PR Failure #32: Reflecting & Reframing Last Year’s Comms Disasters

Ending a year and reflecting on it is always a good thing. So, it feels appropriate to muse on a few notable PR fails from last year. Unfortunately (or fortunately given the overall purpose of this), there are many to consider—from local to global, limited in time to endlessly unfolding, minimal to a massively meaningful impact.
While businesses and brands may fail in effective PR, these never fail to deliver learnings we can all think about to best react and respond to a communications crisis. Even better, how to avoid one in the first place.
Let’s look. 

1. A Complete Failure

X, formerly known as Twitter – sigh. This may end up being one of the biggest for a business of all time. Though huge, ongoing, and exhaustively covered, I’d be remiss not to mention it in an annual roundup. But, where to begin? From auto replying to press inquiries with a poop emoji, the ridiculous X rebrand, laying off 80% of employees, to allowing increasingly hateful content, I suppose we’ll just focus on the most recent issue and ultimate consequence of everything to date: the platform hemorrhaging advertisers.

Since Elon Musk took over, ad revenue has reportedly fallen more than 50% year over year. In November, The New York Times predicted X could lose as much as $75 million in advertising revenue after Musk endorsed an antisemitic post with the following:

Musk later apologized and then lashed out at advertisers, declaring: “Go f*ck yourselves.”

Lessons Learned:

Lessons here are abundant and obvious, and Musk’s maneuvers seem to be the work of a madman. However, the perpetual PR fails are leading to one eventuality, the entire business will fail. A once 44-billion-dollar business is now valued at $19 billion just a year later, and it continues to circle the drain.

2. A Community Failure

Bud Light partnered with TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney to promote the beer on Mulvaney’s social media platforms. When Mulvaney’s post received transphobic backlash, with conservatives calling for a boycott of a human with a beer, the communications failure here was to LGBTQ+ communities and allies.

Bud Light failed to stand by Mulvaney.

In response to conservative reaction, Bud Light CEO Brendan Whitworth said, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” And the Human Rights Campaign responded by informing the company it would suspend its Corporate Equality Index score.

Target came under fire the next month for similar reasons, following its decision to remove Pride-themed merchandise from its stores.

The company said in its statement: “Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work. Given these volatile circumstances, we are adjusting our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.”

Lessons Learned:

Bud Light claims it has been a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community since the 1980s, and Target has been celebrating Pride Month for at least a decade. For lessons learned, Mulvaney and transgender designer and artist Eric Carnell, selling designs on Target, say it best:

Mulvaney: “If you’re going to ask us to capitalize on our vulnerabilities and our traumas, at least have our backs when the going gets tough.”

Carnell: “If you’re going to take a stance and say that you care about the LGBT community, you need to stand by that regardless.”

Yes. If you claim you support a community, support the community.

3. A Failure to Communicate

The November firing of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was just weird. From a communications standpoint, OpenAI’s board failed to let key stakeholders know in advance and didn’t ever clearly communicate why it was firing Altman. However, ironically, the board claimed a lack of candidness and communications breakdown with Altman as its reason(s). The confusion led to employees quitting or threatening to quit, big investors such as Microsoft responding…

…and ultimately, OpenAI bringing Altman back.

Lessons Learned:

As has been debated in the media, it’s difficult to say whether Altman should have been fired because it remains unclear why he was fired. What is clear is that the OpenAI board failed in its communications efforts across all channels, internal and external. It created chaos through confusion, leading to no clear conclusion.

4. A Conflict Disclosure Failure

Global communications firm Edelman releases an annual trust barometer, saying it studies the “influence of trust across society — government, media, business, and NGOs — to shape the conversation, drive results and earn action.”

It was revealed this year, by The Guardian and Aria, a non-profit research organization, that Edelman and its subsidiaries have been paid substantial amounts of monies over time by some of the authoritarian governments discussed positively in Edelman’s barometers.

According to The Guardian, an Edelman spokesperson said: “As a global firm, we believe it is important to work with clients and in markets around the world that are transforming –economically, politically, socially, environmentally, and culturally.”

But the issue is not whether Edelman has worked with these autocratic institutions, rather, that it failed to disclose its financial relationships.

Lessons Learned:

If you have a conflict of interest, or if you even have a sliver of suspicion that you have a conflict of interest, declare it. It’s not always easier to ask for forgiveness.

Disclaimer: I’m a former employee of Edelman and am entirely positive in my history and relationship with the firm. As with any individual or organization though, there can be inadvertent missteps in not disclosing a conflict of interest. I hope that was the case here.

5. A Consideration Failure

Seattle Mariners president Jerry Dipoto offered comments during an end-of-season press conference that confused and upset the Mariners’ fan base…some say, enraged. Statements were made about the Mariners missing the playoffs in 2023.

A bit of history, the Mariners missed the playoffs by one game in 2023, just one year after making the playoffs for the first time since 2001. And the Mariners are the only baseball team to never appear in a World Series.

At the press conference in question, Dipoto said, “I can’t tell you what year we’re going to win the World Series. I can tell you that if we win 54% of our games over the course of a decade, you’re going to play in the World Series.”

Dipoto then appeared on Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk to explain: “With this one, the 54%, you know, I just completely whiffed in my attempt to paint a big picture baseline of what obviously makes more sense to me than our fans and media. Our goal isn’t to be mediocre, our goal is to win championships and to play at a high level for a long time, and that’s what I was trying to convey. Obviously, it didn’t help. I wish I could hit reset and try it again, but that moment’s gone. The best I can do is continue to try to be candid and accessible, and I feel like over my time here, we’ve done that – players, staff, all of our personnel.”

Lessons Learned:

As a Mariners fan (why do we do this to ourselves?), I appreciate Dipoto’s candidness and attempt to be transparent. However, this is an important lesson in considering how your message will land with your audience. Do they have the same full understanding that you do? If you’re trying to be funny, will they get the joke? While we can’t always know in advance how a message will be received, it’s critical to do the research, and no fan of anything anywhere wants to hear you’re aiming for average.

We’re working on launching a companion podcast in 2024, discussing these and other PR failures. We’ll bring in guests to help illustrate issues, and the goal won’t be to criticize. Rather, having a conversation on communication calamities offers a path for companies (and us all) to do and be better.

Aaron Blank
President and CEO