The Internal Revenue Service: It would seem nearly impossible for the IRS to degrade its already abysmal standing with the public, but the agency has accomplished this with a scandal over targeting conservative groups. Discrimination steeped in politics, subsequent silence, and a farcical attempt to control the story comprise the PR train wreck that stretches from the Cincinnati offices where the original misdeeds occurred to the Oval Office.
The first PR mistake was the costliest–a failure to conduct daily activities in an ethical manner. This is where true public relations begins, not in the crisis communications vortex once a scandal is declared. The second PR mistake constitutes a second failure–the inability or unwillingness to gauge fallout from singling out conservative groups for extra scrutiny and onerous requirements when applying for tax-exempt status. In short, someone always needs to ask “what’s the worst that can happen?”
Knowledge of the actions in Cincinnati moved steadily up the leadership chain within the IRS, to its parent body the Treasury Department, and ultimately to White House officials. Nobody moved forward with disclosure while the Inspector General conducted an investigation. The IRS finally admitted the matter in a ham-handed way: planting a question at an American Bar Association meeting to be answered by Lois Lerner, the IRS’ head of the exempt-organizations division. Public relations routinely reinforces the importance of “getting in front of the story” but not through such stagecraft. Ousted IRS commissioner Steven Miller called the tactic “an incredibly bad idea” in a senate hearing. Finally, the IRS had sound PR analysis.
The Garment Industry: In April 2013, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 people in what has been called one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents.
Disturbing details quickly emerged:
- The building was illegally constructed with additional floors improperly added to the original four-story edifice.
- Government inspectors deemed the building unsafe after discovering cracks. The following day, garment factory management sent workers back to their posts, declaring the building safe and threatening to dock a month’s pay for failure to resume duties. The building collapsed after refilling with workers.
- Factories in the doomed building made garments for a purported number of major brands including Joe Fresh and Benetton. Many of these brands have disavowed using the factories or claimed their relationship ended before the collapse.
The garment industry epitomizes the public relations challenges inherent in global marketing, supply chain management and marketing channels. Working conditions in worldwide factories have registered an increasing PR impact on manufacturers and retailers in America and Europe. Such public concerns are not a new phenomenon. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 146 workers, triggering labor and safety reform. In the 1990s, Nike faced revelations of substandard conditions among its global suppliers, compelling the company to police such practices.
The garment industry is not merely a business continuum; it is a social and political structure spanning the developing nations that generate products and the more affluent nations that consume them. Reforms hard won in America 100 years ago will have to be recreated on an international scale. Demand for affordable fashion set the stage for the abuses that led to the disaster in Bangladesh. There is indication that a different type of consumer demand–one for acceptable conditions for global garment workers–will prompt change. Public relations analysis must be foundational in creating future business plans and regulation.
Carnival Cruise Lines: Mishaps continued on Carnival’s ships. While none involved the fatalities seen in the 2012 grounding of its Costa Concordia, the term “disaster” was still attributed to the 2013 incidents. Social media exacerbated Carnival’s PR woes.
In Feburary 2013, an engine room fire disabled Carnival Triumph as it cruised the Gulf of Mexico with more than 3,000 passengers. Social media and cell phone reports from the listing ship described overflowing toilets, dwindling food supplies, and stifling heat. In the meantime, Carnival received criticism for a lagging Twitter response and the presence of its chairman at a basketball game two days into the crisis. A tweet from the company fueled more ire when it announced that passengers could keep their bathrobes after they disembarked Triumph in Mobile, AL.
March 2013 brought malfunctions on two more Carnival ships. In April, Carnival announced a $700 million upgrade to its fleet to ensure backup power in the event of engine failure. That’s quite a PR budget.