Bad PR often comprises two components:
- The poorly received action of an organization.
- The poor communication surrounding the action.
These three recent examples of bad PR have this duality in mind.
JOHNSON & JOHNSON: The recall that finally broke the camel’s back hit J&J in mid-February when more than 500,000 units of Infants’ Tylenol had to be pulled from the shelves due to a defective bottle design. This was the latest in a lengthy list of faulty products from medical devices like insulin pumps to over-the-counter household names like Tylenol, Rolaids and Motrin.
A pattern of concealment and fingerpointing has marked J&J communications strategy during these recalls. As a prime example, a New York Times report claims that J&J knew about high failure rates in an artificial hip manufactured by its subsidiary, DuPuy Orthopaedics, and had failed to receive approval for the device in the United States. J&J continued to market the hip replacement overseas and a companion product in the U.S. for an additional year, blaming breakdowns on surgeons, before finally issuing a recall.
Johnson & Johnson had been considered the PR gold standard due to its adroit and compassionate communications during the Tylenol tampering cases of the 1980s. When people began dying from ingesting arsenic-laced Tylenol capsules, J&J took responsibility, recalling all products, redesigning its product and packaging, and keeping the public informed, even though the company was absolved of any role in the poisonings.
Having long since shed this mantle of PR excellence and corporate accountability, J&J finally dismissed its embattled CEO, William Weldon. The new CEO, Alex Gorsky, acknowledges that repairing reputational damage is a top priority.
APPLE: The company with the world’s highest market cap and most valuable brand could seem to do no wrong. The wrong has actually originated with Apple’s Chinese suppliers, charged with unsafe working conditions and substandard wages. Investigative reporting has cast a pall over the tech giant and the beloved products such as the iPhone and iPad emanating from the facilities in question.
In the class I’m currently teaching at Potomac College, Principles of Marketing, we are learning about relationship marketing, described in the textbook as “long-term, cost-effective relationships with individual customers, suppliers, employees and other partners for mutual benefit.” A supply chain is part of marketing, assigned to the “P” known as “place” within the “4Ps” (Product, price and promotion being the others.)
Apple’s Chinese suppliers are foundational to the company’s relationship marketing, responsible for more than just product quality, profitable production and timely delivery. Companies like Foxconn, the major electronics supplier at the center of recent controversies, enhance or diminish Apple’s brand. In short, the company’s reputation does not rest solely with what happens in the hallowed halls of Cupertino.
Such supply chain repercussions are not new phenomena or exclusive to the tech industry. Nike suffered considerable PR damage in the 1990s for substandard conditions and the use of child labor in the factories of its Asia-based suppliers. The stigma and charges of sweatshop practices continue for the company and its founder Phil Knight.
In the face of negative press and mounting pressure, Apple became the first tech company to join the Fair Labor Association and is conducting joint audits with the organization of its major supplier, Foxconn. In turn, Foxconn has announced pay hikes of 16 to 25% for its workers.
SUSAN G. KOMEN FOR THE CURE: On January 31, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the charity known as the global leader of the breast cancer movement, halted to grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. Susan G. Komen cited new criteria barring grants to organizations under investigation by government authorities. Planned Parenthood has been the subject of congressional scrutiny for potentially improper use of public funds for abortions. Many saw Susan G. Komen’s move as tied specifically to the abortion issue.
A public outcry and intense media coverage immediately commenced. Susan G. Komen remained silent in traditional media and social media. The PR fail here is not about any stance on abortion; it is about lack of preparation for an easily predicted firestorm.
Two days after the announcement–an eternity in crisis communication–Komen CEO Nancy Brinker addressed the media in a conference call, reasserting that the funding cessation was due to the investigation into Planned Parenthood, not the organization’s role as an abortion provider. Three days after the announcement, Susan G. Komen restored the grants. On Day 7 of the controversy, Karen Handel, Komen’s senior vice president of public policy, resigned.
The organization has hired the consulting firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) to assess reputational damage. This sort of research and strategy should have been conducted while Susan G. Komen was contemplating the termination of its Planned Parenthood grants to understand the ramifications of such a decision and prepare a communications plan.
Here are some past examples of bad PR: