5 lessons in ethics from PR disasters

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This summer—five years after the massive disaster of BP’s oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico—the company was ordered to pay an $ 18.7 billion settlement.

It’s the largest penalty that a single company has ever had to pay, and many PR pros wonder how much it will damage BP’s brand—or whether it will ultimately sink the company.

The crisis brought on by negligence made many question the company’s motives and ethics, and it’s still a cautionary tale for communications professionals.

Let’s look at cases in which other PR pros violated ethical guidelines in order to advance their organizations’ means. Here are five lessons in ethics from recent PR debacles:

1. National Football League: Looking the other way won’t get you far.

When a video surfaced showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in a hotel elevator, a crisis unfolded in the NFL.

Thousands called for the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to resign, and brands censured the sports organization for its mishandling of domestic abuse incidents among its players.

Though the NFL revised its personal conduct policy after consulting with experts of sexual and domestic abuse crimes, the league is still struggling with negative perception and lack of trust.

It may be your gut instinct to look the other way when something bad happens, hoping that a hands-off approach will minimize the damage and the problem will dissipate, but that sort of unethical behavior will usually come back to haunt you and your organization.

Instead of sticking your head in the sand, come forward and admit what’s happening as you find out. Also explain to your audiences—investors and sponsors, as well as your customers—what you’re going to do to fix it.

2. Uber: Don’t misrepresent “pay to play” stories.

Uber made headlines for a variety of PR crises in 2014. One resulted after LA Weekly didn’t take kindly to a story pitch that was supposedly written by one of its drivers. The driver had never seen the story.

The driver “may have a great story,” LA Weekly’s writer Sarah Fenske said, “but it’s hard to trust anything being peddled by a PR team that doesn’t disclose that fact immediately and up front.”

As more PR pros use bloggers and social media powerhouse users in branded campaigns, additional emphasis will be placed on disclosing these efforts in posts and sponsored content.

PR pros should also refrain from pitching internally created content as crowdsourced content in an effort to entice journalists. The efforts will probably backfire, and the relationship with the journalists involved will disintegrate.

3. Leslie Roberts: Disclose conflicts of interest.

Roberts, a journalist and news anchor for The Toronto Star, was suspended after an investigation revealed that his show’s guests were clients of his Canada-based PR firm.

Disclosing conflicts of interest is imperative to communications professionals because it keeps PR, journalism and marketing professionals’ credibility intact, and it bolsters the organizations and industries for which they work.

Though many PR pros freelance or take on extra tasks to boost their incomes, straddling the line and calling into question your ability to be objective isn’t worth the hit to your position—and possibly your entire career.

4. Brian Williams: “Phantom experience” can destroy your credibility.

Williams was suspended from NBC Nightly News and then demoted to MSNBC’s news desk after he exaggerated his accounts of stories he had covered throughout the years.

Williams wasn’t the only person who imagined himself in a situation that wasn’t the reality; Rachel Dolezal resigned as the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, after portraying herself for years as an African-American.

Similar to not disclosing conflicts of interest, adopting phantom experiences as your own can tear apart your credibility—thereby squandering an invaluable source of career revenue.

[RELATED: Can’t make it to our events? Ragan Training is where you’ll learn the skills you need to drive your career.]

5. McDonald’s: Beware of copyright and intellectual property violations.

David Silorski and Kristina Bakrevski created something that had “Internet sensation” written all over it: a spoof engagement shoot celebrating a man’s love for his burrito.

McDonald’s came under fire a few weeks later for creating ads that mimicked the spoof engagement shoot.

Sikorski brought the incident to the brand’s attention and told Adweek the photos were clearly ripped off from his photo series:

The photos used by McDonald’s are not a spinoff or a take on it, but an exact duplicate from the wardrobe, the positions and the concept. Neither myself, my photographer or the licensing company were approached for permission.

The fast-food brand took down its ads, apologized and said it was investigating what had happened—but the criticism for copying the ads had already come.

With all the content out there, coupled with the demand for PR pros to “make things go viral” for clients, temptation to rip off someone’s fantastic work may run high. The situation gets more complicated with online content’s varying attribution rules and widespread theft of articles, pictures and videos across social media platforms.

If something is posted online, that doesn’t mean it’s yours for the taking. Learn from a great idea; don’t swipe it and take a hit to your reputation.

Learn more about ethics and PR our Twitter #RaganChat on Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 2 p.m. Central time. Brian Lee, a member of PRSA’s National Board of Directors, and Kirk Hazlett, a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, will be our guests.

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12 Most Damaging PR Disasters Of the 21st Century

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It’s never going to be a simple life in the public eye, but some businesses and brands don’t make it easy for themselves. We’re only human, but in today’s (often big and scary) digital world, mistakes can be amplified to brand-damaging extremes.

All it takes is one questionable tweet and a storm can erupt globally in a matter of minutes. From a customer standpoint, this immediacy is brilliant as it means brands and businesses must be more transparent than ever before in order to neutralize unhappy consumers or employees on a rampage.

For the brands themselves, however, the nature of the internet and social media can be both a blessing… and a nightmare. Here are the biggest PR own-goals of the 21st century to put everything into perspective.

1) British Gas Hashtag gaffe, 2013

If you’re going to invite the Twitterati to join your brand for a ‘tweet-up’, it’s probably best not to do it on the same day that you announce a 10 per cent price increase to all your customers. That’s the unbelievable gaffe made by the already less-than-popular British Gas, with the resulting torrent of #AskBG tweets being every bit as unfavorable as you might imagine…

#AskBG: British Gas hikes prices, then takes to Twitter

2) HMV Twitter Horror, 2013

When making nearly 200 people redundant, we’d recommend locking out their access to the company social media accounts before the announcement. This detail was overlooked by high street entertainment store HMV, prompting tweets on their official account that read: “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!!

HMV failed to act swiftly and if the sarcasm in the original tweet was too subtle for some, a later entry read: “There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand“.

As if that wasn’t enough to publicly humiliate the brand’s mismanagement of the crisis, @hmvtweets later tweeted, “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks!) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”. There are own goals, and then there’s snatching defeat from the jaws of just losing!

A screengrab of the Twitter account before the tweets were removed

3) Google, Amazon & Starbucks Tax Scandal, 2011

If you’re a business that operates in the UK, should you pay UK tax? It almost seems obvious, but Amazon, Google and Starbucks would suggest not. Amazon, for example, reported UK sales of £3.35 billion in 2011, but only paid £1.8 million in tax.

Meanwhile Google paid just £6 million to the Treasury in 2011, despite a UK turnover of £395 million. It’s not illegal, but the British public didn’t much like it in the face of austerity Britain.

4) McDonald’s Pink Slime Nightmare, 2012

You know that Big Mac you love on a Saturday night? How did you feel about it after the ‘pink slime’ scandal a few years back? How about the fact that the row had been brewing for over a decade after scientists branded the ingredients as ‘salvage’, rather than ‘meat’? Images emerged in the media of this gooey patty, reportedly containing the additive ammonium hydroxide.

However, McDonald’s turned the allegations around by releasing videos detailing its ‘trade secrets’; showing exactly how it produced food. This transparent approach regained consumer trust, but will anyone truly forget those slime images?

5) Big Mistake-opoly, 2003

Let’s re-imagine the traditional board game, Monopoly, in the context of the urban ghetto – what could go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out with Ghettopoly. As if it wasn’t racist enough that the railroad properties were replaced with liquor stores; houses and hotels were replaced with crack houses and projects.

The game was criticized as offensively racist by black clergy, forcing Urban Outfitters – amongst other retailers – to pull it from the shelves.

6) JP Morgan Chase Q&A Fail, 2013

In the wake of a global recession and accusations of financial wrongdoing, it’s fair to say that bankers are not the most popular people on the planet. So it came as no surprise to anyone other than J.P. Morgan Chase & Co that the open invitation to tweet questions directly to their management was met with a less than hospitable response by the world at large.

Their ill-conceived #askJPM campaign generated 6,000 tweets in just six hours, ranging from the cynical to the openly hostile. A response rate of 1,000 tweets per hour might sound like a marketer’s dream, but with comments including, “Can I have my house back?” and, “Is it true ‘JPM stands for ‘Just Pay More’?”, JPM had cause to doubt the old adage that ‘any coverage is good coverage’.

7) Sex and the Sponsors, 2009

When breakout athlete Tiger Woods was forced into admitting extra-marital affairs following a car crash in 2009, associated stock prices dropped by 5.71%. Corporate sponsors, Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors severed ties with Woods, while Gillette suspended their advertisements.

8) BP Deaths, 2010

Petrochemical companies are never candidates for the world’s favorite companies, but BP took this to new depths with The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 11 people were never found and it’s now considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, with more than 200 million gallons of crude oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

9) Nipplegate, 2004

America’s NFL Superbowl is world-renowned for its half-time entertainment, but even that couldn’t prepare the globe for 2004’s (Super Bowl XXXVIII) Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. The infamous incident has since become known as ‘nipplegate’, as CBS was slapped with a record fine of $ 550,000 after the FCC received 540,000 complaints from irate viewers.

10) The “Bullet in the Chamber”, 2012

When Nike launched their campaign calling Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius – who became the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal, ‘The bullet in the chamber’, little did they know that he would go on to shoot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in their Pretoria home. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for homicide and a three-year suspended prison sentence for reckless endangerment.

Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp

11) Horse Meat Scandal, 2013

Are you enjoying that Beef Lasagne? How about if you knew it consisted of horse meat? That was the problem that confronted consumers in 2013’s meat adulteration scandal. In one of the biggest food frauds of the 21st century, Tesco burgers, as well as those at Burger King, Co-op and Aldi all tested positive for horse DNA. And we’re not just talking trace amounts here – it’s reported that up to 100% of the meat content was ‘horse’ in some cases.

12) Obama’s Racist Nan, 2008

And finally, even one of the world’s leaders and instigator of global change, America’s first black president, Barack Obama, is not exempt from PR own goals. In 2008, he appeared to call his own grandmother a racist as he described her as: “A woman who confessed her fear of black men. She is a typical white person.” Obama later backtracked by saying: “Those are fears that are embedded in our culture, and embedded in our society – and even within our own families; even within a family like mine that is diverse.” But was the damage already done?

Have something to add to this list? Share it in the comments.

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