Learning from Public Relations Disasters (and Triumphs)

Public relations disasters (and triumphs) come in all shapes and sizes, and from all corners of the country. Here’s a look at a few of each, along with a few tips to help you avoid the disasters — and repeat the triumphs.

Public Relations Disaster: Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott sits down with editors and reporters at the New York Times and proceeds to badmouth New Yorkers for opposing his company’s entrance into the city. Scott gets personal by categorizing New Yorkers and others opposed to Wal-Mart as “snobbish elites” and “people who are just better than us and don’t want a Wal-Mart in their community,” to quote the Times.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman calls the Times‘ reporters to let them know that Scott’s comments were only in reference to Manhattan, coincidentally a location where the company never had plans to build a store. The story gets widespread play in the local and national media.

Public Relations Tip: Whether someone is from Harlem, New York City, or Harlem, Montana, they are as provincial as the next person. Doing business in any community means understanding the needs, sensibility, and sentimentality of the community. By talking trash about New York, Scott did little to endear Wal-Mart to New Yorkers, and worse, he played on the same type of stereotypes that New Yorkers are often accused of spewing toward folks from areas like Bentonville, Arkansas — perhaps better known as Wal-Mart’s hometown.

Scott also misdirected some of his public anger, making himself look disconnected from reality. While he called out the unions for roadblocking Wal-Mart, it was everyday New Yorkers, many of them mom-and-pop business owners and community activists, who played a vital role in keeping the retailer out of the Big Apple. The Park Avenue types never said a word and apparently could not have cared less if Wal-Mart stores sprouted up on Staten Island and in Queens. This is why public relations means knowing your audience, as much as knowing who to blame.

Public Relations Triumph: Several years ago, Major League Baseball (MLB) declared that only fans with DirecTV satellite service could order its Extra Innings package of out-of-market games. This programming package is the only way for Yankees fans outside of New York City to see their favorite team play on a regular basis. Previously, the Extra Innings package was available to customers of most major cable companies in America, as well as DirecTV’s main competitor, EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network. Now the only alternative for fans not subscribed to DirecTV is to pay Major League Baseball to watch the games online.

Enter Cablevision. The New York-area cable company sent an email and called former Extra Innings package subscribers, letting them know something important. Namely that Cablevision internet customers can sign up for Major League Baseball’s online games package and Cablevision will effectively reimburse them for the expense by crediting their account $15 each month during the season.

Public Relations Tip: When someone opens a door for you, kick it open. There were only about 200,000 Extra Innings package subscribers on cable systems in America last year, so it’s doubtful that Cablevision had more than a few thousand of those. (The company’s reach is confined to the New York City metropolitan area.) Regardless, the company is using Major League Baseball’s own bad press to drum up some good press and goodwill of its own.

Economically, the impact will be negligible for Cablevision. As a public relations move, it could help the company retain and attract new customers. It’s a simple gesture, one that acknowledges the value of customers. Sometimes simple things means a lot.

Public Relations Disaster: A pet food recall had many Americans scared, angry, and upset. Menu Foods, a Canadian company, was probably not very well-known before its products began to kill pets; this was not a particularly good introduction to the American public.

Public Relations Tip: Menu Foods did a decent job in terms of public relations, keeping the public apprised of the situation and holding conference calls with the media. The company expressed sincere regrets and offered to make monetary amends. (As any person with an animal companion knows, however, nothing can help ease the pain of the death of a furry loved one.) The lesson here was sad and simple: Sometimes, stuff happens. All a company, and its public relations department, can do is try to react appropriately.

The only real knock I had on Menu Foods’ response is that I haven’t seen any television commercials involving the recall. The problem is so serious that I think it called for televised ads appealing for people to seek information online or directly from the company. That would have helped humanize the situation as well.

Public Relations Triumph: When I first heard about the Menu Foods recall, I rushed to check the food I serve my cat and immediately called my parents, who have two dogs and three cats. I also dashed off emails to all of my friends with pets. Luckily, most of the people I know don’t use any of the affected products, and those who did were lucky to see their animals pull through after being sick.

Despite the fact that the brands I buy — Wellness and Natural Balance — are not made by Menu Foods, I wanted to do everything I could to be sure that they were not involved in the recall. I went to each company’s website, and each stated clearly and in a prominent place that their food was safe.

Public Relations Tip: Sometimes the simplest and most obvious course of action is the smartest. By letting customers know in no uncertain terms that their products were safe, Wellness and Natural Balance kept their brand integrity in check. More so, the peace of mind they offered with their simple statements made people like me evangelical about a product that they’ve probably never even considered discussing with their friends. My parents, for example, have already switched their dry food from one of the Menu Foods brands (though dry food was not contaminated) to Wellness.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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