Three Examples of Bad PR–Q4, 2012

In the final hours of 2012 (Pacific time), I present three examples of bad PR from the fourth quarter of the year.

BBC–The British Broadcasting Corporation, one of the world’s most respected media organizations, suffered massive public relations damage with revelations that its longtime program host, Jimmy Savile, was a pedophile, using his celebrity to commit and conceal decades of sexual abuse. The subject of rumors and preliminary investigations during his lifetime, Savile escaped official judgment, dying in 2011 two days before his 85th birthday.

In 2012, the BBC’s Newsnight program investigated accusations against Savile only to shelve the broadcast. The BBC did air programming honoring its late host. It took a rival network, ITV, to finally break the story in September 2012. The BBC fell into “chaos and confusion,” per an official report on the network’s actions regarding Savile. This is a textbook description of an organization lacking crisis planning, an astonishing public relations collapse for a global media corporation. Fanning the growing outcry, BBC’s Newsnight ran an report in November incorrectly linking British politician Lord McAlpine to child abuse allegations.

Instagram–The popular photo sharing and social network updated its privacy policy and terms of service in December 2012. Layered into the legalese were new powers for Instagram to share user information with parent Facebook and affiliates and use member photos in ads and sponsored posts, including those of minors.

The subsequent outrage seemed an obvious outcome to everyone except Instagram and Facebook. Privacy is an ongoing concern in social media, and Facebook has regularly faced criticism for pushing the boundaries in the name of increasing revenue. Slipping big privacy changes into boilerplate was PR ineptitude and Facebook knew better. Instagram subsequently rescinded the policy changes. In the end, this extends the public’s distrust regarding Facebook’s commitment to their privacy when using the site, or now its subsidiary sites like Instagram.

BIC–The BIC corporation makes lighters and shavers. It specifically markets products in these categories to women including Miss Bic lighters and Soleil shavers. BIC also makes pens. Was it a logical extension of product strategy to launch a line of pens designed for women? No.

“BIC for Her” pens have become a social media sensation, typically a marketer’s dream, unless the commentary is negative. The buzz for this product has gone beyond negative into the dreaded realm of satire.’s customer reviews–one of the earliest forms of social media dating back to the 1990s–became a mass forum of snarky slams. Tumblr and Twitter sites sprang up to lambaste the pens (B.L. Ochman points out that BIC facilitated this action by failing to secure “BIC for Her” on these platforms). Ellen DeGeneres’ send-up of BIC for Her posted major numbers on YouTube.

Ultimately, BIC’s PR debacle becomes a matter of marketing research. Was there an unmet need for women-specific pens? Granted, there are already a wealth of slender pens adorned with sparkles and/or traditional feminine colors, in keeping Bic For Her’s general design. Mara Judkis opines that the same pens without the “For Her” brand might have persevered in the marketplace. This is why product names, as well as product themselves, must be carefully tested.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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