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You, Too, Can Get On a Top 10 List

By Fineman PR

Originally Posted

It doesn't take much work to get on a "Top 10" list these days. All you have to do is screw up on a colossal scale, like Philip Morris, Yahoo!, the City of Berkeley, and Enron, each of whom was awarded a place of honor (?) on Fineman PR's annual list of the 10 worst PR gaffes. Here, courtesy of Michael Fineman, President of Fineman PR in San Francisco, is his Seventh Annual PR Blunders List. Corporate arrogance, political correctness run amok, misplaced evangelism, and blatant sexism highlight this year's Fineman list of some of the year's worst public relations gaffes. The "winners" are:

  1. Philip Morris can't keep bad judgment "in Czech." The Wall Street Journal reported that a Philip Morris study, commissioned in the Czech Republic, found that smoking deaths saved the Czech government $147 million annually, or $1227 per person in social welfare expenses such as health-care costs. The report characterized the savings as a "positive effect" of cigarette consumption. Reaction was predictably negative, prompting full-page ads from anti-smoking groups, showing a cadaver's foot with a toe tag that read "$1,227." Philip Morris belatedly issued an apology and acknowledged its mistake, saying that no one benefits from smoking-related diseases, but the PR damage had already been done.

  2. What's in a name? After the bad Czech publicity, it might have made sense for Philip Morris to seek a new corporate name. It did, choosing "Altria." But the suggestion of a mere name change didn't throw the nation's business press off the company's trail. BrandWeek columnist Philip Van Munching called it a "breathtaking act of corporate weaselry" and accused the company of trying to fool young people into smoking. "C'mon Philip Morris why not cut through all this faux-Latin stuff and find a proper name that'll make your real target feel good about your company? The Harry Potter Group has a nice ring to it," he wrote. Other columnists piled on. "It's awfully hard not to sneer as Philip Morris, home of the Marlboro Man, attempts to slink away from its deadly past by changing its name to Altria," wrote David Lazarus in the San Francisco Chronicle. Philip Morris may also have overlooked one tiny detail: the name already belonged to Alabama's Altria Healthcare. When asked by the Chronicle how the company would react if Altria Healthcare fought to keep its name from being sullied, a company spokesperson answered, "We have a lot of lawyers."

  3. Berkeley snubs Scouts. Berkeley, Calif., wins this year's award for Self-Inflicted Wounds, Municipal Division. Close to 40 Boy and Girl Scouts from Berkeley's Japanese "sister city," Sakai, were in town in August to present a proclamation to Mayor Shirley Dean. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the unsuspecting scouts wound up caught in the crossfire of angry rhetoric from City Council members decrying the U.S. Boy Scout's anti-gay policies. Dean, seeking to prevent an embarrassing incident, canceled the meeting with the Japanese scouts. After a San Francisco Chronicle article on the scout-snub story hit the national newswires, reaction was harsh. "Epithets sent to The Chronicle from around the country ranged from idiot to the unprintable," The Chronicle reported. Berkeley officials apologized for the snub and Dean a few days later met the visiting scouts at a private dinner. The city's self-righteousness, however, lingered in the air long after.

  4. Nothing "funny" about B.C. There was no monopoly this year on self-righteousness. Johnny Hart, creator of the Stone Age strip "B.C.," is one of the nation's most popular cartoonists. An evangelical Christian, Hart is not bashful about using the strip as a pulpit. His Easter Sunday strip showed the candles of a menorah being extinguished and transformed into a cross. Predictably, it stirred emotions. "The strip is a canard against the Jewish people and will promote hatred rather than tolerance and diversity," Rabbi Marvin Hier told the Los Angeles Times. Criticism was so intense that many newspapers pulled the strip. Hart subsequently apologized. The lesson seems quite simple: religion and the funny pages don't easily mix.

  5. Twin troubles in Massachusetts. Engaging in the art of partisan politics is one thing. Messing with an expectant mother is quite another. Republican Acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, hospitalized last May while waiting to give birth to twins, scheduled a meeting via conference call. Secretary of State William Galvin and Councilor Edward O'Brien, both Democrats, cried foul, claiming the state constitution prohibits meetings by phone and suggesting Swift either convene a meeting in the hospital or cede her authority temporarily to Galvin. Oh, by the way, both Galvin and O'Brien's daughter, Shannon, may run against Swift in next year's election. A Boston Globe editorial, titled "Stone Age Democrats Unfair to Swift," observed, "Whether (Gov.) Swift feels she can do business on bed rest is her business. There is no reason to think she cannot." The incident also raised concerns about women's rights. "It's galling that this bunch of goobers would try to use Swift's babies as an excuse in effect to take her job," opined Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald, "but there is something that troubles me even more. If this is the garbage they try with a woman who has a high profile and a six-figure salary, just imagine what they do with a woman who does not."

  6. Yahoo! erotica not so hot. Sex sells, and on the Internet it sells plenty, but not on Yahoo! The Los Angeles Times reported that Yahoo! had switched its adult and erotica online store to a centralized location adjacent to such categories as "family" and "documentary." This did not go unnoticed. "Yahoo!'s decision to become pornography's online middleman reflects the desperation of Internet companies to find new sources of revenue amid a slowing economy," the Times story noted. Angry emails prompted Yahoo! to remove Erotica altogether. "There is definitely a situation where a tainted brand can rub off on your own. This wasn't worth all the advertising relationships they (Yahoo) had," Forrester Research's Charlene Li told The Wall Street Journal.

  7. Cracker Barrel sued -- again. As a $1.7 billion public company, you'd think Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. would learn from its mistakes -- or others'. Evidently not. The Associated Press reported in December that 21 customers had sued the company, alleging that blacks were denied service and/or segregated in the smoking section of the company's stores. Black employees had sued Cracker Barrel in 1999, alleging employment discrimination. "You would think that chains would learn a lesson from Denny's. The problem companies run into are the corporate mandates on fairness and diversity training may not get to the franchisees or filter down to individual units. They have to take steps to change not only the culture, but the perception," Scott Hume, managing editor of Restaurants & Institutions, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

  8. Light's out at Enron. This year's biggest bankruptcy put the spotlight on Houston's Enron Corp., whose financial collapse was partially blamed on the energy firm's failure to communicate fully with investors, government officials and the press. The Wall Street Journal may have summarized it best: "Virtually unseen until the end was an Enron culture that contained the seeds of its own collapse, a culture of highly questionable financial engineering, misstated earnings and persistent efforts to keep investors in the dark." Unfortunately for Enron's shareholders, the messy details came to light after the company's credibility had virtually evaporated, along with its stock value.

  9. Pardon me? No, pardon you. Former President Bill Clinton's blunders are legendary, but he saved one of his best for last As one of his last official acts, Clinton issued a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich, sparking a "firestorm of controversy launching investigations in both Houses of Congress and igniting fierce protest from both Democrats and Republicans," Time.com reported. Presidential pardons are hardly unusual, but there was a problem with this one. Rich's ex-wife, Denise, had donated an estimated $1 million to Democrats, including $70,000 to then-First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign, and another $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential library. Living high on the hog in Switzerland, convicted tax cheat Rich had few supporters willing to defend the President's action. In what may be the understatement of the year, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the media, " ... some bells should have gone off, some lights should have gone on. If I knew it would turn out this way I would have done things differently."

  10. Condit's fall from grace. There is nothing ironic or humorous whatsoever about this story. Still, no list of 2001 PR blunders is complete without mentioning the disastrous saga of eight-term California congressman Gary Condit. After initially failing to disclose publicly the extent of his relationship with a missing Congressional intern, the Congressman conducted a highly defensive, largely uninformative network television interview. Time magazine reported that " ... if Gary Condit had nothing to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance, he may have become a classic example about the cover up being worse than anything he might have done."

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