Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Time once again to take a couple of minutes and enjoy the wacky world of public relations blunders, bloopers and boners.
Because there are always so many examples to choose from, a Dishonorable Mention category seems appropriate, notably: power going out at the Super Bowl in New Orleans (Really? After Katrina no one thought about backup generators?); Maker's Mark announcing its plans to dilute its whiskey (nice work alienating customers, because who doesn't want to drink watered-down hooch?); the woman who hid under her desk to avoid a TV reporter; Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend and a Canadian mayor's crack-laced meltdown. All great, but not Sponge-worthy. Our Top 10 PR Blunders of 2013:
10. How not to gin up a rivalry
Michael Schmitt, a Jasper, Tenn., assistant football coach at Marion County High School was arrested and charged with vandalism after it was alleged that he was responsible for vandalism of his own school's athletic facilities. Fierce rivals Marion County and South Pittsburg met on Nov. 1 for their football game but that day school officials found orange and black spray paint -- South Pittsburg's school colors -- was used for filthy graffiti aimed at the Marion coaches and players on several buildings (among other acts). South Pittsburg's logo was also painted to make it look like Pirates fans were behind the deed. Investigators found enough evidence to arrest Schmitt, who believe the coach attempted to inspire his team for the game. It lost anyway, 35-17.
9. Lance Armstrong's apology makes it even worse
The self-admitted cheater spent years vilifying anyone who dared to claim that he was doping during his unprecedented Tour de France run. Being cornered with evidence and expulsion from the sport finally forced Armstrong to come clean in an Oprah Winfrey interview. In it, he showed little remorse, barely choking up a microscopic "I'm sorry." Author John Kador wrote, "an effective apology means giving up your argument with history." Lance's grip on his history was still holding on to dear life at that point, and it made him seem even more unlikeable.
8. TV news team airs obviously fake pilot names during crash coverage
Asiana Flight 214 goes down at San Francisco International Airport and the local TV stations are all over the breaking news. KTUV, however, was a little too careless with its graphics, when it aired the names of the pilots as Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow. The station said it had confirmed the names with the National Transportation Safety Board, but it was later discovered the confirmation came from an NTSB intern. A spectacular prank, but really, how in the world do the broadcast's producers not catch this? Not even the Chyron tech? Anybody?
7. Civil War in the House of Cheney
Liz Cheney, a GOP candidate for the senate in Wyoming, got into a war of words with her sister over her stated opposition to same-sex marriage. Mary Cheney, married to her longtime partner Heather Poe, flatly said, "For the record, I love my sister. But she is dead wrong on the marriage issue." Adding, Liz "is on the wrong side of history." Heather got into the act too, firing off a few chosen words on Facebook: "Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 - she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive to say the least." Cheney's father, Dick, has kept pretty mum on the dust-up, though in the past has publicly supported Mary's right to be married to whomever she chooses.
6. Rand Paul's proclivity for plagiarism
The junior senator from Kentucky was exposed several times using text from sources without a whiff of proper citation, which made him look not only disingenuous, but intellectually lazy. The lapse in judgment cost him his regular column in the Washington Times. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow busted him first, when his description of the plot of Gattaca was lifted from the film's Wikipedia page. Then, the piling on began. Buzzfeed reported he did the same in a 2012 speech about the film Stand and Deliver and Politico charged Paul's response to President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Speech used part of a 2011 Associated Press report. Buzzfeed also wrote that three pages of a recent book by Paul "borrowed heavily" from a 2003 Heritage Foundation study. Michael Blatt, in the Hill, wrote, Paul's "pathetic excuses for plagiarizing content in his speeches and book show that either he has no shame, or he has no concept of what plagiarism is and why it is wrong." See, Senator? Proper attribution ain't that hard.
5. The spy who didn't love his day job
The Environmental Protection Agency is filled with dedicated people who labor to keep our air and water clean. Then there is John C. Beale. He was a climate expert and reportedly the highest-paid staffer at EPA. But as NBC's Michael Isikoff reported, he was someone not too interested in actually doing his job. For months at a time, Beale would disappear from the office doing no work at all, while collecting a full paycheck. Here's the kicker: He explained his absences by telling his bosses that he actually was an operative for the CIA, doing intelligence work either in Pakistan or at the HQ in Langley. Funny thing though, it was completely false... and they bought it! When he was sentenced to 32 months for fraud, Beale admitted that lying about his spying was "a rush." Yep, just like James Bond.
4. If it quacks like a...
Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson was suspended from the A&E reality series after going on a homophobic rant in GQ where he equated homosexuality to bestiality. "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there," he said. "Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men." Robertson also was happy to offer where he prefers to park his quacker: "It seems like, to me, a vagina - as a man - would be more desirable than a man's anus." OK, TMI. But here's what I'd like to know: Why was the show's publicist absent from an interview with talent that has a reputation for being a loose cannon?
3. A glitchy website = the downfall of civilization
Well, the federal government had many months to work on Healthcare.gov and ensure it was ready to go for its Oct. 1 launch. But in the days preceding lift off, stories of problems began to surface. By Oct. 3, the Obama administration found itself knee-deep in controversy over the site, with the muck steadily rising. Questions swirled around the contractors who were selected to build it; some suggested the site's problems underscore flawed federal IT policies. Microsoft's Kurt DelBene was brought in to right the ship. Naturally, Republicans pounced, claiming the flop of the website meant the entire Affordable Care Act was also a failure, and feigned concern over people who were being kicked off their previous coverage or couldn't get on the site in the first place. Yeah, crocodile tears. It didn't help that the president repeatedly claimed, "If you like your insurance plan, you will keep it" which as it turns out, wasn't exactly factual. By press time, the site has been working much more smoothly and generally, the state exchange sites have had few problems. So let's all take a deep breath, people. We didn't attack the wrong country looking for WMDs here or left Americans to die amidst a natural disaster. Embarrassing yes, but not a national tragedy.
2. Ted Cruz and the GOP try to drive the nation's economy off the cliff
In its naked hatred for the ACA, the Republican Party collectively went insane and tried to force the law's repeal by refusing to vote on the debt ceiling (which would continue the funding of the federal government). It was an embarrassing spectacle, to say the least. Tea Party demagogue Ted Cruz, also known as the junior senator from Texas, stood up on the floor of the senate and began talking with a vow to "speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand." He didn't stop rambling for 21 hours, the highlight being his reading of Green Eggs and Ham -- ironic, because the story is about a guy who refuses to try something and then when he finally does, actually loves it (which has always been Republicans' fear of the ACA). The shutdown was a monumental failure for the GOP. The president and the Democrats finally stood up to the bullies on the other side of the aisle and forced the obstructers to blink and vote to open the government back up. What did Republicans get for their efforts? Apparently, zilch -- except a ton of bad press. So, way to go, guys!
1. A lesson in how quickly social media carelessness can kill a career
If you define "blunder" as an un-forced, self-committed error, then former IAC PR exec Justine Sacco's photo surely accompanies its listing. A racist tweet zipped off before she boarded a plane from London to South Africa was all it took to cause a social media firestorm and her sacking by her employer. It was a thoughtless and stupid thing to do, which makes this incident all the more puzzling. A PR executive should know better, period. Sacco's desire to be snarky outweighed her better judgment. Part of her self-description on Twitter account read "Troublemaker on the side" which looking back on it now seems like an alarm for trouble ahead. To her credit, her apology was swift, seemingly sincere and hopefully the first step toward her personal and professional redemption. I wish her the best of luck with that.
Happy New Year, everyone! Let's be careful out there.