The PR Guru

December 31, 2010

PR Gaffes of the Year 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardswancott @ 4:52 pm

Well it’s been another great year for PR gaffes. Here’s our rundown on 2010’s highlights.

They say you should start the year as you mean to go on and David Cameron starts our January list with his first gaffe of the year…. The first of many!

Politicians are known for changing their views all of a sudden and doing the opposite of what they pledged to do.

Alistair Darling claimed that the Tory plan to give tax cuts to married couples would cost £4.9bn a year. However, he was costing a plan that was never actually adopted as party policy. Cameron actually said that the transferable allowance plan was not part of their policies. Then, when he was pressed about this in an interview with the BBC, he appeared to downgrade this from a commitment to an aspiration.

The second gaffe was made by Liverpool Football Club Director Tom Hicks Jr, who resigned from the board after sending an obscene email to a supporter.

The supporter had contacted Hicks regarding the state of the club and their finances. He received a reply which called him an “idiot” and in a subsequent e-mail said, “Blow me f*** face. Go to Hell. I’m sick of you”.

Hicks later said, “I apologise for my mistake and I am very sorry for my harmful words.”

One of the most embarrassing gaffes, and therefore the winner of the Gaffe of the Month award, was made by the man responsible for publicising Apprentice semi-finalist James Max. The publicist accidentally pressed CC rather than blind CC on an email offering the media an opportunity to interview the TV personality. It claimed Max was able to comment on all sorts of issues – from technology to fashion and finance.

All the media contacts it was sent to had a field day with this, sending messages to each other and marking an end to any positive publicity Max may have received.
An accident, yes… but a gaffe nevertheless!

Our first February blunder was also one of the most original ideas of the year. The live EastEnders episode, which had its fair share of gaffes, included one that outraged the police.

During the episode, the police chatted to locals about a murder case, took bribes and chased the suspect on to a roof before he fell.

An Inspector said: “Viewers will think this is how detectives operate. This is damaging to our profession.”

Which leads me on to our next gaffe, again potentially damaging a profession. Fans of a restaurant chain who were trying to give the company more business ended up embarrassing everyone who worked there.

The Grill’d burger restaurant chain in Australia decided to advertise by placing a discount offer in a printed university newspaper. This campaign went wrong when fans shared the discount to each other in electronic format.

Customers who flocked to the restaurants with a printout of the scans were refused the buy-one-get-one-free offer because they didn’t bring the original newspaper.

And finally, the gaffe that affects people all over the world, and therefore this month’s winner, has to be the Gmail Buzz error, where users were giving their contact lists and email addresses to Friendster without realizing it.

Google responded quickly to the criticism by making small changes to Buzz but it came too late and the media were already reporting the breach of the Data Protection Act.

So, the motto this month seems to be, always make sure that your company double-checks everything before it is subject to an embarrassing gaffe.

March brought yet more slip-ups, starting with a controversial gaffe is by Eversheds who made legal professionals laugh this month when they emphasised that working at a magic circle firm appears to give partners the right to charge higher fees – clearly an attempt to try and get more customers for themselves.

Comments on the blog said it makes Eversheds look silly (“This is just a PR gaffe”) and was nothing more than an attempt to show that they are better than their competitors.

This is probably the case but during the recession they may have a point.

Another gaffe was made by Barack Obama’s vice-president. As Obama was about to sign reforms to America’s healthcare system, the vice-president said, “This is a big f*****g deal!” The aside may have been meant for Obama’s ears alone but it was picked up the microphone on the podium and broadcast to the watching television audience of millions.

The well-known company I mentioned though was Rentokil, who were subject to the biggest PR gaffe in March and are our winner. Their PR agency BrandsLife claimed the typical train carriage contained 1,000 cockroaches, 200 bedbugs and 200 fleas. The shocking findings were soon proven incorrect by scientists.

After a series of blogs questioning the research, Rentokil published a clarification and an apology. This was a worst-case scenario based on assumptions such as the carriage never being cleaned or carrying any passengers.

April was littered with gaffes, as politicians – the blog-writer’s friends – across the country hit the campaign trail ahead of the general election.

Stuart MacLennan, a member of the Scottish Labour Party, made loads of mistakes on Twitter. He referred to OAP’s as “coffin dodgers”, called Nick Clegg “a B******”, and described passengers at Stirling train station as “chavs”. He resigned soon afterwards.

Our second gaffe is by David Cameron (yes, again) who messed up when he suggested that China could pose a nuclear threat to the UK, despite the UK being where China do most of their trading. This was the start of many errors he made regarding foreign policy this year.

The biggest April fool and the only possible winner would have to be Gordon Brown though! In one of the most talked-about gaffes of the year, he called a voter a ‘bigoted woman’, forgetting that his microphone was switched on.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson tried to back Gordon up, saying: “For those of us who have known Gordon Brown for many years, what we have seen is no huge surprise. He has got better and better at handling himself in public, but quite often he flares up in private, expresses frustration.”

The Prime Minister shouldn’t have this problem though, because the world is looking to him for guidance.

In May, the former president of Germany, Horst Köhler, resigned without warning after being criticised for remarks in which he suggested military deployments were central to the country’s economic interests.

In a radio interview, given on his return from a tour of German military bases in Afghanistan, Köhler said that the German public were finally coming to terms with the concept that their country could no longer avoid involvement in military missions, which helped protect their interests.

The remarks were seized upon by the German left, who accused Köhler of betraying the thousands of German soldiers in Afghanistan.

Also feeling betrayed this month was the PR firm Wolfstar, who were sent an e-mail by Paratus Communications, which was actually meant for potential customers of Paratus’ client Vodafone.

The e-mail read: “Quick note: We have been appointed by Vodafone to assist with its media / blogger relations. We are in the process of reviewing lists / distribution methods at present so please let us know if these announcements are not to your liking – we’ll be in touch as soon as we refine this process further. Thanks for your understanding.”

Not only is this poorly targeted, it is a badly written piece of communications. It’s very non-specific and clearly a bulk message aimed at promoting the blog. Wolfstar had a field day and tried their hardest to show the world that their rival was making mistakes and being unprofessional.

One of the most unprofessional men of the year – never mind the month – was BP boss Tony Hayward. His gaffes all related to the BP oil spill and he said he was not overly concerned by the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico (because it is a large ocean compared to how much oil is going into it) and that the environmental impact was very low. He also blamed Transocean for the accident, trying to shift the blame from BP.

Someone in his position should know better than to try to cover-up what has happened. He was trying to improve the image of BP but only served to damage it even more.

June was full of PR gaffes from large companies and well-known figures, from British Airways to Dermot O’Leary.

The British Airways PR gaffe happened when a photograph in the staff magazine showed a frequent flyer boarding pass in the name of Osama Bin Laden.

The image appeared on the front page and was meant to promote the benefits of online check-in. It showed a passenger holding up an iPhone displaying a boarding pass in the name Bin Laden/Osama, seat 07-C.

BA apologised for the error on its Twitter feed after being alerted to the image by other users of the social networking site.

Making an error live on air was Dermot O’Leary who was admonished by BBC Radio 2 for claiming that presenter Sarah Kennedy had a drink problem. Alan Carr, the comedian, told O’Leary during a programme handover that he drank vodka because it cannot be detected on the breath. O’Leary added: “The Sarah Kennedy get-out.”

It never pays to crack jokes that could offend people and that are uncalled for.

The gaffe-prone Tony Hayward continued making mistakes in June when he took part in the Isle of Wight island boat race, as oil still spilled into the Gulf. He spent $50 million on a television advertising campaign pledging to clean-up the mess – instead of spending the money doing so. Most outrageous though was his statement, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back” – particularly thoughtless considering 11 people died on the drilling platform when it exploded, causing the spill.

We felt we had to make Tony the winner of the PR gaffe award twice because he didn’t learn and never stopped doing the wrong thing. When you type “PR gaffe” into Google it automatically suggests “PR gaffe Tony Hayward” even now, 6 months on. It was truly damaging and embarrassing for the company.

July gaffes now, and the first one is by yet another politician.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, ignored advice to check his error-strewn list of school building projects to be scrapped.

He published a list of projects which would no longer go ahead – only to retract it because it was full of errors.

Secondly, Gillian McKeith kept making mistakes this year and famously ruined her image on I’m A Celebrity, but started to do so in July – prior to her appearance in the jungle.

On her Twitter page she called someone an anti-American bigot for being excited by negativity and believing lies from one of her criticisers Ben Goldacre – who wrote about her in his book Bad Science. She then started tweeting in third person to hide the fact that it was actually her using the social networking site.

The worst PR gaffe, and the winner of the award for atrocity, comes from the Golf Warehouse. They were selling a set of golf clubs for $112, at 90% off, by mistake – and cancelled everyone’s orders with no apology.

On TGW’s Facebook page there were comments ranging from inquisitive to vulgar. The gaffe came from the CEO though who – instead of issuing a reply from the company page – replied from his personal account complete with picture of him in front of a private jet. His replies opened him up for personal attacks and insults.

The CEO is not the person who should be frank and commenting to customers, especially if there is no history of engagement from him. The team monitoring the Facebook page was also deleting commentary and posts not only from angry customers, but also from their employees.

There were plenty of gaffes in August. Some months we struggle to find gaffes but other months there are too many to mention.

Firstly, the police came under public scrutiny for saying they wanted to release information regarding prostitutes who haven’t been committed of any crime.

Six street-based sex workers in East London were named on the Metropolitan police website. Police posted their photos, full names and dates of birth.

Not only is this a serious breach of the Data Protection Act, it is also inappropriate since the police had no reason to treat the women in this way.

David Cameron also messed up in August, saying Iran had a nuclear weapon. Number 10 released a statement saying he misspoke, later adding he had been talking about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

At the same event, he received criticism over his description of Britain as “junior partner” to the US in the Second World War, even though American joined towards the end of the conflict.

One final gaffe in this gaffe-ridden month was the ITV mistake during the World Cup, which wins the PR gaffe award because it happened during such a high-profile event and affected everyone who wanted to support England.

I’m sure you all remember what happened… ITV broadcast an advert to HD customers at the exact moment Steven Gerrard scored a goal against the USA. ITV called it an “unfortunate error”, later confessing that someone pressed the wrong button.

Obviously we are all so used to getting full coverage that we are not used to things going wrong. The media are often really professional and cautious, but do occasionally make mistakes.

Moving on to September now, when David Cameron made a lack of judgement by appointing Andy Coulson as his communications director.

Coulson was editor of The News of The World and almost immediately found himself at the centre of allegations that he knew his reporters were illegally bugging the phones of famous people. He has denied this and he may well not have known what his staff were doing but he was always likely to be involved in a scandal.

Cameron knew this when he took him on, it was a risk he was prepared to take; but after promising a new era of integrity and transparency in politics he should have the sense to avoid such situations.
A gaffe by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1997, referring to our own hometown, was revealed through Tony Blair’s autobiography this month.

It turns out the Prince called Stoke-on-Trent ‘ghastly’ when he was speaking to Labour MP Joan Walley at Buckingham Palace. The release of this information in September caused many people to defend the city and The Sentinel to print an unflattering image of him.

Possibly the most outrageous gaffe, in an age when many people choose not to believe in God, was made my the Pope. It is because the Pope should have known better than to say such things and because of his religious importance that we have chosen this as the gaffe of the month.

Secularists were outraged after Pope Benedict XVI seemed to associate atheism with Nazism during his speech to Queen Elizabeth II.

The Pope talked about wartime and a “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.” Then he said the UK should guard itself against “aggressive forms of secularism.” However, the Catholic Church defended the Pope’s words, saying he knew “rather well what the Nazi ideology is about.”

We are nearing the end of our list of PR gaffes of the year now, but October was actually a month with a lot of diverse gaffes from a variety of different people.

Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson made a fool of himself in October when he said he would not allow Kosovo-style social cleansing in London, in relation to housing benefit reforms. Vince Cable took offense, saying Johnson had used inflammatory language, whilst the Prime Minister distanced himself from the comments – saying he did not agree with them.

Theatre fans were also shocked when an article incorrectly said that Ben Evans was playing Frankie Valli 8 shows a week in the musical Jersey Boys, when actually the part is played by Ryan Molloy at 6 performances and Scott Monello on the other 2.

This was the fault of a reporter who obviously did not check his facts and made assumptions without checking them.

Our personal favourite this month, though, would have to be from Gap. They spent a lot of money developing a new logo they thought would increase the image of the company, but had to abandon it because the public preferred the old one.

This just goes to show that no matter how hard you try, if your brand is already successful you have to stick with it.

Good news for Gap in a way, as it means they have had their branding right for years, but bad news because they wasted money during the recession.

November saw the start of confidential information being leaked by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, making people fear potential PR gaffes. US diplomats were worried that inappropriate remarks made by Prince Andrew about a British law enforcement agency and a foreign country were set to be made available online. This only served to alert people that such gaffes had been made.

Also making headlines and causing a stir this month was BBC presenter and comedian Jason Manford, who was forced to quit The One Show after sending sexually explicit messages to a follower on Twitter and asking her to send him photos of herself. Not only is Manford married, he also has two children – his wife pregnant with a third.

In a statement he said: “I can see now that what started out as a bit of messing about and having a laugh on Twitter has been misjudged and I’d like to apologise to anyone that this has offended as that was the last thing I ever intended to do.”

Every month there seems to be a politician making a gaffe – and in November it was deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Clegg’s deception was so bad and has caused so much upset to students across the country that there can be no other choice for PR Gaffe of the Month.

The Lib Dem had his photograph taken (in May) with a signed letter swearing that he would oppose a rise in tuition fees… but he then went and signed up to coalition plans to raise fees to £9,000 a year (making him Britain’s least trust politician of the year and starting many violent protests in London).

You may be thinking… is this a gaffe? Well, the fact that he purposefully made sure the press knew he was against the rise by having his photo taken, and then later coming to regret it, makes me think that it can be called this, as well as being a deception.

And finally, December, which brought the year of gaffes to a fitting end. Here are three more to digest with what’s left of your turkey.

The first is one that should have been spotted before it was allowed to get totally out of hand.

An impostor is believed to have taken a mobile phone number that previously belonged to Liberal Democrat Mike Crockart and used it to pretend to be the MP in a live BBC interview. When journalists called the BBC asking how the MP intended to use his ballot in the tuition fee vote, the imposter seized his opportunity to make some bizarre mischief.

The mischievous man said, “I will be voting against 100 per cent. I’m not going to be pushed out. Resigning probably will be the only option”, before the line abruptly went dead.

It turns out that actually a Lib Dem press officer was on the phone to Crockart asking about his Evening Standard interview at the same time as the live BBC interview was taking place and his colleagues also quickly pointed out that the voice on the radio was not his.

Someone who actually did say the wrong thing though was Councillor David Shakespeare. His comment that “The north may replace the Romanians in the cherry orchards…. and that may be a good thing” is not only incredibly rude to everyone living in the north, but also a very old-fashioned thing to say.

The crown for biggest PR Gaffe in December though would have to go to the Today presenter James Naughtie and BBC presenter Andrew Marr who both made the same mistake by introducing the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as Jeremy C*** live on air.

Well, that’s it for another year. All that’s left for me to say is that we hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Thanks for taking the time to read our blog this year. Please take a few minutes to let us know what you think. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as we’ve enjoyed writing.


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