How Companies Really Screw Up Public Relations

The popularity of Jersey Shore and the vitriol of internet forums prove that we can’t resist watching disaster unfold, no matter what size the screen. While it’s great fun if no one gets hurt, public relations disasters can hurt companies far greater than most of us will ever know.

From the Motrin moms to Antennagate and BP to just about anything big retail chains do, here are a few stories that are best treated as case studies on what NOT to do.

Motrin Moms

Back in late 2009, Motrin ran an ad that likened a baby in a sling to a fashion accessory and offered its product as a way to make being fashionable hurt less. The ad, which ran just before Thanksgiving, angered quite a few mommy bloggers.

At this point, all Motrin had to do was listen to their complaints, either retract the ad or issue some sort of statement explaining their intentions. It could have been simple. Problem was, no one from Motrin was manning the internet during Thanksgiving break. A small problem snowballed into an avalanche and the mommy bloggers ‘sploded come Monday.

When it comes to public relations, it’s hard to do anything correctly if you don’t listen to your customers. The internet never takes a day off.


Oh, what a beauty iPhone 4 is. Industrial design, front and back glass, phenomenal display and one tiny, but extremely annoying, problem: some people reported they were able to reduce the reception bars to zero if they held it a certain way.

Apple hemmed and hawed. They waited. Steve Jobs even said not to hold it that way (hilarious). Millions of people continued to use their perfectly functioning iPhone 4s as the world waited for Apple’s response.

What did they do? They called out other phones. They deflected attention. They admitted no fault and offered everyone a free bumper that solved the problem. While Apple’s ridiculously loyal fan base mostly didn’t care, this approach wouldn’t have worked for a smaller company.

Had Apple confronted the issue immediately, gave out free cases and turned Jobs’ “don’t hold it that way” comment into their statement, they would have done much better. Companies that act the way we’ve come to expect are more trusted (this explains Fox News). In related news, iPhone 4 sales weren’t affected.


They caused an environmental disaster that will take the world years to recover from, had their former CEO state publicly that he’d like his life back after a particularly long question and answer session and let the @BPGlobalPR twitter account release better information than anyone else.

They also hired a security force to prevent reporters from interviewing workers and decimated the catch off the New Orleans coast for years.

While the obvious advice is just don’t cause a huge oil spill, a more forthright approach would have worked wonders here. Statements like “Yes, this happened. Here is why. Yes, we’re pretty angry about it too. Here’s what we’re doing to solve it and this is why it will take so long” would have shut a lot of people up. There’s only a negative story if a company hides something. Get out in front and you’re golden.


Over the holidays, local AZ boy Joe Manna attempted to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops for XBox 360. A credit card issue and a few emails that looked phishy later and Joe had no video game. His next step was to head directly to Twitter in hope of some sort of solution.

He got nothing.

Really, nothing at all. No Twitter reply, no email reply and no phone call. What could have been a simple solution has instead turned into a problem that far too many people realize too late: most big chains don’t care about their individual problems.

Behavior like this is absolutely ridiculous. Joe seems hell bent on getting this resolved via Twitter, so we’ll be sure to check back with him to see if Target bothered to acknowledge him.

Customer service is and will always be a part of public relations. Anything a company does outside the privacy of its upper management is viewed by us consumers as an interaction and now that the little people like Joe have to ability to make his thoughts heard a thousand times over, companies that don’t pay attention may eventually come up against a problem they can’t solve by ignoring.

What are your horror stories? What would you like to see from companies you buy from? Do you think social media is a proper way to handle public and customer relations?

About Tyler Hurst

Tyler Hurst is a Phoenix-based writer, storyteller, sometimes marketing guy and full-time inspirator. He likes to think he can help people.

Filed under: Strategy, Tips