PR Blunders from a Student’s Perspective

  1. Public Relation Blunders… A big “whomp whomp” in the marketing and media world in today’s society. When a company, individual, or anything else happens to make a mistake, you better believe someone will catch on and let the rest of the world know about it. I looked into five PR blunders that I believe to be interesting [and some a tad comical] and my plan is to lay it all out and let you know what happened.

Bridgestone Tire Debacle – 2000

bridgestoneDating back to 1947, Ford Motor Company and Firestone (now Bridgestone) have had close business relations. In the year 2000, those relations were strained when the two companies blamed each other for an issue with the Firestone tires found on some of Ford’s Explorer models. In May 2000, the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contacted Ford Motors and Firestone about an unusually high rate of tire failure on three vehicles – the Ford Explorer, the Mercury Mountaineer, and the Mazda Navajo. Each tire failure case was due to tire tread separation in high heat. As the vehicle was traveling at high speeds, the treads would separate and cause the SUV to roll over due to its high center gravity. As an investigation went on, it was found that not all deaths were due to a Ford and Firestone combination, but a crazy majority were. Towards the end of it all, a recall was put in place allowing Ford Explorer owners to switch their affected tires out to new [and different] ones. After this PR blunder, the CEO of Firestone wrote a resignation letter to the Ford Motor Company Chief Executive. While that “resignation” didn’t last for too long, it did leave a massive imprint on the media and the history of both companies.

The famous question after most [bad] decisions is “How could this have been prevented?”. And so I asked myself this very question and analyzed how things could’ve been done differently by both Ford and Firestone. What’s interesting is that neither company admitted to it – they went back and forth blaming the other and defending their product. Me, not knowing absolutely anything about cars, can’t get too detailed on the mechanics of the issue, but from a business point of view, I think it was both companies fault. I believe the companies should’ve worked together to find a solution instead of passing on the problem.


Automotive Bailout Blunder – 2008
private-jet-blunderNow here, what went wrong is the automotive executives went asking the already in trouble government for money when clearly the companies aren’t using the money they already have effectively. In the future, I would recommend not asking for taxpayer money after stepping off of your private jet. My mom once told me, all smart people know when to ask for help and that statement is ever so true, but be cautious of how you ask. I read an article that compared this situation to a man in a tuxedo showing up at a soup kitchen begging for food. So, you see how that is a little ridiculous.Continuing with the automotive theme, in 2008 the economy was not too hot and car companies were starting to fail due to it. In mid-November, three head automakers flew to the nation’s capital to convince the government that their companies needed a bailout, so they wouldn’t go bankrupt. But hey, get this…they flew to the nation’s capital in their private luxurious jets. It’s a little ironic that these companies need a proposed $50 billion of taxpayer money when they’re flying around in company jets. Now, I don’t mean to call anybody out, but Rick Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford, and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler were a major part of this blunder. Needless to say, these three companies did not get their government bailout. They only received $17.4 billion of their requested $50 billion. Shortly after in April 2009, Chrysler was forced into bankruptcy and so was General Motors shortly after in May. Ford was the only company that [barely] held on.


“The Flight to Nowhere”  – 2007

Not a private jet blunder this time, just one with JetBlue. Oh JetBlue…*shakes head*. Literally everything that could’ve gone wrong did, so listen up. A plane full of eager passengers ready to escape New York City’s disgustingly cold winter for some sun in Cancun, Mexico were stuck on the runway for eight hours. Let’s just pause right here. You and your brand new spouse are anxious for your honeymoon down in Mexico, but once this blunder was over, that excitement was killed by a smelly sales guy from Idaho. Hm. Not very honeymoonlicious anymore.
jetblueI’m surprised JetBlue didn’t figure their own resolution out sooner. It all went wrong when paying passengers were basically held hostage on this plane for eight hours. Granted weather can’t be avoided, but I feel once the wheels are frozen to the ground, the plane can’t do much or go anywhere. After an hour or maybbbeee two, the passengers should’ve been let off the plane someway or somehow. JetBlue did do the right thing at the very end of it all with organizing a new flight (but really, who would want to fly again after sitting on a plane for eight hours already) and refunding the customers their money.  I would just like to ask the question as to why it took so long to get three buses to shuttle the passengers from the plane to the terminal. Like shoot, let them walk back to the terminal if they really wanted to…wait…probably a bad idea.The flight was supposed to take off at 8:15am, but bad weather kept the plane grounded. The airline claimed that there were no open gates leaving the plane sitting on the tarmac. (I’m sure every single one of you reading this have sat on a plane for some time waiting for a gate or waiting to take off and it is not fun.) This plane sat on the tarmac for so long, that some of the wheels froze to the ground and windows were covered over with solid ice. If that isn’t awful enough for you, there was also no electricity on the plane, so the flight attendants had to prop open the door for some fresh air. How about a snack? “Not today,” said the flight attendants. It’s Federal Aviation Administration policy that food or drinks can’t be handed out until the plane had been grounded for four hours, even though two passengers were diabetic. Eventually, three Port Authority of New York and New Jersey buses took the passengers back to the terminal. JetBlue got a crew and flight organized to take the passengers to Cancun later that night on a 9:30pm flight, but majority of the passengers couldn’t be “communicated with” because they either went home or left the airport. Arrangements were made and refunds were given, but come on, nobody should sit in a “sound-proofed coffin” for eight hours.


Merck Recalled Vioxx – 2004


We all know that pharmaceutical drugs come with warnings and symptoms on and off the label, but this blunder took the cake. In 1999, the pharmaceutical company, Merck, introduced a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and prescription painkiller called Vioxx to the drug market. So far, sounds good, right? A year or so later, VIGOR (VIOXX Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research Trial) conducted a trial and guess what they found? The results showed that patients taking VIOXX were at the risks of increased heart attacks. After these findings, the Federal Drug Administration and Merck decided to include the heart and stroke risk information on the drug label. Not by surprise, in 2004, Merck withdrew the drug from the market after another study showed that Vioxx more than doubled the risk of heart attacks and death. Bad VIOXX. In 2005, a conclusion was come to by two advisory panels in both the United States and Canada that Vioxx could return to the market with very strict circumstances and restrictions, but Merck has yet to abide by the rules and put Vioxx back on the market.

So, what can we learn from this? After taking many science classes in my high school days, I think it would be a good idea to conduct some tests and studies on a drug before a company puts it on the market. That would be the same with anything being marketed or sold. You wouldn’t want to sell a shirt that falls apart, right? While Merck was wrong is that (1) they obviously didn’t fully test their product and (2) if the scientists did, the results didn’t matter to them and they put the drug on the market anyway. I think at the end of it all, Merck showed that they would rather not deal with the problem rather than fixing it since they have yet to introduced a new and improved version of Vioxx to the pharmaceutical drug market.


AIG Corporate Paradise – 2008

The year of 2008 hit majority of America pretty hard. The recession affected individuals, small business, big business, politics (shhh. Who said politics?), you name it. The American International Group, commonly known as AIG, had a government bailout of $85 billion in taxpayer funds – this company is too big to fail. But get this, a few days later used $443,500 of it to host a corporate retreat for their executives at the Saint Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, California. Now if you haven’t been there, but the Saint Regis is a pretty swanky hotel and prices add up pretty quickly. Apparently, almost $25,000 was spent at the spa, more than $200,000 for rooms, $150,000 in meals, and some more miscellaneous fees. Now, isn’t that taxpayer money well spent?

After this blunder was made public, Lynn E. Turner, a former chief account with the Securities and Exchange Commision, told the committee that AIG shouldn’t be criminally charged. I agree, but I think it’s wrong. Again, how can a company ask the government for hardworking taxpayers’ money just to spend it at a hotel? Isn’t the point of a government bailout to bail your company out of hard times and get it back on their feet instead of paying for the executives to get their feet massaged? Hmm… So, for starters, the company received a bailout. No harm in that if your company actually needs it. What was wrong was turning that “bailout” money into fun money a few days later. That’s a stomp on your new shoe, throw what you don’t have in your face kind of mean to American taxpayers.


My Takeaways

After taking a look at my top five public relation blunders, I’ve learned a major lesson. It isn’t what happens per say, it’s how you handle it. In this day and age, anything can happen and you just have to take it with a grain of salt, figure out how to make it better, and go from there. Looking back, you can always say “shoulda woulda coulda”, but in the moment, you really never know the best way to handle with a crisises. Whether it be personal or professional, you should always weigh your pros and cons and go whichever way is less damanging to your company’s image.

To me, where these companies went wrong is that they were more concerned with protecting their image and assets rather than doing what was right. Everybody is concerned with themselves and their image, but some don’t have what it takes to fix things after what’s done is done. Pushing the blame onto somebody else *coughFordandFirestone* doesn’t make what you did any better. Pretending to do the right thing *coughYouPeopleWhoTookBailouts* doesn’t make you feel any better afterward. And just not knowing how to handle a situation in general *coughJetblue* is a little ridiculous. Companies need to evaluate situations better in the future, so they don’t have negative repercussions in the future (like me writing about them!).

Leave a Reply