The 3 kinds of big PR BLUNDERS in 2011

This time of year no one is immune from the list making. The press & PR people regularly create a top 10 list of PR mistakes. But the most important list of PR gaffes is barely a list at all. Okay, it’s a list but it’s a really short list.
By: Sandra Gehring
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Dec. 29, 2011 - PRLog -- The major PR disasters in 2011 were wide ranging and diverse but they all boil down to a few fundamental mistakes.  The biggest PR gaffes of the year were the direct result of three little things that effectively felled the mighty.

•   Underestimation
•   Lying
•   Ego

Who are the rocket scientists that blundered their way to PR infamy in 2011?

UNDERESTIMATION aka “man, we didn’t think those pesky customers would react so strongly!”


The 2011 title goes to two companies who seriously underestimated both the media and the customer. Netflix takes the blue ribbon in the underestimation category, followed closely by Bank of America.

In the summer of 2011 Netflix went from a wildly successful company beloved by its customers to the Obfuscation Kings of the Year. Netflix did this by sorely underestimating how strongly their customers would react to a change in the business model, followed by conspicuously crappy communication.

Whether it was good business decision or not, Netflix communicated the original policy change news in a particularly dunder-headed fashion. No reward for current customers, no grace period, no Nothin. Complete obfuscation on their part.

To compound the original gaffe, the Netflix CEO let his ego get the best of him by offering a belated faux apology via blogging. Apparently not content with the original gaffe, the so-called apology went on to detail new changes that irritated even more customers So much wrong with that.  In the world of press and publicity making 2 out of the 3 critical mistakes is bad news, literally.  

The Netflix stock price dropped like a rock. Netflix has announced that it now expects to post a loss in its 2012 fiscal year, shocking analysts who expected a profit for the period.
Bottom line?  Check out what Netflix had to say in their recent SEC filing;
"If we are unable to repair the damage to our brand and reverse negative subscriber growth, our business, results of operations, including cash flows, and financial condition will continue to be adversely affected."

The Netflix PR blunder was so serious that the company may not survive.

Bank of America.  

B of A underestimated their own customer AND the power of media, particularly social media. How so?  In the good old days, a bank could pile on additional charges and customers. But in today’s world if you combine a new five dollar monthly charge with no increase in service AND a crummy economy it might backfire. It did.  

In the Bank of America case, they took a ham fisted approach to communication and service for their customers. The B of A customer base became frustrated and angry. As Bank of America continued merrily on its Ebenezer Scrooge-like way, customers banded together via social media petitions and eventually forced the bank to back down. Sheesh.

PR bottom line: underestimation + poor communication strategy = disaster. Goodwill gone. Customers gone.


Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” And that was pre-twitter.  

Let’s look at the crème de la crème who lied their way to fame this year;

Weiner gate.  In an odd burst of symmetry, Anthony Weiner managed to combine lying, Twitter and lying about Twitter. We can credit the former congressman with adding “sexting” to the mainstream.  The now disgraced Weiner tweeted a pic of his personal parts, and then lied. And lied. And. Lied.

Weiner initially claimed that his account had been hacked and that he was the victim of a right wing conspiracy. Later, he admitted to lying and sexting and resigned in disgrace.
Publicity bottom line – do not lie. It. Will. Not. Work.

There are also a few noteworthy also ran’s in the lying category.

Casey Anthony.  Hard to know where the lies stopped and the truth started, but bottom line is that lying notwithstanding Ms. Anthony was acquitted in the murder of her daughter. The PR prob?  All justice aside, if Anthony had hoped to escape with a life unscathed, her well documented lying has made her a PR nightmare.  Normal life? No way. Anthony is now so infamous for lying that she is the PR equivalent of toxic waste.

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another child? With the housekeeper?  A lie of omission is still a lie. The governator’s image is hugely tarnished. Arnie gets minor kudos for eventually owning up to the lie, but it’s still a lie.

The world of public relations is a lot like life.  Lying won’t work. Not for long.  The PR takeaway is simple; people in the public eye must tell the truth. Failing to be honest always results in the public and the media figuratively washing your mouth out with soap.

•   Tell the truth no matter how foolish you feel
•   Tell the truth even if you think you can get away with lying
•   Tell the truth and take your lumps without reacting defensively

In the world of PR, you will eventually be found out if you lie.


There is an old Middle Eastern proverb; “arrogance diminishes wisdom.”  Appropriate because when it comes to the  biggest ego related PR mess the race is too close to call.

Charlie Sheen’s “winning” and “tiger blood” rants cost him his job and a lot more. Sheen’s super-sized ego also cost him his publicist and then became the fodder for national ridicule.

Kim Kardashian’s mini-marriage had viewers tuning in by the millions, but the woman described by Barbara Walters as “having no talent” turned off her fans by turning off her hubby. In KK’s case being famous for being famous isn’t enough.

Oprah going off the air and striking out on her OWN falls into this category too.  Actually the always classy Ms. Winfrey hasn’t committed any PR gaffes. Conversely though she has married the dreaded underestimation with ego and is now stuck with a pricey cable net sans viewers. The big O failed to realize that her fan base wouldn’t/couldn’t follow her 24/7 and she erred by not creating a strong communication platform to bridge the transition.

2011 was the year that 3 little mistakes had a major PR impact.

About the author:

Sandra Gehring is an Emmy award winning writer and PR pro who has literally written the book about D-I-Y press and publicity. Gehring’s book Breaking Your Own News is available on, Barnes & and at Scribd. Gehring is available for consultation, coaching and interviews.  Please contact her via;

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