PR Blunders and How to Avoid Them

By Tom Harnish on 29 April 2011 (Updated 13 May 2011) 2 comments
Photo: ausinasia

Many small business owners think PR means sending out a news release with carefully chosen words to promote, say, a new product. But public relations covers a broad scope of activities. Done right, PR can help build awareness of your company, products, services, technologies, people and issues. Done wrong, PR will still do the same thing, but in ways you really don't want.

The Candy Bombers

Take, for example, the 1920s German candy company that thought it would be great public relations to drop confections from a biplane. The press all over Europe exploded with articles about the stunt — predominantly complaints from people who said they'd been bombed with chocolate.

But years later, in another context, the same idea was a huge success. During the Russian Blockade of 1948-49, a major Cold War crisis, pilots flying food and fuel into isolated Berlin thrilled the city's children by dropping candy attached to little parachutes. Reported worldwide, the act of kindness had a huge positive impact on German-American relations in postwar Germany.

Why was one candy drop a PR blunder and the other an international success? The former was self-serving, the other selfless. Sure, corporate communications is about getting the word out about your company, products, services, technologies, people and issues as we've said. But a real PR success goes beyond simple communications, and says something about the values of the organization too; it's about what you offer others.

Carrying a Spork without a License

PR isn't just about getting the word out. It's also about sending a message. Take, for example, the Delaware teacher and principal who suspended an enthusiastic six-year old for bringing a Cub Scout "spork" to school — a folding spoon, knife, and fork. The school board, in the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, tried to send a message and rigidly sentenced the A-student to 45 days in reform school for violating their "zero tolerance" policy regarding "weapons". Only after the New York Times and the NBC Today show took them to task was the innocent tyke allowed back in school. Did their actions influence public relations? Oh, yeah.

You can avoid such a blunder if you keep in mind that the message received is the message sent. Regardless of your intent, your relations with the public are the result of how they perceive what you said — and how you said it. Handled differently, with careful thought about the message they were really sending, the school district could have sent a very positive message to their audience and influencers. And the little boy, who said, "...there's something wrong with the law not me..." would have learned a much more beneficial lesson at school.

Airline Mangles Public Image

And then there's the famous case, a guitar case actually, that was thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers causing $1,900 damage to Dave Carroll's $3,500 Taylor guitar. Missing an opportunity for good PR, United initially refused to pay for the damage. Understanding the power of PR, Carroll and his country band, Sons of Maxwell, created a YouTube video that was viewed three million times in the first week. Apparently it struck a chord with United, who eventually agreed to pay for the damage.

In a further demonstration of good PR, Carroll asked United to donate the money to a charity. United’s response? Unbelievably, they lost Carroll's baggage while he was traveling to deliver a speech…you guessed it…about customer service.

But the PR award in this episode goes to Taylor Guitars, who invited Carroll to their factory and presented him with a new guitar to replace the one United's baggage handlers mangled.

How could United have avoided the blunder? The same way you can, with old school public relations: care about your customers.

Above all, remember that PR, good and bad, is sticky. Taylor is still a hero and United is still the goat, three years and 10,282,619 YouTube views later.

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Whoever wrote this put 'pubic' relations in the first paragraph...

Lynn Truong's picture

Thanks for the heads up! (It's been fixed.)