Every December, Fineman PR in San Francisco releases a list of the year's top 10 PR blunders. Sure, lots of media organizations, agencies, and bloggers publish a best of/worst of yearend list, but Fineman's been doing it for 16 years. That's right; this list has street cred.
Here is this year's list. I simply copy and pasted it from the original press release.*
I offer it without further comment.
1. BP execs pass the buck. All eyes were on British Petroleum this year for its role in the protracted oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Although credited by some public relations professionals for speaking out early and often, CEO Tony Hayward hurt BP's corporate image by downplaying the damage and issuing thoughtless sound bites, including "it wasn't our accident" and "I just want my life back"--after 11 workers lost their lives in the explosion of oil rig Deepwater Horizon.
2. "Moving forward ... uncontrollably." "Unintended acceleration" in best-selling Toyota vehicles plagued the world's largest automaker in 2010, with The Los Angeles Times attributing over 100 deaths to crash-causing manufacturing defects. Like the affected models, the public relations debacle quickly escalated, with Toyota eventually "at the center of the biggest product recall since the Firestone tire fiasco in 2000," according to Motor Trend. The company stumbled through months of multistage recalls and poor communications, promoting inconsistent solutions that had few discernable effects on the situation, blaming parts suppliers and at one point targeting drivers themselves with the help of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. "If you look at what they did it was clear that they didn't really understand the magnitude of the issue and the potential PR risk," Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University, told MSNBC.com.
3. Fired up over NPR action. Although National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams raised eyebrows when he told Bill O'Reilly of FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that flying on airplanes with overt Muslims made him nervous, it was NPR that took the damaging reputational hit. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller dismissed Williams over the phone and, according to The Washington Post, later publicly implied that Williams needed psychological help. His supporters framed the firing as a First Amendment issue and called for cuts to NPR's budget while FOX News capitalized on the situation by awarding Williams a multi-year contract and promising to protect his freedom of speech.
4. Craigslist "missed connection" on "adult services." Popular classifieds website Craigslist came under public, media, and governmental scrutiny for longtime insistence on retaining its "Adult Services" category. Andrea Powell, founder of human rights organization FAIR Fund, called the website "the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking," as reported by The Washington Post, among others. Founder Craig Newmark performed poorly when interviewed on the topic by investigating CNN reporter Amber Lyon, eventually falling silent and walking away.
5. Amazon bans porn but promotes pedophilia. While public relations and the practice of law both involve client defense, it's important to select the correct tool for the job. When Amazon.com employed anti-censorship arguments in a stilted statement to the Business Insider to defend its decision to sell an author's self-published guide for pedophiles, the online retail giant left itself open to massive public retaliation via social media, including calls for a boycott of the site.
6. Sticky situation at Nestlé. Besieged by Greenpeace supporters protesting its use of environmentally questionable palm oil, international food giant Nestlé dropped the social media ball. Instead of immediately addressing public concerns, the company first lobbied to have the video removed from YouTube and then accused Facebook posters of copyright infringement, initiating a combative online exchange with opponents and publicly debating the "rules of engagement." This heavy-handed approach won Nestlé no sympathy and, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, drew thousands of protesting "fans" to the company's Facebook page.
7. Public recalls trust in Johnson & Johnson. Misleading claims from healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson and subsidiary McNeil Consumer Healthcare may have originated a damaging series of issues with well-known products such as Tylenol, Motrin, and Benadryl, but delayed corporate action, "phantom recalls," and a glaring lack of corporate transparency turned a bad situation into a nightmare crisis culminating in social media uproar and a congressional investigation. Mina Kimes of Fortune reported that House Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) took the giant to task in a May hearing, saying "the information I've seen during the course of our investigation raises questions about the integrity of the company ... it paints a picture of a company that is deceptive, dishonest, and has risked the health of many of our children."
8. James makes "The Decision." Reigning NBA MVP LeBron James made news for the clueless handling of his free agency choice, when he announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat during a highly publicized, live ESPN special entitled "The Decision." He did all of this without giving the Cavaliers any prior notice. James' actions enraged his most ardent supporters and drew media criticism for perceived arrogance.
9. Glenn Beck: Beyond belief. Political commentator and prominent conservative Glenn Beck offended many by holding his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington D.C. on August 28, the same location and date as Dr. Martin Luther King's historic freedom march. Beck claimed that the event, which was dominated by high-profile conservatives such as Sarah Palin and attended by Tea Party members, was non-political and not racially divisive.
10. "Alaska Airlines Hates Families." Alaska Airlines stranded Dan Blais' family in Las Vegas when his wife returned to the gate after rushing away to deal with a diaper emergency, coldly informing him that he could still board the waiting plane but that his wife's ticket had been given to a stand-by customer because she was "one minute late." Unwilling to abandon his family or wait two or three days for a stand-by flight, Blais purchased seats with an alternative carrier, returned home, and then detailed his unsatisfying experience in the now defunct blog entitled "Alaska Airlines Hates Families" (excerpts from the original post can be found on Business Insider). When the media caught wind of the couple's experience, their story began appearing in daily newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun and the Edmonton Journal and among mommy bloggers. While Alaska Airlines social media manager Elliott Pesut did respond promptly in the blog's comment section, he did so without compassion, citing rigid policy and offering a future travel voucher for less than half the family's losses. Alaska Airlines later agreed to give the couple the amount spent on new plane tickets.
*I edited some of the items for length. If you'd like to see the list in its full glory, click here.