5 problems that are (not) PR gaffes

I watched in amusement, CNBC reporting an “on mic gaffe” by Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron. Speaking ahead of the upcoming anti-corruption summit later this week.

The Prime Minister described satirically that it had leaders from some “fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain." He mentioned Nigeria and Afghanistan being two of the most corrupt countries in the world. While the Queen’s lips were pursed, the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and Leader of the House of Commons  joked: "They are coming at their own expense one assumes?"

All of this was caught on mic.

Aside from amusing myself with a dose of humour first thing in the morning, the one thing that I was most pleased about was that CNBC did not call it “Cameron’s PR gaffe” which members of the press typically love labelling such incidents.

And so I thought of penning down 5 such instances (and there may be more) that readily come to mind which are easily labelled as PR gaffes but are most definitely not.

  • An ad offends one community and is termed racist or sexist or homophophic by the press, industry or a regulatory body

Take for instance Ford’s Berlusconi ad with three gagged girls in the boot of the then Italian Prime Minister, Silvia Berlusconi’s car; or the more recent Gap ad that was booed for allegedly using a black girl's head as a "prop” or an armrest.

Then there was Guido Barilla, the CEO of Barilla, who sparked international outrage when he said he’d never feature a gay couple in Barilla ads as he favours “traditional families”, adding, if homosexuals don’t like it, they can buy another brand. Who can forget the Dunkin Donuts Charcoal Donut ad featuring a model’s face painted black. It was seen as being “insensitive” by the US team and called “bizarre and racist” by human rights watch.

There is a lot to lose when something like this happens – potential sales drop, negative social media trolls, human rights rebuke. Social media particularly is cruel and becomes rife with responses like #EpicFail #PRfail #FacePalm, while media conveniently labels it a “major PR gaffe”.

An apology ensues and life goes back to normal, except that labelling gives PR a bad name. Instead of calling such incidents a PR gaffe, why not call it a “brand blunder”, what it really is?

  • Lawsuit that results in millions of dollars in settlements

Ok, let's look at another instance. What do you call a  lawsuit that results in millions of dollars in settlements? Most media would term it as a "PR disaster".

Why call it that when it is actually PR that plays an important role in helping companies not only manage crisis but also monitor issues and risks that could potentially damage a company’s reputation? PR is also the one function that establishes and maintains relationships between the organization and key publics on whom the success of the company depends.

So when a company is confronted by legal problems, they are really corporate lawsuits, not PR disasters. Lawsuits require more than an apologetic press release or a Facebook post. The level of trust building takes years and years of work that is beyond the scope of a PR person and needs the entire company’s commitment.

  • Security breaches that lead to account hacks and compromising user data 

Data breaches are related to products not PR. It is just that simple. PR advice to the company, get your product right. Haul up your engineering team and make sure PR apology on behalf of the company is not in vain. Your consumer will forgive you this time but not again.

  • Uncontrollable spokespeople

Then there are times when a company head says something extreme or unexpected on TV and the PR person sitting on the side cringes.Yes, words can do damage.

Tony Hayward of BP will go down the history for being the most irresponsible CEO for saying: “There is no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back,” when BP was dealing with one of its worse oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

More recently, Volkswagen’s Mathias Muller pledged “maximum transparency” only to have changed his tact and become more obstructive and evasive. Biggest PR mistake? I say it is CEO gaffes or CEO doublespeak.
(Read also: Tinder CEO's blistering interview: Is the comms lead to be blamed?

  • Wardrobe malfunctions

Oh but what do say when the CEO wears a bad shirt for his interview on TV that creates a strobe light effect now that is a BIG PR blooper as there are guidelines on what to wear on TV. Why didn’t the PR person select his wardrobe in advance?


Humour aside, PR is what comes in to diffuse a situation, so yes, all of the above are a PR person’s problem but not a "PR problem". We are more mindful of perception that the entire company put together. Especially in the internet age, PR is your best companion. Trust us.

But don’t treat us as apologists. We are tired of cutting a sorry figure. But more importantly, please don’t label all negative press as PR gaffes/ PR disasters/ PR blooper or whatever.

Call spade a spade.

The writer is a senior PR professional who has chosen to remain anonymous.

(Photo courtesy: Shutterstock)