The PR Guru

January 2, 2010

PR Gaffes of the Year 2009 (Part Five)

“Hey Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’m going to let you finish . . . but Kanye West had one of the biggest PR disasters of all time!”

Yes, not content with having a reputation for egomania and humourlessness which South Park devoted an entire episode to ridiculing, Kanye West decided to annoy as many people as possible with his actions at the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Country and Western cutie Taylor Swift accepted the gong for best video, West jumped onstage, grabbed the microphone and informed the audience that Beyonce should have won.

Despite having since apologised repeatedly on various TV shows, West’s reputation is still in tatters. Even President Obama was overheard calling him a “jackass”.

Unless Kanye releases a truly fantastic album pretty soon at some point in the new year to remind everyone why he’s famous in the first place, he really might not be able to recover from this.

September wasn’t just about celebrities though; one American mother caused a serious headache for Whirlpool and their Maytag brand.

Heather Armstrong, a “Mommy-blogger” who has built up a large following online with her regular series of posts on childcare, organised a huge online campaign to boycott Whirlpool’s “Maytag” line after experiencing extremely poor customer service while trying to get her new washing machine repaired.

The drive garnered so much support that Whirlpool were forced to publicly offer to replace the faulty unit and one on their U.S. management team phoned Ms. Armstrong to apologise personally.

This is another in a long line of examples of what can be achieved by really working to build your internet presence.

October also saw the power of internet users coming into effect. Both of the major PR failures this month were driven by web-users; Twitter-ers in particular.

Everybody was shocked by the sudden death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately; he passed away at the age of 33 just as the band were gearing up to launch their new album.

But even more shocking than Gately’s death was an article written by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir a few days before his funeral.

In the article, Moir asserted that Gately’s death was a direct result of his homosexuality. She then went on to declare that civil partnerships were a failure and that the homosexual lifestyle led inevitably to licentiousness and drug use.

The backlash was massive; celebrities like Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker led the charge on Twitter, Marks & Spencer and Nescafe withdrew their advertising and the Press Complaints Commission website received so many complaints that it crashed.

A similar Twitter-storm erupted over the attempts to prevent The Guardian publishing an article on Swiss commodities-trading company Trafigura.

The Guardian had intended to publish an article on a question asked by an MP about freedom of the press and whistleblowers in two cases, one involving Trafigura. The question had been asked in Parliament and, therefore, it was free for anyone to report on.

Carter Ruck, Trafigura’s lawyers, obtained an injunction to prevent the article going to print. What The Guardian did print, however, was a notice that they had been gagged and that Carter Ruck was responsible. With this information, a number of internet sources were able to infer that the article was about Trafigura.

News of the gagging order soon spread via the internet; people were incensed by the idea that a large corporation could silence the press with legal threats.

The only way to describe Carter Ruck’s actions is “own goal”.

Had they not been so aggressive in the defence of their client then the story would never have become what it did; the article would have come and gone and, had anything been picked up on, it probably would have been the reference to Barclays which formed the other half of the question.

As it is, Trafigura have now earned a place on the “evil corporations” list in the minds of many members of the public.

Sadly they haven’t earned the award for October – that honour goes to Jan Moir. Well done Jan! Perhaps spouting your horrible homophobic bile was worthwhile after all!


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