2015's PR Winners and Losers

The Year's Most Memorable PR Moments & Cringeworthy Catastrophes

Having made a career out of managing crises and PR disasters, I can’t help but see the headlines through a particular lens. Suffice it to say, as far as PR goes, 2015 did not disappoint. With everything from bizarre rambling tweetstorms, mortifying meltdowns, and humiliatingly awkward blunders to damning exposé, blogging wars, and public feuds, the year saw a veritable smorgasbord of PR spectacles that were both comically entertaining and often captivating in their cringeworthiness. So without further adieu, below are a few of my top picks for 2015’s best PR moments — from the good to the bad to the just plain ugly.

 

“Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli

While it seems like the world’s unanimous hatred for Martin Shkreli cannot grow any greater, it somehow manages to increase in ranks and fortitude, rendering all previous understandings of the word meaningless. To fully detail the never-ending, hot-headed, trigger-happy waking PR nightmare that is Martin Shkreli would require a dissertation. With a downward trajectory that covered everything from bizarre and humiliating to despicable and pathetic, Shkreli’s unprecedented public descent first began when the now-former pharmaceutical CEO came under fire for unrepentantly price-gouging a life-saving drug (by exploiting FDA loopholes). Shkreli jacked up the cost of Daraprim, the only available treatment for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic affliction, by over 5,000 percent and swiftly became the most hated man in America. He responded with multiple Twitter tantrums, bizarre claims, insane proclamations, and a constant barrage of cringeworthy behavior. Since the price-gouging scandal, a host of other accusations have come to light, including (but not limited to) allegedly soliciting prostitution from an ex-girlfriend, stalking and harassing an ex-coworker and his family, flirting with teenage girls, faking a wrist injury for sympathy, attempting and failing to buy a meeting with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and generally being a horrible misogynistic and racist human being, all ultimately culminating in his unmitigated demise and arrest on charges of securities fraud.

Verdict: Loser, in unprecedented fashion. In a PR disaster of truly epic proportions, Shkreli’s despicable behavior and brazenly amoral response left him publicly despised, shamed, and ridiculed, and by mid-December he was forced out of two companies, arrested on suspicion of securities fraud, and the salt in the wound, hacked on Twitter.

 

Tinder’s Twitter Tantrum

Few can forget Tinder’s epic 30-tweet trainwreck which provided such gems as “Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.” Back in August, Tinder threw what was generally described as a very public, cringe-inducing Twitter tantrum — officially deemed the Tinder Meltdown. Tinder’s rant took the form of a series of “bizarre, defensive tweets” directed at Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote a Vanity Fair story detailing what she referred to as the “Dating Apocalypse” — that is, the hook-up culture centered around mobile dating apps like Tinder. Tinder apparently felt spurned by the piece and the resulting epically embarrassing tweetstorm ensued, leading many to speculate that a trigger-happy social media intern would soon be taking the heat. Interestingly enough, it did eventually come to light that what was intended to look like an emotionally driven, heat-of-the moment reaction of an individual Tinder employee on the warpath, was actually an intentionally planned-out PR move, albeit an incredibly misguided one.

Verdict: Loser. While the Twitter tantrum got a lot of people talking about Tinder, the end result was worth neither the cost nor the wasted opportunity. Not only did Tinder’s disaster of a tweetstorm garner far more attention than the article that initially set it in motion, but it also painted Tinder as a company that is spiteful, immature, insecure, and weirdly ashamed of what they do. Most unfortunately though is the absolute waste of an invaluable opportunity. Sales’ Vanity Fair piece set up a perfect platform for Tinder, giving them an invaluable space to own what they are while also creating an ideal opportunity to share the numerous and diverse positive stories in which the mobile dating app has brought people all over the world together (which for the record, are definitely out there). In fact, all of this could have been done without referencing the original Vanity Fair piece or attacking a journalist — if anything, a single subtweet before then moving on to highlight the many #SwipedRight stories would have sufficed. Tinder won’t go under from this meltdown, but all in all, the entire affair was unnecessary, unproductive, and embarrassing. Tinder was gifted an amazing PR opportunity as well as a chance to own what their app has accomplished, and they blew it.

 

Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe Blunder

Definitely the most recent event on this list, just this week Family Feud host Steve Harvey made a blunder that would instantaneously memeify and ubiquitously resound throughout every corner of the internet. While hosting the live-televised Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas, Steve Harvey announced Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez as this year’s Miss Universe. To wild applause and fanfare, Miss Colombia was crowned, handed flowers, and adorned in the coveted Miss Universe sash all while the pageant’s victory track played throughout the arena. The only problem, of course, was that Gutierrez was not actually the winner. Indeed, after several minutes of crowned glory, celebration, and tears, Harvey shamefully walked back out to make one of the most awkward announcements imaginable: “Okay, folks… uh… there’s… I have to apologize… the first runner-up is Colombia.” Yes, as it turned out, Harvey had apparently misread the cue card (mistakenly crowning the first-runner up), and the actual winner was Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, who by then was practically already offstage. The next several minutes were filled with awkward tension, secondhand embarrassment for just about everyone involved, and an abrupt restart of the same victory track, all as a perplexed Miss Philippines hurried all the way back downstage to be crowned. To make matters worse, Miss Colombia doesn’t speak English fluently and was left standing onstage in confusion while the crown was removed from her head. Very much to their credit, both women handled the extremely awkward, confusing, and undoubtedly emotional experience with the utmost of poise and grace.

Verdict: Winner. Harvey’s humiliating gaffe led to a Miss Universe crowning filled with undoubtedly some of the most awkward, tension-filled, and cringeworthy moments of the year (reaching levels only live TV can provide). That said, upon realizing his mortifying mistake, Harvey immediately owned up to it, taking full responsibility on live TV for his inane, but very human error. And although his initial hastily-tweeted apology was filled with spelling errors that many felt disrespected both contestants (misspelling both Colombia and Philippines), it was nonetheless clear he genuinely and wholeheartedly felt horrible. However, what really makes Harvey’s Miss Universe blunder a decided and unparalleled PR win is the mass amounts of attention it ultimately garnered for the pageant. In creating a truly noteworthy spectacle of embarrassment and achieving award-winning levels of awkward, Harvey inadvertently brought increased exposure and viral popular culture attention to the pageant. Indeed, this could be one of the best things that could have happened for the pageant, and Harvey hosting again next year will now surely bring in a larger audience. So it should really come as no surprise that the Miss Universe Organization wants Harvey back to host in 2016.

 

Inside Amazon

One of the most memorable, attention-grabbing, and long-enduring PR spectacles of the year arose after the New York Times published a now infamous exposé detailing Amazon’s brutal, cult-like work environment. Characterizing it as “an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers,” the scathing report brought to light claims of Amazon’s hellish workplace culture and abhorrent treatment of its employees, putting the company under severe public scrutiny and triggering widespread backlash and condemnation. Keeping the e-commerce giant under ceaseless fire, the story dominated the headlines for months, with several follow-ups, anecdotal first-hand responses, and public feuds continually fanning the flames. Amazon’s immediate response was fairly typical and expected, with the company sharing an employee’s anecdotal rebuttal and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos distributing a company-wide memo. The following weeks saw a series of continuing efforts from Amazon to discredit the allegations, refute criticism, and ultimately regain control of the narrative. One such effort was Amazon PR Head Jay Carney’s no holds barred blog post on Medium, which directly challenged the New York Times and would eventually escalate into a good old fashioned food-fight between Carney and Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet. But the pinnacle of Amazon’s ongoing campaign to remedy its lingering image issue came about just prior to the ever-critical holiday shopping season when Amazon announced a new parental leave plan that would provide paid paternity leave and extend paid maternity leave.

Verdict: Winner. Amazon initially took a fairly standard and conservative approach in addressing the Time’s exposé before then shifting toward a somewhat more novel, direct, and combative tactic by instigating what has since been described as a public “blogging war” between the e-commerce giant and the New York Times. Despite the somewhat odd and overly defensive nature of Amazon’s rebuttals, they, at the very least, captivated the media, entertained spectators, and gave the company a necessary foothold to begin reclaiming its image. What really redeemed Amazon, however, was their intelligently-timed parental leave policy revamp, which clearly and directly addressed some of the most damning concerns raised against Amazon’s workplace culture. Despite it undoubtedly being a well-timed PR move, the new family leave policy is certainly a concrete, positive step in the right direction, and will hopefully continue the trend of improved workplace policies for parents and families. Moreover, despite the bad press, missteps, and wrongs still-to-be-corrected, Amazon nonetheless overwhelmingly dominated the holiday shopping season, making it a noteworthy PR winner this year.

 

Deflategate

The NFL has been battling the ongoing, unmitigated PR disaster of a football tampering scandal widely known is Deflategate (aka Ballghazi) for practically the entirety of 2015. The controversy first arose in early 2015 after allegations emerged that the New England Patriots tampered with the football used in the January 18th American Football Conference Championship game between themselves and the Indianapolis Colts. The accusations particularly focused on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who allegedly directed a ball attendant to deflate their balls below the minimum required PSI in order to gain an unfair handling advantage over the competition. Or, to put it matter-of-factly, Brady, a 38-year-old adult human, cheated in a football game. A series of long-winded investigations, press conferences, suspensions, court hearings, and appeals then ensued, ultimately leaving all participants worse for the wear with tarnished images and irreparably damaged credibility (and the media bored with Deflategate fatigue).

Verdict: Losers all around. Absolutely no one comes out on top here. Tom Brady’s once-lucrative All-American hero image has been severely tarnished, lowering both the value of himself and his team; chairman of CONSOR Intellectual Asset Management Weston Anson confirmed this, stating that Brady’s endorsement deals have since dropped by 50%. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick not only lost face, but also reaffirmed their now well-established reputation for cheating (see Spygate). Finally, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell — which are already known for their inability to competently handle controversies (i.e., Ray Rice, the NFL’s concussion crisis, Bountygate, Adrian Peterson, and so on) — took on heavy criticism for the disastrously mishandled investigation that led to the federal court’s vacation of Brady’s suspension. While football will undoubtedly continue to be America’s most profitable sport, Deflategate’s escalation, albeit laughable, nonetheless made many question the integrity of the game and severely damaged the reputations of the league, the Patriots, and one of the sport’s most popular players.

 

Honorable Mentions

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Amazon’s controversial and unsettling Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan imagery that overtook entire NYC subway cars in order to promote their original dystopian alternate-history sci-fi The Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick). While Amazon took a lot of flack for the ad campaign, it’s worth noting that The Man in the High Castle is now Amazon’s most popular original show.

BudLight’s creepily tone-deaf #UpForWhatever campaign that condoned rape and encouraged drinkers to “remove no” from their vocabulary because apparently they think consent is just no fun.

The League Actor Steve Rannazzisi’s equally bizarre and disturbing lie — which he repeatedly told over the course of 14 years — about his narrow escape from the South Tower during the World Trade Center attacks on September 11. After it came to light that Rannazzisi’s harrowing account was completely and inexplicably fabricated, the actor was deservedly publically shamed and dropped from his Buffalo Wild Wings ad campaign.

Bic’s weirdly gendered pens and idiotically misogynistic Facebook post “celebrating” Africa’s National Women’s Day — a day intended to recognize women, advancements in gender equality, and women’s empowerment. Completely missing the point and lacking in basic common sense, Bic’s tweet urged women to “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man,” and left the company facing criticism and ridicule for the grossly sexist and gender-biased comment.

Heinz Ketchup’s promotional “design your own label” campaign accessible via QR Code went off with but one hitch: the QR code mistakenly routed some users in Germany to a hardcore porn website. While Heinz profusely apologized to the affected consumers and beyond, some images can simply never be unseen.

 

Dishonorable Mention

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Essentially everything about the rogue YouTube comment section that has taken human form known as Donald Trump comes dead last in PR, life, and just generally being a half-decent human being. Trump could easily top this list, but he takes losing to such new heights, it just didn’t feel right wasting my time and energy writing more than a paragraph about him, much less placing him in the top five of anything. Trump has haphazardly employed a gamut of PR “tactics” — though one can hardly call them that — ranging from the offensive, outlandish, and dumbfounding to the misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic, all in an attention-seeking spectacle he calls a presidential campaign. The levels of inanity and ineptitude, as well as sheer irreverence for our country and our political system, simply cannot be captured by written word, so I’ll let the above gif speak for itself.

What do you think are this year’s most memorable, cringeworthy, and comical PR moments? Let us know in the comments.


Originally Posted on Huffington Post