Despite the happy-talk that PR agencies tell clients about how they can limit negative press coverage during a crisis, one thing is certain: They can’t. And the PR blunders of 2021 once again prove my contention.
Below are several of what I consider the top PR crises of last year and how they were treated in press coverage:
Situation: Of course, the biggest PR blunder of 2021 began months before the New Year when the then president Donald Trump claimed that the only way he could lose the election was if it was rigged. His bogus remarks resulted in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol on January 6, which led to Trump being impeached for the second time, a first for a U.S. president.
My Take: Trump’s false claims and the storming of the Capitol have resulted in continuing negative media coverage for him that the best minds in the PR crisis business will be unable to stop. (A realist, like myself, believes that the continuing negative coverage that Trump is receiving is not unusual for a person or entity in a major PR crisis. A close study of past major PR crises shows that crises specialists have never been able to stop the flow of negative coverage. Two other recent examples: Boeing’s 737 Max problems and Wells Fargo’s banking problems.)
Situation: Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz took his family to Mexico as a major winter storm left Texans without heat, food and water.
My Take: The senator received widespread negative media overage for leaving the state, resulting in a major PR crisis. Critics said that instead of going to Cancun he should have stayed in Texas and asked the feds for emergency help, something he could have done with a phone call even if he was on Mars. Cruz returned to Texas earlier that he had planned to and apologized, saying he had made a mistake but the PR damage was already done. There’s a valuable PR lesson learned from this situation. Often, the optics of a situation can make a PR blunder into a major crisis.
Situation: Another PR blunder occurred when GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the formations of a bi-partisan committee to investigate the January 6, storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters because, he said, it would hurt Republican chances of retaking the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections by providing a PR bonanza for the Democrats.
My Take: Thinking that blocking a bi-partisan committee would lessen the PR advantage for Democrats is at the best wishful thinking because a politician has to live in fantasy land to believe that the break-in of the Capitol would not receive major coverage, whether or not there was a bi-partisan committee. By rejecting the joint commission, McConnell lost the opportunity of having GOP talking points in the official report. And it did not deter the Democrats and the media from conducting their own probes.
Situation: J&J asked Pfizer and Moderna to participate in a study of blood clots caused by the Covid-19 vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna declined the offer, saying their vaccines appeared safe, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. The companies also objected because they didn’t see the need to duplicate the efforts of regulators and companies already investigating the cause. One of their concerns: The safety of the Pfizer and Moderna shots could be tarnished by association.
My Take: I thought refusing to take part in the study might result in negative media coverage. It didn’t, but I feel it was a public relations blunder.
Situation: Despite the Covid-19 pandemic still in full swing, the Atlanta Braves announced that they would allow full capacity at their games beginning May 7, but fans who feel uncomfortable with the decision could attend another regular season game not later than October 31, 2021.
My Take: The decision to limit uncomfortable fans to games this season is a major PR blunder. The Braves should have permitted fans to attend next season’s games or request a refund.
Situation: In mid-April, the Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Peloton to recall a treadmill because it was responsible for injuries and at least one death. The company refused, saying the cause of the mishaps was because recommended safety precautions were not being followed and that the CPSC request was “inaccurate and misleading.”
Peloton CEO John Foley also said he had “no intention” of recalling the treadmills. But on May 5, Peloton changed its position and agreed to recall the product, saying its initial response was a mistake.
My Take: Peloton’s initial response to the CPSC request went against the public image that most companies try to achieve – being a good corporate citizen. The statement by Foley was reminiscence of days past, when companies acted without concern about the public, media or governments reactions. Those days are far gone; Peloton acted like it was 1921 instead of 2021.
Situation: After years of turning a blind eye to the situation, Major League Baseball, in mid-season, decided to enforce its rules against pitchers using sticky substances on baseballs.
My Take: MLB made a blunder by changing the rules in the middle of a season. Doing so takes away a weapon that pitchers were taught to use and that MLB found no fault with until they panicked because of batters’ low averages. The proper approach was to wait until the conclusion of the season to institute the change.
Situation: After the CEO of the Trump Organization and the company was indicted for allegedly violating federal and state tax laws, the former president and his sons went on television defending the unreported payments, claiming they were deserved perks. Former federal prosecutors said the remarks could be used as evidence that laws were intentionally broken.
My Take: The actions by the Trump family are not unusual for people of power after they have been accused of wrongdoing. A prime example was the remarks made by the CEO of Boeing during its PR crisis. People in jeopardy should listen to their lawyers and remain quiet (despite what many people in our business advise) because anything they say can and will be used against them by prosecutors in a court case.
Situation: On July 6, a story in the New York Times reported that the entire May/June issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior published 11 studies funded by Juul, the e-cigarette company being sued by 14 states and the District of Columbia for targeting youth smokers. The articles offered evidence that its products helped smokers quit. On June 28, the Times reported “Juul Labs has agreed to pay North Carolina $40 million to settle the first of a spate of lawsuits brought by states and localities claiming the e-cigarette company’s marketing practices fueled widespread addiction to nicotine among young people and created a new public health problem.”
My Take: Not being a scientist or science reporter, I have no idea how the publication is viewed in the scientific community. But as a layman I think the publication made a serious blunder that has damaged its reputation.
Situation: The Wall Street Journal, which has been chronicling the troubles of Boeing on regular bases, ran an article on July 16, titled, “Boeing CEO Battles New Stresses.” The article contained the following: “The company declined to make Mr. Calhoun available for an interview.” Instead it issued a trite boiler plate reply containing no new facts. (Mr. Calhoun is chief executive of the company.)
My Take: Mr. Calhoun should have made himself available for the interview because when the chief executive of a major company refuses to speak to the most prominent business publication it gives the appearance of a cover-up.
Situation: The month of July saw a bevy of anti-Trump “tell all” books that received major news coverage. Former twice-impeached President Trump responded by calling them Fake News or worse.
My Take: Instead of denying the allegations against him as each book was covered by the media, Trump should have made one statement saying that the facts in the books were fiction. His daily comments resulted in giving the books additional exposure and because of his record of falsehoods his comments were taken with a grain of salt by many. His comments probably increased sales of the books.
Situation: On July 21, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to accept two Republicans who were appointed to the committee to investigate the break-in of the Capitol on January 6 because, she said, of negative comments they made prior to the investigation beginning.
My Take: By rejecting to sit the two Republicans, Ms. Pelosi provided the Republicans with talking points saying that her action proved that the investigation was a political show by the Democrats. While it’s true that the two GOP Congressmen would have disrupted the proceedings, the testimony of police officers and others who were attacked, along with the video footage of the break-in, would have been strong enough to overcome the antics of the two Republicans.
Situation: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made commercials touting a sleep product. Previously, he endorsed a diabetes product.
My Take: Individuals who have held high political offices should not become hawkers because it demeans serious political leaders. Like the My Pillow guy, Huckabee’s endorsements might appeal to gullible conservative Trump voters, but doing so lessens the former governor as a serious future national candidate and labels him as just a run-of-the mill huckster.
Situation: The Wall Street Journal reported, on October 19, that “Netflix Inc. Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said he “screwed up” in his efforts to communicate with employees who were upset over “The Closer,” a recent comedy special by Dave Chappelle in which he made remarks that some viewed as offensive to the transgender community. In emails to Netflix staff after the special’s debut, Mr. Sarandos defended “The Closer,” citing its popularity on the platform and the company’s commitment to creative freedom. He also said the company believed “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
My Take: This is a classic case of a ranking corporate executive rushing out a statement after receiving criticism, instead of waiting several days to analyze the criticism. A better strategy would have been for Mr. Sarandos to make any apology he deemed necessary in the same statement while defending artistic freedom. Doing so would have limited the coverage of the situation instead of creating a drip by drip scenario.
Situation: Former President Trump thanked Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees for inviting him to the World Series game 4 in Atlanta. He publicly thank Bob Manfred, the baseball commissioner, and Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees for inviting him. However, both the commissioner’s office and the Atlanta Braves both denied that they had invited the twice-impeached former president. They said the Trump had asked to attend the game. The Braves did not show Trump on the stadium’s big video screen and he only received a mention that he was in attendance during TV coverage of the game.
My Take: The former president obviously wanted to capitalize on the controversy of the Tomahawk Chop to rev up his supporters, as he has attempted to use previous sports events to gain publicity. Obviously, this one failed. He drew scant attention. In addition it resulted in negative publicity, as numerous news articles called out his lie about being invited.
Situation: Asked on Aug. 26 if he was vaccinated, Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers star quarterback, told reporters, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized. … There’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated. I think it’s a personal decision. I’m not going to judge those guys.” But when he was sidelined after being tested positive for Covid-19, it was learned that Rodgers was not vaccinated with any of the approved Covid-19 vaccines. Instead, he received homeopathic treatments.
My Take: Rodgers made two major mistakes when discussing his vaccination situation: 1) He lied to the media, and 2) inflamed the situation when he attempted to defend his position by saying he’s a “critical thinker,” doesn’t believe in giving in to “woke culture,” and decided what is best for his body. He also said there’s a “witch hunt” in the NFL regarding player’s vaccination status. He would have been better off saying that he did what he considers best for him and is not against others taking the approved vaccines and then refusing to answer other questions.
Situation: A December 9 New York Times story told how Vishal Garg, the chief executive of the mortgage lender Better.com apologized for laying off about 900 employees over Zoom.
My Take: This is not the first time that employees have been fired over Zoom. (The Times reported that last year WW International, formerly known as Weight Watchers, was also criticized for a mass firing using Zoom.) Before Zoom, employees were fired while on vacation and via email. In all such cases these types of firings result in negative publicity. Apologies after the fact are not taken seriously.
Situation: A lengthy story beginning on page one of the December 27 Wall Street Journal, and continuing for about three quarters of an inside page, detailed how AT&T cut retiree life insurance and death benefits while keeping it intact and subsidizing life insurance for select executives, who refused to comment about the situation. The paper reported that “The executives declined to comment through an AT&T spokesman.
My Take: High-ranking executives should never refuse to comment on a story that is being investigated by a major news outlet, especially when asked by the country’s leading financial publication. Doing so gives the impression of a cover-up.
Once again this past year proved a constant about our business: Agencies will come and go; clients will come and go; PR practitioners will come and go, but PR blunders will remain.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com