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Top 5 PR Fails of 2011


Honorable mention:
1. IndyCar
2. Wahington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder
3. Johnson & Johnson
The Top 5
1. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings
Winner of the “Failure to Listen” award.
Earlier this year Wall Street darling Netflix was trading at above $300 per share – today it trades around its low of $70.  What happened?  Netflix chairman Reed Hastings announced in July that the company would split its video mailing and streaming services.  Netflix customers hated the idea.  In September, Hastings sent a letter to all customers saying “I messed up…”  But instead of recognizing that his customers hated the decision, he apologized for the way he communicated the decision.  He then added that the company would press on with its decision to split the services.  Within 24 hours angry customers had posted 25,000 comments on the Netflix website, 10,000 comments on it Facebook page, and 5,000 agree tweets.  Additionally, the companies stock plummeted 30% overnight.  Listening is a major element of communication.  Hastings failed to listen to his customers and so paid a devastating price.

2.  Penn State Football Head Coach, Joe Paterno

Winner of the “Bunker” award

When former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse a ticking bomb was rolled onto the Penn State campus.  Yet, no one in a leadership role at Penn State attempted to defused the bomb before it was too late.

Coach Joe Paterno decided to “turtle” and remain mostly silent.  We do know that Paterno took some steps upon hearing about Sandusky’s behavior, but seemingly the bare minimum.  This all came to a head on Tuesday, November 8 when media from around the country showed up for Paterno’s weekly news conference to cover the Sandusky story.  The university told media they would only be allowed to ask football-related questions, which set off a firestorm among media on Twitter.  Then suddenly the news conference was abruptly cancelled.  This immediately put Paterno and the Penn State on the defensive and raised even more suspicion.  Two days later Paterno was fired. By remaining quiet, Paterno allowed the story to define him.  Even if Paterno’s actions were less than perfect a heartfelt media session could have been of great benefit – he might have finished his career by completing this year as head coach or at least might have gone out with a little more dignity.

3. Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY)
Winner of the “Arrogance is Me” award
“The picture was of me, and I sent it.” That was the statement of Rep. Anthony Weiner, but those words were too little, too late.  Weiner tweeted a pic of his underwear-clad erection to a college student then lied about it over and over claiming his account was hacked.  In his denials Weiner was arrogant and attempted to allow the blame to fall on anyone else.  Sure sexting was bad but he ultimately it was the lies and denial that brought him down.  Had Weiner quickly admitted to the indiscretion and offered a full apology he would likely still be in office today.

4. Syracuse University Basketball Head Coach, Jim Boeheim
Winner of the “Shoot from the Hip” award
Venerable Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim verbally attacked alleged child molestation victims, which has not only negatively impacted his public perception but put him in the crosshairs of a major lawsuit.  Ironically, in his initial statement Boeheim denigrated the victims’ claims by saying it was about money and lawsuits.  Said Boeheim:

“The Penn State thing came out, and the kid behind this is trying to get money,” Boeheim told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “If he gets this, he’s going to sue the university and Bernie. What do you think is going to happen at Penn State? You know how much money is going to be involved in civil suits? I’d say about $50 million. That’s what this is about. Money.”

Boeheim completely missed the boat by failing to realize the possibility that this was about criminal behavior right under his nose.  When more facts of the allegations surfaced, Boeheim apologized for his initial statements and said he “mis-spoke.”  For Boeheim, his shoot from the hip moment will likely cost his reputation and his bank account.

5. GOP Presidential Candidate Herman Cain

Winner of the “Double Edge Sword” award.  Herman Cain, the unlikely but brief frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination quickly garnered headlines in part because of his quick wit and ability to be quotable.  His message for tax reform was simple and consistent – remember 999?  However, when allegations about his personal life surfaced, Cain froze completely and had no message but that of avoidance and denial.  In perhaps the most credible claim, one woman went public saying she and Cain had a 13 year extramarital affair and he even made monthly payments to her.  Eventually his presidential campaign imploded under the crush of un-answered questions some from the media, perhaps many more from his wife.  Cain has a big personality and can command a news story when on the offensive.  Had he attacked the allegations with more openness and information he might still be in the hunt for the White House.

Honorable Mention:

IndyCar

When IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October the tragedy spurred several questions from fans to media:  Are the racecars unsafe?  Did IndyCar put the drivers in an unnecessarily dangerous situation?  Were there too many cars in the race?  Did all the drivers have enough experience?  Did the $5 million bonus contribute to the fatality?  Should IndyCar race on that particular racetrack with high-banks?

IndyCar leadership for the most part has remained quiet about the fatality, though an internal investigation is underway. The lack of communications frustrated fans and media and reflected poorly on IndyCar, which is working hard to improve its image and appeal to a broader audience.  IndyCar did nothing to control the message and so the message, nearly all of it negative, defined the organization as lax on safety and disorganized.  The reason IndyCar doesn’t make the Top 5 list is beacause there appears to be no specific damage as the result of the mishandling of the crisis.  There have been no lawsuits, lost sponsors or federal investigations.

Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder –

Dan Snyder actually did what so many sports owners, celebrities and business owners fantasize about: Suing the media. What he found out is what everyone else already knew: misguided lawsuits against the media is an invitation to expose your own weaknesses.

Snyder filed a defamation lawsuit against DC’s City Paper and writer Dave Mckenna for a column titled “The Cranky Redskins Fans’ Guide to Dan Snyder.” instead of accomplishing his goal of intimidating the media outlet he succeeded in confirming every negative allegation against him. Reading the filing, one clearly gets the sense that Snyder is apparently thin skinned, possibly a businessman of poor character, and possibly demonic.   Well that’s what he said in his legal filing against the City Paper. Specifically, Snyder refers to a City Paper media report describing him as a “dishonest businessman.”  Communications 101- Don’t repeat the negative.  The most basic of all PR rules.   Every media training session includes this simple rule. It’s called the power of suggestion.  So when Snyder says he was portrayed as a dishonest businessman, well I believe him.

Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo

Concerned advocacy groups this year criticized Johnson & Johnson for the inclusion of some chemicals in its Baby Shampoo.  The company mishandled the initial response by defending the chemicals as approved by federal regulators, “chemicals in question, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, are safe and approved by regulators in the U.S. and other countries, but that it is gradually phasing them out of its baby products.”

This was a rather tone-deaf response especially given the fact that the company is already making the Baby Shampoo free of the toxic chemicals in other countries.  The company took a hit on it.  A better more open response focusing on the health and welfare of the children would have likely been more effective.

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