How to Avoid Epic PR Blunders in 2014

by Tunheim on January 3, 2014

by Noelle Hawton

As 2013 comes to a close, we reflect on the PR crisis headlines that challenged our faith in what many would have described 12 months ago as venerable brands – Target, Paula Deen, Lululemon, and of all things, SpaghettiOs.  Each offers a lesson we can use to create resolutions in the New Year to avoid the same fate.

Target’s Data Nightmare

The most recent – and ongoing – high profile crisis is the fraud perpetrated within the Target in-store point of sale system.  The story was broken by a security blogger, rather than the store itself. And, once the story made headlines with only seven shopping days left before Christmas, it took 24 hours for Target to comment.  The delay left 40 million card holders wondering if the company was more concerned with protecting itself than its customers.

The lesson for communications professionals:  Always counsel that the company makes some sort of statement, even if all the facts are unknown.  The company’s reputation will be bolstered by appearing to be engaged, concerned and actively investigating the facts rather than flat-footed.

Paula Deen’s Word Choice Controversy

Who can forget the spectacle that was Paula Deen’s fall from grace?  While her use of the N-word was a story that was bound for sensationalistic headlines, her handlers could have drastically cut the story’s legs by having Deen go on for her scheduled interview with the Today Show to confidently discuss the issue and then move on.

The lesson for communications professionals:  Face the music with transparency and humility.  You’ll nip detractors in the bud, or at least shorten the story arch.

Lululemon Yoga Pants Debacle

Lululemon was already facing a PR nightmare from the recall of too-sheer yoga pants when the company’s founder added to the fire by blaming the product’s failure on the overweight women who wore them.  In the founder’s “apology,” he missed the opportunity to make things right with his passionate customers, talking instead about his regret that his employees were taking the brunt of the backlash.

The lesson for communications professionals:  The perspective should never be about the spokesperson or the company – it’s always about the consumer.

SpaghettiO’s Remembers Pearl Harbor

Communications professionals know that something always can go wrong within an organization.  What typically ensues is lots of long hours as the team works to shore up the organization’s reputation, be responsive to customer concerns and get back to normal as soon as possible.  But when the crisis du jour is of the communications team’s own making?  Maddeningly avoidable.  The rate of self-injury has risen exponentially with social media, and widespread reliance on early-in-their-career, inexperienced professionals to carry the brand voice within these channels.  There are many examples of this, but one that comes to mind is SpaghettiOs’ invitation to remember Pearl Harbor.

The lesson for communications professionals:  Create a system of checks and balances for all outgoing content.  Just because a tweet is brief doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have at least two sets of eyes to ensure it’s appropriate and brand-right.

Check out more Tunheim insights here.

Noelle Hawton is a Senior Vice President at Tunheim and leads the agency’s Corporate Communications as well as Retail practice areas.  She can be reached at

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