Public Relations Lessons Learned the Hard Way in 2011: The Fineman PR Blunders List

Every year, I look forward to reading the Annual Top 10 PR Blunders List, compiled by Fineman PR, because the lessons are so instructive to me, as a professional.  Experienced communicators, communications departments, and PR firms are not immune from making colossal mistakes, so it might not be a bad idea to review the 17th annual list (which includes some real doozies this year) in a staff meeting as you move into 2012.  Read the entire report, with details here, and learn! Summary below…

1. Penn State, “Your Scandal Isn’t Going Away”

Advertising Age reported that “despite months of advance notice, Penn State’s board didn’t enact a communications plan, and waited until after the arrest … was all over the news” before retaining crisis counsel. Even Penn State senior lecturer of public relations Steve Manuel agreed, telling USA Today that “this was a crisis in the making of at least three years. Penn State knew this shoe was going to drop and it was not prepared.” Lynn Zinser of The New York Times urged University leaders to accept that “your scandal isn’t going away,” describing the “sorry spectacle” as “what appears to be an institution-wide moral collapse.”

2. Herman Cain Undeniably Unprepared

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain made a major mistake by not dealing with questions from Politico regarding accusations of past sexual harassment, leaving himself open for damaging speculation. According to John Cassidy of The New Yorker, Cain had “ample time” to prepare for the crisis and should have “sat down his staff, explained that he was sitting on an unexploded landmine, and asked them to prepare a contingency plan.”

3. Oakland Mayor Quan Plays Both Sides – Against Each Other

Oakland Mayor and former community activist Jean Quan’s handling of the Occupy Oakland encampment was widely and critically covered. The San Jose Mercury News  blasted Quan’s handling of the situation, noting that “real leaders think through challenges, make tough calls and take responsibility if things go wrong. Quan has been all over the map – an icon of what not to do.”

4. Bank of America Nickels and Dimes

Bank of America wasn’t the only bank planning on bolstering revenue through new debit card fees, but it suffered significant reputational damage for being the last to abandon its plans to do so after severe public outrage in what The Wall Street Journal termed “the latest publicity nightmare for an industry that is already under fire.” The Huffington Post reported that at least “650,000 customers joined credit unions [in about five weeks after] Bank of America announced it would charge customers $5 to use their debit cards for purchases.”

5. “Birther Meme” Damages GOP Confidence in Perry

While some might declare Rick Perry’s inability to recall his own agenda his most memorable campaign gaffe of 2011, to many his most significant – and completely preventable – blunder was dredging up the birther meme in an interview with Parade Magazine.  While Perry may have been “just having some fun,” Philip Rucker of The Washington Post reported that he “undercut the reach of his economic message by repeatedly injecting an issue that most Americans thought had been put to rest.”

6. Qwikster Just a Flash in the Netflix Pan

How should management handle customer discontent over, say … a controversial 60% price increase that led to hundreds of thousands of lost customers and a drop of nearly half of a company’s stock value? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings remained silent for two months, then released a seemingly reluctant blog statement apologizing for the increase… and announcing plans to split off DVD-by-mail operations “in the same breath,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But the Chronicle also reported that “customers ripped that plan” as seriously inconvenient because it entailed zero coordination between Netflix and proposed new unit Qwikster. Netflix backpedaled in the face of consumer backlash, abandoning plans for Qwikster three weeks later, but its stock value remained severely depressed.

7. Facebook Complains About Lack of Transparency, Anonymously

Not only did Facebook contract a prominent PR firm to question how Google’s Social Circle collects and uses personal data, the social network allegedly insisted on client anonymity. But things spun out of control when blogger Christopher Soghoian – targeted (and annoyed) by the campaign – posted the agency’s pitch emails online, while USA Today reported of false claims in pitches. 

8. Dodger Owner’s Words “Very, Very Unfair” to Coma Victim, Family

Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt’s biggest blunder was his insensitive reaction to the horrific, coma-inducing beating received by San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium after the March 31st opening day game.  As the Times commented, “one of McCourt’s problems has been his consistent cluelessness about the public relations effects of his decisions. Neither he nor Dodgers fans need to see his lawyers making a similar blunder.”

9.  “Tweeting Teen” Teaches Kansas Gov. Brownback about Social Media

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his staff should have considered the source before trying “to police a teenager’s Internet musings,” according to the Associated Press, when 18-year-old Emma Sullivan sent a tweet to her 61 followers claiming to have “told him he sucked.” Brownback’s communications team contacted Sullivan’s principal with news of her online claim, who, in turn, demanded that Sullivan write an apology. The incident gained rapid national recognition, with Sullivan’s Twitter following exploding to more than 12,000 followers. Brownback eventually apologized for the incident, and according to Gawker, noted that his “staff over-reacted.” PRNewser called the actions of his communication staff “an example of how little some people know about how this whole social media thing works.”

10. Ben & Jerry’s Churns Ice Cream into Schweddy Balls

Popular ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s latest effort, “Schweddy Balls,” has some families and consumer groups, including American Family Association affiliate One Million Moms, up in arms. The company may have suffered in the process as NPR, Time, the New York Daily News and other media reported that some supermarket chains, including Mass.-based Stop & Shop, were not carrying the ice cream flavor.


About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.

Posted on December 15, 2011, in Public Relations Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Good recap. I did a similar post last week (, though this one covers a couple of other news stories I did not include. It’s amazing how many PR blunders there are each year, isn’t it?


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