Corporate PR disasters don’t happen. They’re made. And, though every debacle has its own unique set of contributing factors, poor internal and external communication is at the root of many. Perhaps most.
“In the absence of a clear chain of command and coherent, consistent messaging, what would otherwise be a manageable challenge can quickly spiral out of control,” says Rosemary Plorin, a seasoned communications professional with more than 20 years of experience in the healthcare PR field.
Here’s a look at five recent corporate PR snafus that were either caused or exacerbated by poor communication inside and outside the victimized organizations.
1.- Krispy Kreme’s “KKK Wednesday”
To be fair, this happened in England, thousands of miles from the Ku Klux Klan’s stronghold. But still…come on. A Krispy Kreme outlet in the port city of Hull inexplicably decided that “KKK Wednesday” would be a good name for a weekly event. The reaction was predictably swift and brutal. Moral of the story: Google the name before you greenlight it.
2.- Bud Light’s “Remove ‘No’ From Your Vocabulary”
An alcoholic beverage company asks its customers to “remove ‘no’ from their vocabulary for a night.” What could possibly go wrong? This had “frat boy marketing department” written all over it, and it wasn’t subtle. To its credit, Budweiser apologized profusely.
3.- Bloomingdale’s Holiday Eggnog Spiking
In a similar and equally disturbing vein as Bud Light’s bad move, a holiday ad for Bloomingdale’s suggested “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” In this case, the “best friends” in the ad are a handsome but creepy-looking dude leering askance at a laughing, unsuspecting female. Not sure who on this ad team missed that date rape is not okay, but Bloomie’s later conceded it was “inappropriate and in poor taste.”
4.- Hapless PR Exec’s Tweet Heard ‘Round the World
A few years back, a rising media executive (whose name we won’t mention — she’s been through enough) tweeted a shocking, racially charged, thoroughly unprintable message prior to boarding a plane for South Africa. While she was in the air and out of communication, outraged poured in from every corner of the world. By the time she landed, she’d been let go by her employer. Kudos for the swift response, but it was eye-opening to see such a breakdown in the image-conscious media world, of all places.
5.- Volkswagen’s Diesel Disaster
Saved the best for last.
You probably heard about Volkswagen AG’s shockingly brazen efforts to dupe U.S. environmental regulators into thinking its diesel engines were far cleaner than they were. The company’s engineering team, with at least some direction from senior executives, fitted millions of diesel vehicles with sensors that detected environmental tests in progress and temporarily set their emissions systems on an otherwise-dormant “clean” setting. Worst of all, VW’s chief executive lied under oath at a congressional hearing on the matter.
Like the BP oil spill back in 2010, Volkswagen’s diesel scandal will likely take years to play out. Already in the tens of billions, the costs are still accumulating for the once-proud automaker. And to think it the whole sad affair could have been prevented by better communication.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
These recent corporate PR disasters were embarrassing and costly. At least one, VW’s “Dieselgate,” could cripple its victim for years to come. All could have been prevented, or at least mitigated, by frank, clear internal and external communication. Saddest of all, there are a dozen scandals for every one mentioned here, and plenty more likely to break in the months to come.