Three Examples of Bad PR: Q4 2013

As we celebrate the beginning of a happy new year, let’s look back at three subjects that each suffered an unhappy PR year in the final quarter of 2013.

. The official name ascribed to President Obama’s healthcare overhaul is the Affordable Care Act, a moniker borne of congressional vote and public relations sensibility. However, supporters, opponents and news media alike use the term “Obamacare,” a rare but pervasive form of presidential branding (think “Reaganomics.”) President Obama’s very name symbolizes the program, which in turn has welded him to its disastrous launch and uncertain future.

Obamacare endured a contentious buildup dating from the crafting and passage of the legislation early in the President’s first term. The opening of the insurance enrollment portal,, on October 1, 2013, was the tangible culmination of all the planning, politicking and prognostications. With that, the site crashed, doing more to derail Obamacare and demolish the credibility of its supporters than the relentless efforts of its opponents, which included voting by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to defund the program and a marathon floor speech by Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

Compounding the web collapse, insurance companies began canceling coverage that did not meet Obamacare’s mandated standards, turning the President’s soundbite of “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it” into a punchline ranking with George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes,” Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,and George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

The President and his allies began a new PR initiative in December to recover support for Obamacare. This promises to be asymmetrical warfare as opponents plan to keep a low profile and let Obamacare’s shortcomings cement their case.

Rob Ford. The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, became international media fodder as a video surfaced of him smoking crack cocaine. The video’s existence had been purported for months prior, prompting denials from Ford reminiscent of the presidential misstatements above.

Once the video was confirmed, accusations surfaced of drunk driving, consorting with prostitutes and abuse of office. Another video showed Ford in an inebriated tirade, threatening political foes with injury and death. In attempting to defend himself, Ford commenced a campaign of self-destruction, blaming the crack smoking on a “drunken stupor,” using explicit language on national television to deny seeking a sexual act with a female staffer, and toppling a Toronto city councilwoman during a stormy session in city chambers.

Ford has remained in office, stripped of most of his powers by the Toronto City Council. He filed to run for reelection in October 2014. Political analysis shows Ford having a shot if police fail file charges against him and his power base in conservative suburbs gives him a plurality among a divided candidate field. While Ford’s political future remains murky at best, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s is also uncertain. Harper’s response to the Ford scandal was slow and tepid, a leadership lapse that only exacerbates his falling public approval amid another scandal rocking his Conservative Party, three senators cited for improper travel and housing expense claims.

Lululemon. The noted yoga clothing retailer endured PR fails throughout the year, culminating in a statement by the co-founder that only made matters worse. In March 2013, Lululemon recalled yoga pants that were too sheer, affecting 17% of its stock. In previous statements, the company admitted risks in having a limited number of suppliers, demonstrating the link between supply chain management and public relations.

In June, CEO Christine Day stepped down. Lululemon issued an FAQ insisting that Ms. Day’s move was not tied to the recall. Such company communication at times of uncertainty or crisis represents a good PR tactic, but the piece did not stem a stock tumble and speculation that the departure resulted from the product defects.

In November, Lululemon co-founders Chip and Shannon Wilson were interviewed on Bloomberg Television. When asked about problems with their pants, Chip asserted:

They don’t work for some women’s bodies. It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.

Shannon gave her husband what the Huffington Post described as a death glare and tried to qualify the remarks. Traditional and social media erupted with outrage over Lululemon’s co-founder ostensibly blaming women for being too fat for the company’s pants. Chip Wilson used social media himself to attempt message control, posting an apology on YouTube that was ripped for insincerity. The damage was done as sales and stock price kept dropping, leading to Wilson’s resignation as chairman.

About Jason William Karpf

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