2019’s Most Teachable Public Relations Moments



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2019’s Most Teachable Public Relations Moments

“You have to see failure as the beginning and the middle, but never entertain it as an end.”

Do you ever wish you could hit the reset button? I think we all do from time to time. But remember, failure is inevitable, it’s what we learn from that failure that matters the most.

Throughout 2019, we at The Fearey Group reviewed a Public Relations Failure made by a brand, company, nonprofit, personality, etc. and shared our thoughts for how it could have gone differently. It was not our intent to call-out anyone. In fact, we were looking for key learnings that could help our community, which is why we’re in business. Reviewing these miscues also prompts us to think carefully about how we approach our work with our clients every day. The big idea here is to learn from these mistakes and become a better world one conversation at a time.

In the spirit of learning, we offer our annual list of the top PR lessons of 2019. In every case, there was a lack of awareness about public perception and stakeholder expectations. Disappointed and disgruntled employees, customers and fans started memes, proposed boycotts at ultra-high moments and called offenders to task with rather impactful social media posts, walkouts and boycotts. We’re proclaiming 2019 The Year the Audience Hit Back. The world is a new place and proactive, engaging strategic communications efforts should be at the top of every CEO’s list in 2020.

The meta-takeaway from the past year is that audience perception and expectations must be considered when making decisions, preparing spokespeople and responding to events or public outcry.

We hope you benefit as much from these lessons learned as we have. And as always, if you ever see a PR Failure, please send me an email.

2019’s Top Five Public Relations Lessons:


1. Train rigorously for media interactions – The New York Jets (NFL)

Public Relations Moments
Being interviewed is stressful, which is why PR pros must consistently coach our clients on how to perform well during media interactions – especially gaggles and press conferences. Consider the plight of NY Jets Head Coach Adam Gase, whose first-ever briefing as a head coach was notable for his facial expressions and not his comments. The result was an unflattering social media storm. (And a season that is just awful!) Issues like this can be spotted in recorded practice runs that enable you and the spokesperson to see what the media will see. You can also use these sessions to rehearse key messages, run through answers to expected questions, and brief on the audience. Do these four things to prepare for your next media interview.

2. Be mission-driven – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
The Academy tried to address declining ratings with a bold choice for emcee, Kevin Hart, and changes to voting categories and the broadcast’s format. Yet many of the changes backfired, being branded as blatant attempts to lure viewers at the expense of fulfilling its mission to recognize excellence and connect the world. The desire for popularity often prompts us to make decisions to address short-term needs rather than evolving within our mission to create long-term success. When unpopular choices reflect your mission, they’re more likely to be understood and forgiven. Learn how to put your mission front and center in your communication strategy.

3. Be mindful of political issues (particularly now and as we head into the 2020 election!) – The Wayfair Walkout & Equinox/SoulCycleequinox
Rafts of data show that top-performing employees want to work for companies that reflect their own values, and that customers choose brands who do the same. Even popular brands can be damaged by actions that go against perceived shared values. When employees discovered that Wayfair had contracted to provide furnishings to a facility housing migrant children, they staged a walkout and leveraged public opinion to create a more far-reaching call for the company to abandon the deal. And after discovering that the owner of Equinox and SoulCycle was hosting a pricey event in the Hamptons to support President Trump’s re-election bid, members responded angrily. In each case, boycotts were called for and social and traditional media headlines kept the stories alive. PR pros must monitor contracts and owner/board political contributions, offer counsel on avoiding issues and create crisis response plans to respond rapidly. Read more about the critical elements of a successful crisis communications plan.

4. Respond as quickly as possible in a crisis – Boeing

Public Relations Moments

Immediate reaction to a crisis is the first step to shaping the story and mitigating reputational impact. When Boeing faced a nightmare situation when two of its 737 MAX aircraft failed in flight, killing hundreds, the manufacturer’s response was slow and impersonal. By waiting to comment, others were able to craft and advance a narrative about the crashes. We all now know what truly happened so it’s easier to look back and question things. But when Boeing finally made public statements, they were devoid of atonement. And because the initial anemic crisis response wasn’t followed up by action, trust was eroded with pilots, flyers and even stock analysts. Responding to a crisis requires advance planning, constant iteration, concrete actions and authentic accountability. Boeing most certainly had these plans in place. It was just a challenging time. Check out five tips for a stronger crisis response.

5. Show your humanity – Johnson & Johnson
Once a paragon of good PR practice (recall the Tylenol scandal), J&J took a hit this year from its reaction to a court decision related to its role in the opioid epidemic. The company made a common mistake: ignoring the human impact. Attorneys often take the lead in crafting responses, but PR professionals must be in the room to stand up to the legalese and infuse as much humanity and compassion as possible into communications. Being accountable isn’t a check-box activity. It requires empathy, responsibility and action in addition to smart legal tactics. The key is establishing a trusting and collaborative relationship with legal counsel and crisis experts before you have to work together under pressure. Learn about The Fearey Group’s crisis management practice.

The political undertones of several of these mishaps provide a window into the perils that may await once the presidential campaigns are in full swing ahead of the primary and caucus season (which begins on February 3). We look forward to learning with you from celebrated successes and the messy mishaps that are bound to happen in 2020. Guaranteed!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Onward to the 2020 election season,
Aaron Blank, President and CEO
The Fearey Group

Fearey Blog + News


November 18, 2019

Copyright © 2019, The Fearey Group, All rights reserved.

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