December 15, 2007

Top P.R. Blunders of 2007

Here is Fineman PR's top 10 Public Relations Blunders of 2007:

1. Not all fake news is on Comedy Central.

Already troubled by continued claims of inadequate disaster response and wasteful use of funds, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) truly fumbled when it held what the Washington Post described as a “phony press conference” in response to Southern California wildfires. “Questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters,” “lob[bing] one softball after another so [Vice Administrator Harvey E. Johnson, Jr., could] praise FEMA’s work,” said the Post. Homeland Security Department head Michael Chertoff was reported by CNN, CBS and others to have said that “it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things [he has] seen since [he has] been in government.” FEMA became defensive and insisted that reporters were expected — albeit with only 15 minutes notice of the conference — but did not show up, and that the questions posed by staffers were originated by reporters. FEMA deputy director of public affairs “Mike” Widomski, one of the reporter-impersonating staffers, responded to Post columnist Al Kamen’s inquiries by saying “if the worst thing that happens to me in this disaster is that we had staff in the chairs to ask questions that reporters had been asking all day, trust me, I’ll be happy.” Okay.

2. Toon Networking Gone Wrong

When Boston residents suddenly noted blinking, cryptic devices attached to bridges, bus depots and subway stations, they alerted city authorities, who shut down sections of the city to remove the devices and ensure that they were not related to a bomb threat or other terrorist activity. Turns out that Turner Broadcasting-affiliated Cartoon Network arranged for the covert placement of the battery-powered magnetic signs in 10 U.S. cities to promote offbeat program “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Cartoon Network head Jim Samples eventually stepped down and criminal charges were filed against employees of consulting ad agency Interference Inc., in what an ad expert described to The Wall Street Journal as “the most significant blunder in the world of guerrilla advertising.”

3. Is it a problem when one minority hates another?

The true “what were they thinking” moment in this year’s Blunders: when San Francisco’s AsianWeek, the self-styled “voice of Asian America,” published a brief column in February entitled “Why I Hate Blacks.” The offensive piece ran in the middle of Black History Month in a publication based in what is supposed to be one of the most politically correct cities in the U.S. Filled with pejorative racial stereotyping, the column, by regular AsianWeek contributor Kenneth Eng, was described by Los Angeles Times columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan as “remarkably hateful … most base and unsubstantiated.” After public outcry, Eng was quickly terminated and apologies were issued through statements and at town hall meetings.

4. In the doghouse

Ellen DeGeneres might have overdone it when she tearfully pled, during a taping of her popular talk show, for the return of Iggy, a dog she had previously adopted and given to her hairdresser’s family after it took issue with her cats. On the other hand, Mutts & Moms, the agency she adopted it from, probably wasn’t making the right decision when it repossessed the dog from its new family — aggressively, on video, prompting criticism and threats from Ellen’s fans after she gave them the tearful play-by-play. San Francisco Chronicle television critic Tim Goodman noted that ” … if you’re Mutts & Moms, you’ve got to be thinking, ‘Well, I guess we should have hired a real public relations person instead of Betty’s daughter from payroll.’”

5. Hollywood justice

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was widely criticized this year for reassigning socialite Paris Hilton to privileged home confinement — complete with Mrs. Beasley’s Gourmet Cupcakes — after completing only three days of her 45-day sentence for violation of her probation for alcohol-related reckless driving. Baca told reporters that he had reassigned Hilton due to her “severe medical problems.” Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times noted that “[releasing Paris] was big of [Baca], but [Los Angeles County Jail] is filled with people who have serious physical and mental problems. How many of them get sent home for cupcakes?” The problem, according to, may be the sheriff’s “close ties to the Hollywood community.”

6. Even the Chinese restaurants don't serve cat now.

Pet products are a $38 billion industry in the U.S., and several pet food companies, most notably Menu Foods, took a severe PR beating this year after thousands of cases of illness and death among U.S. pets were attributed to use of contaminated ingredients from China. Most perplexing was each company’s reluctance to respond to taint allegations forthrightly, quickly and responsibly. Instead, they trickled out the news — and recalls — in small increments. accused the involved brands of “hiding behind each other, feeling secure in the knowledge that their collective market dominance leaves pet owners with few options.”

7. Coffee, tea or fuggedaboudit

It’s been a tough year for fliers, whose rights seem to have disappeared into thin air as crews judged consumer behavior and appearance in what describes as “the general lack of respect for customers that seems to be growing in the airline industry.” In one example, Southwest passenger Kyla Ebbert was threatened with removal from a San Diego to Tucson flight for wearing an allegedly inappropriate outfit. When Ms. Ebbert took her case to NBC’s “Today” show and CBS’ “The Dr. Phil Show,” Southwest issued a mangled apology more than a week later, attempting to make light of its treatment of Ebbert by announcing a “skimpy” fare sale. Rival airline Virgin America didn’t hesitate to capitalize on Southwest’s mishandling of the situation, booking her to appear with Virgin Group chair Sir Richard Branson for the launch of new San Francisco to Las Vegas flights.

8. How to make the New York Times very happy.

Nobody loves a whiner, and that’s exactly the part famed restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow played when he bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to decry Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s no-star review of his Kobe Club steakhouse. Not only did Chodorow needlessly and heedlessly blast Bruni in the tiny-type, error-ridden rant, he actually chronicled the demise of two of his previous restaurants, Rocco’s and Caviar & Banana, and paid handsomely for the privilege. Former Times food critic Mimi Sheraton wrote on, Chodorow “was an idiot to have run such an ad … [because] of the added exposure of the negative review to so many who may never have read the original.” Not to mention the negative media coverage that ran in newspapers from Stamford to Seattle.

9. The language of foot in mouth.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly thought he could use his own immigrant experience to make headway when speaking at the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists but struck a sour note, according to CBS News, when he told the assembled journalists, “‘you’ve got to turn off the Spanish television set’ and stay away from Spanish-language television, books and newspapers” in order to “learn English quickly.” Although Schwarzenegger’s remarks were intended as advice for Latino students, they offended the audience, many of whom were in fact members of the Spanish-language media. Pilar Marrero, political editor for La Opinion, was on hand — CBS News says she “chuckled at the governor’s comments,” saying “‘they’re [Latinos are] too busy working.’”

10. Playing it smooooth.

Maybe Rosie O’Donnell should hire a media trainer. Although scheduled to part ways with “The View” in June due to contractual disagreements, she arranged to leave the program a month early after repeated on-air clashes with conservative co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. These clashes revolved around hefty conspiracy theories posited by O’Donnell, both on “The View” and on her blog. According to The Miami Herald, these included allegations that “one of the World Trade Center buildings was ‘imploded’ [on 9/11] by explosives planted inside … to destroy evidence of the corporate financial scandals at Enron and WorldComm.” Finally, while on a book tour in Miami, Rosie let slip that she had a prime-time talk show deal in the works with MSNBC, prompting the cable network to back out. According to her blog, “we were close to a deal / almost done / i let it slip in miami / causing panic on the studio end … 2day there is no deal / poof / my career as a pundit is over / b4 it began.”

When choosing who will make the list, Fineman PR chooses the selections are limited to Americans, American companies, or public relations offenses that occurred in America. They’re also limited to avoidable acts or omissions that cause adverse publicity. In other words, the image damage was done to self, company, society or others–and acts that were widely reported in 2007.

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