In America today is National Watermelon Day (who knew?). I love watermelon but they always make me think of one of my favourite films, Dirty Dancing. I can’t help but cringe for Baby when she says the infamous “I carried a watermelon” line. Not the best way to PR yourself to the hottest man at Kellerman’s Resort.
Who hasn’t had an embarrassing moment that they look back on and still wince at the thought? I know I have had many both professionally and publicly and to ensure you don’t feel alone in your cringeworthy moments and in the interest of transparency here are a couple of mine:
“He’s got a beard”
Years ago, I used to work for a charity that each year held a massive fundraising ball which was attended by lots of very well-known people from A list mega stars to reality TV stars of the moment. As members of the PR team part of mine and my colleagues’ job was to greet the celebrities on the red carpet and then announce them to the media. The celebs would then pose and chat (or not) to the press for a couple of minutes, move along and then we’d announce the next person. Whilst it sounds a simple task we would prep for ages and would have sheets with images of each person attending, their name, what they did and any other vital info. The idea was to learn this and then be able to make sure you stop them and announce them seamlessly. For some stars this was easy I mean everybody knows what Rod Stewart looks like don’t they? But on this one occasion we have revised endlessly and then totally missed one of the celebrities (a famous chef) all because he had grown a beard and we’d spent weeks looking at a hair free face. Once we realised our error we had to go inside and bring him back out to the media. I feel a bit queasy thinking about it even now.
That’s my skirt on the floor
One of my most embarrassing personal moments (that I am willing to share) happened in a bar in Birmingham. It was the early noughties, and I was out with my mate. I was wearing a black leather wrap skirt which I still have and love. Whilst on the dance floor no doubt channelling my inner Beyonce there was a wardrobe malfunction that is too long and complicated to go into. I think my hands were full, probably with a drink and a cigarette (like I say early noughties nearly everybody I know smoked then) I asked my mate to try and sort it out, but not understanding the way the skirt did up he undid it and it landed on the floor. So, there I was on the dancefloor in my knickers whilst my mate picked up the skirt and tried to cover my modesty. I was embarrassed but once the skirt was firmly back in place, I styled it out and carried on dancing.
Whilst I have had many stomach-churning moments like these, they haven’t been made for the whole world to see. With that in mind I thought I would look at some of the PR disasters that have happened whilst the rest of us watch and squirm.
Government training campaign
Last year the Government created a campaign around people re-training. One poster showed the image of a ballet dancer with the suggestion that she could ‘reboot’ her career and retrain in IT. Given the number of people losing jobs due to Covid this campaign was met with heavy criticism, branded insensitive and in appropriate especially given the fact that the arts had been so badly hit.
Last year Burger King decided they wanted to get involved with Veganuary by creating a vegan burger. Nothing wrong with that you might think, although there is when your burger i9s cooked in animal fat and features mayonnaise, so not actually suitable for vegans at all. Whilst there was no deceit as the bottom of the ad did explain the cooking process the response wasn’t great. The company claimed it was aimed a flexitarian wanting to reduce their meat consumption.
The lesson from this one is getting your messaging clear, so you don’t confuse your audience. Also, if you need to add a big disclaimer to your campaign be prepared that it’s probably not going to be a straightforward thing.
Who knew a trip to Barnard Castle would cause such a stir? Well normally it wouldn’t but when the world is in the midst of a pandemic and you’re the chief advisor to the Prime Minister hundreds of miles away from home paying it a visit it does.
To make matters worse when he made an appearance in the Rose Garden of Number 10he didn’t apologise and the PM refused to punish him. In turn the public’s loyalty to the rules declined and led to a feeling of one rule for us and one for them. Dominic Cummings has since spoken about what happened in relation to his trip to Durham.
The PR disaster of all PR disasters took place in 1991 and destroyed a multi-million company in 10 seconds, I’m talking about Ratner’s. Gerald Ratner inherited his father’s jewellery business in the 80’s and within six years had grown it to epic proportions. But in April 1991 all his work was undone in seconds when he gave a talk to more than 6,000 businesspeople and journalists. Asked how it was possible for his company to be selling a sherry decanter for the amazing price of £4.95, he answered, to the amazement of his audience and his shareholders, the following:
“How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap.”
Within days the company shares dropped by £500 million. This was one time where the saying “all publicity is good publicity” was definitely not true.
What to do if you have a PR disaster?
Sometimes things happen and you end up with a PR activity not going the way it was intended. Here are some tips on what to do should you find your business in the firing line.
Appoint a response team. This means having somebody lined up who will respond if things go wrong. Also have somebody who will monitor social media and reply. Get statements ready in case you need to give a quick response without causing further damage.
Don’t delete any social media activity. Deleting is not a good idea, people will have seen the comments anyway and there will no doubt be a screenshot of it lurking somewhere. Instead of deleting simply apologise.
Laugh at yourself. Where appropriate, don’t be afraid to mock yourself.
Don’t get into arguments. You don’t want to be arguing with your public and definitely not in public. So, avoid being rude, argumentative, or aggressively defensive in any situation.
Identify and address any affected parties. If you’ve offended one person in particular, a personal apology is needed. Make this public, but then take the issue off public forums and deal with the person on a one-to-one basis.
Review and learn. We all make mistakes, but the key thing is we need to learn from them. To avoid making the same mistake again you need to understand what went wrong and why and also ensure that your team understand. Ensure you communicate to your team any changes that have been made following the error.
Try again. Whatever happens, don’t dwell on the situation.