The Year in PR Losers

Each year brings us a new batch of public relations losers, and this year we have some good ones. We’ll look at the winners next week.

University of Colorado: A sexual assault scandal involving the football team and the deaths of three students on campus highlighted a year of bad PR for the school. Colorado’s problems only became worse when President Elizabeth Hoffman got academic by saying a certain word – much too filthy to print here – was a “term of endearment,” not the obvious insult that every woman knows it is. The world of big-bucks college sports and academia collided head-on with the real world, and Colorado came away looking like a wide-eyed freshman at a frat party.

Fleishman-Hillard: The PR giant found itself in scandal-central for purportedly overbilling the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Surprisingly, the firm still hasn’t found a way to spin itself out of the bad news and has racked up reams of bad ink all year.

The U.S. Military: The fine men and women of the U.S. military were scarred by bad apples (prison abuse), poor leadership (take your pick) and a short supply of, well, everything. Unfortunately for our brave soldiers, the buck never stopped, and as a result, recruiting became difficult, and the National Guard became a standing army. I know my cousin Michael, on active duty now for two years, would like to go home.

National Basketball Association: If the Kobe Bryant scandal wasn’t bad enough to land the NBA on the list, the November brawl between fans and players in Detroit cemented the league’s place. The league acted swiftly in handing down proper punishment, but the big problem remains an organization bent on making millions off the backs of mostly uneducated young men. The league would be wise to devise a continuing education plan for its players, so that if a kid blows out his knee, or finds himself suspended for 35 games, he has something to fall back on. A minimum age requirement would go a long way in solving some of the NBA’s problems.

Merck: The pharma-company’s withdrawal of Vioxx from the market has caused the loss of billions of dollars of value for the company, launched enough class action lawsuits to keep lawyers billing for a decade, and, worst of all, caused the public and media to question whether the company endangered people’s lives. Can it get any worse than this? Probably.

Bloggers: They spent all year proving themselves viable and then went out and blew it by publishing questionable exit poll data on Election Day. These guys will end up in the winners column also, but you have to wonder if the media and public’s fascination with blogging has now worn off. Remember when Friendster and Napster got all that great ink?

Major League Baseball: Following the Boston Red Sox’s stunning post-season, MLB was looking good. And then the steroid scandal came full-circle. When you have the government pushing for reform in sports, you’ve got a problem. Just wait until someone threatens baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

Husbands: Scott Peterson and Mark Hacking gave husbands a bad rap this year, and they will, thankfully, both pay the price.

Democratic Party: John Kerry’s loss and Tom Daschle’s ouster capped off another year of do-nothing politics from America’s other political party. Lacking a clear vision, message and leader, the Democratic Party is little more than a well-financed opposition party at this point.

Conservative Media: From pill-poppers to phone sex addicts, the conservative media is filled with sparkling personalities. While Bill O’Reilly claims he is innocent, a fat payday for his accuser brings up a lot of questions. Rush Limbaugh inhabits a world where it’s OK to be a drug addict – as long as you’re a rich white man. And if you work for Fox News Channel, your PR strategy involves blacklisting journalists, and your editorial qualifications include fabricating quotes.

The Media: While the “conservative media” had its problems, the rest of the media didn’t fare much better. Whether it was John Stewart (who had a PR fall from grace of his own) lambasting the “Crossfire” crew, circulation scandals at newspapers, or pretty much anything else you find on Romenesko, the media had a field day attacking itself, and rightfully so. All the news fit to print has certainly become an ambiguous statement.

National Hockey League: What if you had a players strike, and no one outside of Canada cared? “What if” turned into reality this fall, and the NHL has dealt itself a potentially deadly blow as a result.

Whoopi Goldberg: The mouth that roared got fired by Slim Fast after she made a rather unsavory gesture towards and remark about President Bush at a Democratic fundraiser. No word on whether Whoopi got the jokes from that fat guy with the goofy glasses on Hollywood Squares.

Insurance Industry: Don’t mess with Eliot Spitzer. After taking down the mutual fund industry, New York’s Attorney General launched a stunningly swift and devastating assault on the insurance industry. You best hope you’re not next on Spitzer’s list.

Consumer Favorites: High-fliers Krispy Kreme and Netflix found themselves in the spotlight this year as their stock prices eroded everyday, and the wheels fell off the respective brands. The companies serve to remind us that even when you’re at the top, you’re not far from the bottom.

Federal Communications Commission: The FCC worked its magic with the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident then found itself in the spotlight with Howard Stern constantly attacking the agency. Worse than that, almost every FCC complaint we hear about is generated from one special interest group. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, to his credit, has weathered an almost four-year storm and plans to suck it up and stay on the job. But when the media ownership question rears its head again, you can bet the FCC will be begging for some good ink.

The Radio Industry: Howard Stern’s jump to satellite radio and the move of respected industry veteran Mel Karmazin to the same company put the terrestrial radio industry in the spotlight. A profits-over-product mentality has led people to tune out, which has led to falling profits and stock prices. How can you ruin a monopoly? Just ask Clear Channel.

Liberals & Evangelicals: Liberals hate God, and Evangelicals hate everyone but other Evangelicals. Well, that’s what we’re told. The red state vs. blue state thing was bound to happen sooner or later, but at the end of the day, everyone wants to be happy, safe, healthy and financially-secure. Sounds like we have more in common with each other than the media would have us believe. Of course, the bad PR both sides received just served to widen the “divide.”

Kentucky Fried Chicken: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ campaign against KFC continued this year, as the animal rights organization accuses the chicken king of “live scalding,” “painful debeaking” and “crippled chickens.” This probably hasn’t done much to deter KFC sales, but PETA’s campaigns go on forever, and the amount of bad press generated by them certainly doesn’t help anyone stomach the situation better.

Russia: Terrorist attacks claimed over 400 lives, including many children, and video of said attacks was broadcast around the world. Vladimir Putin’s meddling in the Ukraine situation, and his attack on the Russian energy oligarchy, have rattled the markets and led many to believe that the Kremlin is in the midst of consolidating its control over the Russian economy. With Russia removed as a global power, and its sphere of influence dissolved, Putin is doing everything he can to pump steroids into the Mother Russia bear. Sooner or later, something will backfire, and Putin will find himself looking for friends because he made great strides in making enemies this year.

The Jackson Family: Janet’s breast and Michael’s porn bookended the year’s entertainment news. Where are Jermaine and Latoya when you need them?

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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