald Trump’s claims about trade. But what caught people’s eye was a strange quote from Time Magazine, which read “America's trade deficit narrowed dramatically during the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks,” when the original read "America's trade deficit narrowed dramatically during the Great Recession." Turns out that what actually happened was that someone had copypasted the quote while using a web browser extension that changes all references to “millennials” to “snake people,” and other common millennial-related talking points (Great Recession) to snake-people-themed references (Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks). To their credit (and this is a good PR case study), the Times handled it well, issuing a retraction, and having the editor responsible admit it on Twitter.

Lockheed Martin thinks the public doesn’t know what it manufactures

It seems like I’ve heard variants on this mistake in the past: An organization, company or celebrity with a well-known controversy about them attempts to ignore that controversy, and do something interactive on social media, which promptly gets flooded with people reminding them of that controversy. In this case, the company was Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, who, in August, asked people to share “an amazing photo of one of our products” on Twitter for world photo day. Naturally, the public responded with photos like bomb fragments used to destroy schools, or the ruined backpacks of young victims of war. The sobering lesson: You can’t simply ignore your own controversies in the public sphere.

H&M accidentally posts racism

A good PR professional will look for potential problems before any kind of message is sent to the public, and they obviously didn’t look hard enough at one children’s clothing advertisement from clothing company H&M in January, which featured an African-American boy wearing a sweatshirt that stated “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” Aside from social media backlash over the racial overtones of the add, the company saw real damage, having to close a store in South Africa, and losing a partnership with musician The Weeknd over it.


Speaking of real consequences, Snapchat learned the hard way to have a PR professional look at all of the advertisements on their platform before sending them out. The ad, for an app called “would you rather,” asked users if they’d rather “punch Chris Brown” or “slap Rihanna,” a tasteless reference to a 2009 physical abuse incident. They issued an apology, but the backlash only intensified when Rihanna herself condemned the app for shaming domestic abuse victims, calling for people to delete the app, which they did in the thousands, followed by the company’s stocks losing $800 million in value. All because someone didn’t think hard enough about an ad. That’s why Public Relations professionals are important.

By Anthony Geremia

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