PR Disaster of the Year: The website that derailed a popular President

As the year winds down, we turn to things that really matter. I’m talking, of course, about the 2013 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year.

Once again, we have an abundance of worthy candidates, including:

  • Carnival Cruise‘s stunning string of misadventures on the high seas disastrously amplified by PR pratfalls–e.g., Carnival’s CEO sighted at a Miami Heat basketball game while being unavailable for comment about the overflowing toilets 4,000 of his customers were enduring aboard a crippled cruise ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Paula Deen — for her clumsy video apologies, Today Show no-show, and overall lack of self-awareness in the wake of criticism about her racist comments from years ago. I mean, even if you have fantasized about having black servers at a wedding to give it that classic Southern ambiance, don’t answer “Yes, of course” in a deposition when asked if you have ever used the N-word. 
  • The return of Pink Slime, last year’s “winner.” 
  • The whole Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, especially the way it “ended”–the team rallying behind thuggish anti-hero Richie Incognito and disparaging his victim for “quitting on the team.” We haven’t heard the last of this…

Obamacarewebsite downBut standing out in terms of staying power and sheer volume of coverage was the launch of (aka, the Obamacare website). This one had everything:

  • The website itself clearly was not ready for prime time when it was launched. Warnings from developers were not heeded. A delay would have been embarrassing, but not as damaging as what actually happened…
  • The website crashed right at the onset, prompting the White House to try to make lemonade from the lemons by insisting that this just proved how popular Obamacare was proving to be.
  • Lots of finger-pointing.
  • The spectacle of the President losing his mojo. A press corps that had been supportive (substitute  ”fawning” here if you like) turned on him… His approval numbers tanked…Even Democrats in Congress disavowed their allegiance to the President’s signature achievement.
  • It took way too long to get the website up and running (aptly called a “slow-motion train wreck” here).
  • It provided endless fodder for the late-night comics. When Jon Stewart starts ridiculing a Democratic president, you know things are going badly.
  • Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius broke a cardinal rule from media training by repeating a damning word in a question posed to her during a Congressional grilling. Said she: “Hold me accountable for this debacle.” (But things were so bad at this point, her quote hardly raised an eyebrow.)
  • The President’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” promise turns out to be false for millions of Americans, prompting a series of clumsy explanations and one half-hearted apology. While technically not part of the website debacle, the President’s untruth became a firestorm of its own largely because the press corps pounced on it–the promise originated at a time when the White House counted on the media to give the President the benefit of every doubt. That’s a dangerous assumption, as any media trainer can tell you.

Here’s to the new year and whatever it will bring. One thing’s for sure:  even some who should know better will stumble at just the wrong time, turning an embarrassing moment into a full-blown disaster.

Lessons from Miami: Ugly, hateful bullying is just wrong. Why is there still any debate?

Dolphins' Incognito and MartinThe reputational morass that is the Miami Dolphins’ workplace harassment scandal took several more turns for the worse when… Jonathan Martin alleged that not only had he endured grotesque and racist threats and other abuse from teammate Richie Incognito but also a “vicious physical attack” from an as-yet-unnamed teammate… reports surfaced that the Dolphins coaching staff allegedly told Incognito (someone with quite a well-earned reputation over the years for dirty play, thuggery and a short, wicked temper) to “toughen up” Martin… a story gained traction that the Dolphin’s General Manager had responded to Martin’s attorney (who had complained of the abuse Martin was enduring) that the player should “punch” Incognito as a way of standing up to the bully… and numerous Dolphins spoke out publicly in defense of Incognito, which speaks volumes for the sorry state of the Dolphins culture accepting depraved bullying and intimidation as normal behavior.

And with other players and commentators from around the league blaming Martin for taking the abuse  and echoing the sentiment that this type of behavior is just what goes on in NFL locker rooms, it is clear that the League needs to act swiftly and boldly, making it absolutely clear that it has zero tolerance for behaviors that anywhere else would be universally understood as the very definition of a hostile workplace.

*   *   *

In a seemingly unrelated matter, the long-suffering Chicago Cubs baseball team introduced Rick Reneteria as the club’s new manager. Perhaps Renteria will help end the fabled curse haunting the club; perhaps he will be yet another Cubs failure. But what we do know is he was chosen for the role not only for his knowledge of the game but for his leadership skills. According to the Chicago TribuneCubs President Theo Epstein raved about Renteria’s baseball intellect, his communication skills and his reputation. “Communication skills” refers not only to the fact that Renteria is bilingual (important as the club has several young, talented Latin players who need careful development and nurturing) but that he speaks clearly and directly. He is especially big on “accountability” and every player on the club will understand the concept soon enough.

What are the lessons from all this that transcend the sports world?

Leaders lead. They make it clear what their values are; they live by them and they make sure their people live by them, too. They don’t delegate to subordinates with poor judgment and uncontrollable tempers the discipline or development of others. Leaders make themselves clearly understood. They know actions speak louder than words, but that words matter, too.

Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins have emerged as the number one contender…for the not-so-coveted 2013 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year.

Pink slime oozes way to PR Disaster of Year

The 2012 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year goes to “lean finely textured beef.”

Huh? Never heard of it? Perhaps this meat product’s nickname rings a bell: “Pink slime.”

You know you have a crisis on your hands when you’ve so lost control of the very identity of your product that it has become infamous under a grotesquely graphic descriptive term served up by opposition groups.

Lessons learned begin with giving your brand a credible name. While a product or brand name should have positive connotations, if it’s too big a stretch from an unbiased description, it will beg to be forever known by a less-flattering nickname. (That’s how “Obamacare” became the defacto name for “The Affordable Health Care Act.”)

Of course, it doesn’t help when your product has a hideous appreance.

The clincher came when ABC News in March ran an investigative series reporting that the “cheap meat filler pink slime” treated with ammonia was used in more than 70% of the ground beef sold in the U.S. Public disgust and outrage led to supermarket chains and restaurants dropping meats with the filler, all but killing human demand for the meat product.

Manufacturers of “lean finely textured beef” tried to make the case that there was nothing wrong with the meat product, but their voices were hard to hear above the clamor condemning pink slime.

A $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit filed against ABC News by Beef Products, Inc. accuses the TV network of making “false and misleading” statements that “caused consumers to believe that our lean beef is not beef at all – that it’s an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption, and that somehow it got hidden in the meat.” Yep, that’s pretty much exactly what ABC News reported day after day last March.



If even Joe Pa couldn’t resist pressure to cover up an ugly scandal, are we sure we would have done better?

Covering up a problem always makes it worse. It’s axiomatic in crisis management. And yet even the strong and the brave succomb to the pressure to keep the ugly hidden.

Such a sad reminder of this today in not-so Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, where Penn State continues to feel the repercussions of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up that allowed his preditory behavior to continue for so long.


Yesterday, the university did the previously unthinkable in removing the seven-foot bronze statue to beloved coach Joe Paterno and the surrounding memorial, calling it “an obstacle to healing.” Gone too are the plaques detailing his many winning seasons. And now we can’t even describe Paterno as the winningest coach in college football history, as the NCAA today vacated all PSU football victories from 1998 to 2011. According to US News and World Report, the NCAA found that Paterno and other university officials “had concealed allegations of Sandusky’s actions, and concluded their motive was to protect the football program and the school from negative publicity.”

The NCAA sanctions will all but shut down Penn State’s football program, which has been so much a part of the university’s identity. So now a new leadership team at PSU will begin the long, hard process to restore trust and build a new identity stressing excellence apart from football. Meanwhile, litigation from the abuse victims will drag on, a continuing reminder of the ignomy of scandal and cover-up. One can only imagine how many victims of abuse might have been spared if Paterno and the others had acted swiftly against Sandusky–if they had stood up and said “No more,” and let the sun shine on the ugly problem no matter the immediate consequences. It would have taken courage and leadership, qualities Paterno seemed to have in abundance.

All of which underscores how hard it is to do the right thing when confronted with credible evidence of wrong-doing in the organizations we represent and believe in. We must redouble our commitment to get after the truth quickly and push back against the inevitable pressures to just keep it all quiet.

- Jon Harmon


How can Facebook and JP Morgan win back your trust?

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Facebook launched perhaps the most anticipated IPO ever and instead of the moonshot many expected, it fizzled like a rocket from North Korea–and has since completely imploded. First, Facebook executives made a decision shortly before the IPO launched to increase the number of shares floated, greatly increasing the odds that demand wouldn’t keep up and the share price would fall. Then, the big day came. The stock price initially went up by about 10 percent, as individual investors finally got their chance to buy a piece of the dream, but within hours the share price was plummeting. As Facebook stock continued to sink on its second and third day, allegations arose that Facebook insiders (and execs at Morgan Stanley, the underwriter of the IPO) had revised revenues projections downward but didn’t inform the market at large. Now the SEC is investigating and the inevitable investor lawsuits have been filed. The prospect of a protracted legal battle has become a thick cloud hanging over Facebook the Stock, a discouraging prospects that will continue to dampen enthusiasm in the investment for some time to come.

Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan has become the poster child for a new chant from the Occupy Wall Street crowd: “We told you so.” Just when you thought the Big Banks had been chastened by the near collapse of the world financial markets followed by massive bailouts of those deemed “too big to fail,” JPM announces a multi-billion-dollar loss from speculative trades in risky derivatives, the same stupidity that led to the financial meltdown in the first place. The so called “London Whale” trades undermined JPM CEO Jamie Dimon’s case that banks should be freed from Dodd-Frank regulations enacted following the bank bailouts. Dimon went from the financial industry’s most persuasive advocate to being perceived as the very embodiment of the “Bankster” the Occupy crowds would like to burn at the stake.

So what can Facebook and Morgan do to win back your trust? That’s the subject for my next few posts. Your ideas welcome!

-Jon Harmon

Goldman won’t regain public trust with Wall of Secrecy

What do companies need to do and say to win back pubic trust?

Jordan Kimmel of Trust Across America posed that question to me this week on his radio program on Voice America. Here’s the link to listen to the interview.

Jordan asked me about winning back trust after a crisis and about my experience in the Ford-Firestone mess that is the basis for my book, FEEDING FRENZY. And we talked about the turmoil inside Goldman Sachs after former executive Greg Smith took quite a public parting shot in the form of an op-ed in the New York Times. (Smith’s piece has since led to a global torrent of negative press and opinion against Goldman and its brand of “pirate capitalism.”)

Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein

I pointed out that the heart of Smith’s accusations against Goldman’s corporate culture is the violation of customer trust, of putting profit ahead of customer interest. But even worse, I noted, is a bigger cloud hanging over Goldman, the violation of public trust. It’s now clear that Goldman played a key role in the financial crisis that precipitated the global Great Recession, especially in regard to the clever packaging of derivatives built around shaky subprime mortgage disguised as AAA-rated investments.

The American public is incredibly forgiving when the leaders of an organization express remorse and a sincere commitment to change behavior for the better. But contriteness is not the message coming out of Goldman.

Furthermore, in today’s world, transparency is an essential element of corporate social responsibility. Goldman’s corporate culture is built on impenetrable secrecy. And there’s little reason to expect the curtain to be lifted any time soon.

It’s only March, but put Goldman Sachs down as an early contender for Force for Good’s 2012 PR Disaster of the Year.

- Jon Harmon

Silence worsened sordid Penn State scandal–2011 PR Disaster of the Year

The real tragedy of the scandal at Penn State is that so many of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged acts of predatory sexual abuse over the years could have been prevented if university officials had not tried to keep it quiet. Hoping to avoid an ugly incident, their silence led to arguably the worst scandal in American sports history … and made for an easy choice for the Force for Good’s 2011 PR Disaster of the Year.


Time and again, the lasting impact of a crisis is made worse by those first on the scene hoping to sweep it under the rug. How many times have you you heard, “The coverup was worse than the crime?”

Bold prediction: this won’t be the last time a scandal is made far worse by embarrassed officials trying to make it all go away. Don’t let it happen at your company. Work with senior leadership to develop a rigorous crisis management plan built around smart, proactive crisis communications to all stakeholders.

Click here for five years of truly memorable recipients of FFG’s PR Disaster of the Year.

- Jon Harmon

New candidates step forward … for PR Disaster of the Year

The last few weeks have brought us a rush of new, worthy candidates—for Force for Good’s annual PR Disaster of the Year award.


follow site source Herman Cain—no matter what you believe at this point, it is clear that the Cain campaign has been clueless in handling a crisis they should have seen coming. With 10 day’s notice before the publication by Politico October 31 of the first allegations, how could Cain be caught flat-footed and ill-prepared? The steady drip, drip, drip of new accusations (we’ve seen this movie before, twice: It’s Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner, all over again) makes it clear this story isn’t going away and Cain’s various responses—angrily lashing out at reporters, trying desperately to change the subject, defiantly attacking one of his accusers as a “troubled woman,” are all wrong, wrong, wrong.


source url Penn State—the sad, sordid tale of sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky should have ended in 1996 when Sandusky was first caught showering with a boy; police were notified but no charges filed. Or in 2002 when a graduate assistant coach walked in on Sandusky in the shower with a boy, he told head coach Joe Paterno who reported the charges up to the Administration but didn’t notify police, confront Sandusky or otherwise follow through on his obligations to the community to stop a predator. Yesterday, university officials abruptly cancelled Paterno’s weekly press conference, only adding to the uproar. Today, the 84-year-old Paterno announced he will retire at the end of the year, surprising no one. The real tragedy is that so many at the university remained silent while Sandusky continued to molest at least eight boys.


Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who in a quieter year might be running away with the award. With rioters in the streets of Athens a daily event protesting austerity measures that will end the gravy train for a coddled public in an IOU economy, Papandreou surprised his fellow leaders in the Eurozone by saying he would put Greek’s last-chance bailout up for referendum. Hmmmm, seems like all those riots would give one pause before putting further-but-necessary austerity moves up for public referendum. Then, when Germany, France and the rest of the Eurozone made it obvious that their generous deal would be rescinded, Papandreou did an about-face and cancelled the referendum–nothing like promising a vote to a riotous public and the reneging, throwing gasoline on the fire. Papandreou was forced to resign to be replaced by … no one yet. This being Greece, a new coalition government has yet to be formed amid more squabbling.

These newbies to PR disaster join entrenched candidates Wiener (who exposed himself as a liar), Lindsey Lohan (can’t seem to stay out of trouble), Dominiquec Strauss-Kahn and his accuser (he is at best a lech accused of much worse, but her story fell apart and he returned to France where he will apparently not be President), and the Boston Red Sox / Atlanta Braves (historic chokes by both teams–okay not so much a communications issue, but disasters nontheless).

Jon Harmon

Social media backlash spurs BoA to reverse course on debit card fee


A furious social media backlash helped convince Bank of America to reverse its unpopular decision to charge customers a monthly fee for using their debit cards.

The anti-Big Bank sentiment that is driving the Occupy Wall Street protests accentuated the consumer hue and cry, and BoA CEO’s tone-deaf comments provided plenty of opportunity for derision.

“We have a right to make a profit,” CEO Brian Moynihan, said infamously. While a perfectly reasonable statement in normal times, these are hardly normal times and the comment struck a discordant note with those hurt by the Great Recession. BoA received a taxpayer bailout to the tune of $45 billion, plus a “loan-loss back-stop” of $97 billion, according to CNN. Home-owners with upside-down mortgages and unemployed/underemployed workers haven’t been as fortunate and quite predictably were put off by Moynihan’s line.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Rosenthal:

“The ‘right to make a profit’ comment triggered a great deal of negative sentiment,” wrote James Purchase of Attensity (a company selling social media analytic software). On-line comments mimicked Moynihan, “‘I have the right to bank elsewhere,’ and ‘Yes, but no more than I have the right to a job.’ The most negative sentiment was around ‘excessive profits,’ ‘high fees’ and ‘bailout.’”

BoA’s experience is a cautionary tale for business failing to keep abreast of consumer sentiment being expressed in social media. You can learn a lot by listening. And if what you’re hearing sounds severely at odds with a climate conducive to a business decision you’re about to make, it’s time to revisit the decision.

BTW – BoA’s stock dropped when it announced the new debit card fees (investors apparently being more in tune with public sentiment than Moynihan and company), it fell again when Moynihan dug in his heals, and it further sank yesterday when the company rescinded the decision (losing more than the overall market on a very down day). The BoA incident is in line to receive serious consideration for Force for Good’s 2011 PR Disaster of the Year.

- Jon Harmon

Oily BP CEO wraps up FFG “PR Disaster of the Year”

Might as well declare a winner right now for the 2010 Force for Good’s PR Disaster of the Year: no matter what crazy things happen the rest of the year, I can’t see anyone or anything topping BP and its erstwhile leader, CEO Tony “Ironhead” Hayward.


Here’s  a quick recap on how Hayward clinched the award (never before declared before December):

  • Just three weeks into the debacle (more than a month ago), whined about wanting to get “his life back.” Note to CEOs going through a crisis of historic proportions: This is your life. Get used to it!
  • In an botched attempt at showing empathy, expressed his deep feelings for the “small people” affected by his gigantic oil spill. That gaffe led to Hayward’s being relieved of his managerial duties.
  • Came across as clueless, defensive and not at all transparent in Congressional hearings. Tony, that was just the warm-up act. Now that they see that you make good theater, you’re sure to be “invited” back for follow up hearings (and don’t expect any more apologies from friendly Congressman).
  • With the well still spewing tons of oil into the Gulf, Congress feeling unsatisfied with his testimony and Gulf state citizens in a rage, Hayward took time off to jet back to participate in a yacht race in the U.K. Bad form, Tony.

I don’t see how any chief executive can ride out such a devastating string of incredibly stupid moves. Oh, and BTW, BP stock has lost half its value since the crisis began, costing pensioners and other investors tens of billions of dollars.

Do us all a favour, Tony; it’s high time to resign.


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