Greatest Public Relations Hits and Misses of 2016

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david200By David Hlavac, Group Account Director at Bellmont Partners

In a year dominated by celebrity deaths, hacked emails and the rise of “fake news,” 2016 proved that the power of public relations to shape opinions and guide consumer behavior is stronger than ever before. For marketers, the perennial debate over the re-emergence of advertising and the fall of public relations as favored marketing tactics has cooled considerably.

Today’s marketing decision-makers now understand that a healthy mix of reputation management, social media promotion and clever storytelling  – employed as complementary strategies – can elevate brands to new heights. However, brands that failed on any one of these fronts in 2016 experienced swift backlash and reputation damage, as ill-conceived campaigns were often met with strident ridicule from an ever more skeptical public.

Here are a few of this year’s greatest hits and misses that will undoubtedly become next year’s success stories or cautionary tales for a new generation of marketing leaders:

Greatest Hits

Sweden’s “The Swedish Number” cultural awareness campaign celebrated the 250th anniversary of the country’s landmark anti-censorship law by connecting curious international callers with ordinary Swedes. Created by the country’s tourism board, the phone number yielded nearly 200,000 calls in its 79 days of operation and received worldwide media attention for its uniquely interactive approach to forging cultural connections and global understanding.

Emirates Airlines First Class Cabin. This international airline known for luxury service redesigned the first class cabins on its Airbus 380 and Boeing 777 aircraft to provide VIP customers with an unprecedented level of privacy and pampering. While the $20,000+ price tag puts these seats out of reach for most frequent fliers, the airline enticed the general public and built plenty of goodwill for the brand by giving prominent travel bloggers exclusive access to the suites, which were hailed by one blogger as “the greatest travel experience of my life.”

REI’s #OptOutside campaign drew praise last year for its refreshing honesty and connection to brand. The company was among the first national retailers to close all of its stores on Black Friday – the busiest shopping day of the year – as a statement of support for greater work/life balance. REI built on its successful 2015 launch by partnering with nonprofit organizations, government agencies and select like-minded companies and inviting millions of consumers to “go out” with REI by spending Black Friday enjoying the outdoors.

Greatest Misses

Microsoft’s Twitter bot “Tay,” a much-hyped attempt to showcase the company’s artificial intelligence technology, was removed after just one day when users prompted the bot to repeat racially insensitive language. Marketers should not rely on untested and un-moderated AI technology to communicate key brand values. Even technology companies should employ a “human touch,” both for predictability and consistency of message.

Iceland masquerading as Rhode Island. Tourism officials in “Little Rhody” faced a big embarrassment when a video touting the state’s unique cultural attractions featured a clip of Reykjavik, Iceland. Despite the ubiquitous apologies and an immediate correction to the video, the damage was already done when news stories seized on the blunder. Authenticity matters, particularly for multimedia content, and shortcuts should always be thoroughly scrutinized to guard against any reputation damage.

Ill-conceived celebrity death tweets. 2016 will be remembered for its seemingly endless parade of celebrity deaths in the news, as well as an avalanche of untimely brand marketing failures disguised as condolences. Some efforts fared better than others, with both Cheerios and Hamburger Helper deleting tweets commemorating iconic Minneapolis musician Prince. Footwear brand Crocs got suitably trampled for its now-deleted David Bowie-themed tweet. Yet, candy brands received little criticism for Gene Wilder (a.k.a. Willy Wonka) remembrances, and Chevrolet earned widespread praise for its “Little Red Corvette” tweet in honor of Prince, proving that companies with high risk tolerance on social media and a brand-appropriate connection to the deceased will continue to be viewed favorably by followers.  

What do this year’s greatest PR hits and misses have in common? Successful PR initiatives prioritize people and human interaction over publicity for its own sake.

Communicating intrinsic brand values – and staying true to those values across the marketing continuum – will always be more effective than trying to grasp a small piece of “flavor-of-the-month” momentum, even in today’s milieu of rapid-fire news and hair-trigger social media reaction.

In other words, “keep it real” should be more than a slangy buzzword; it must be a marketing mantra that holds true in any media environment.  

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