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  Healthcare.gov (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.

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