Three Examples of Bad PR, Q1, 2014

Chris Christie: 2014 opened with a scandal centering on Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who went into the year widely considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. The Record broke the story that Christie staffers and appointees closed access lanes in Ft. Lee, NJ, to the George Washington Bridge to punish the town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial race. A series of emails and texts were the smoking gun as deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Port Authority board member David Wildstein planned the commuting nightmare under the guise of a traffic study.

Christie denied knowledge of the plot and said he was misled by his people in the weeks leading up to the media bombshell. Resignations and firings commenced as Christie sought to distance himself from the scandal. The typically bombastic governor was contrite in his first press conference regarding the scandal. In subsequent weeks, his reputation continued to suffer as he was a labeled a longtime political bully, an image reinforced by his attempted unseating of Thomas Kean, Jr., as state senate minority leader the previous fall, drawing a rebuke from former NJ governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the senator’s father and Christie’s political mentor. Christie authorized an outside law firm to investigate the lane closures and ensuing coverup with the final report absolving him of involvement, which many called a whitewash.

Christie returned to his trademark combative form in his first press conference in more than two months after the scandal broke. His poll numbers dipped then stabilized with a 50% job approval rating. Regarding his appeal as a presidential candidate, he places in the pack of GOP hopefuls in many surveys.

Tim Armstrong: As CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong is no stranger to controversy and bad press. His company remains a beleaguered symbol of the dotcom crash, its 2001 merger with Time Warner routinely called “the worst business deal in history.” In 2013, Armstrong was dunned for publicly firing a creative director for taking photos during a company meeting with 1,000 people listening in by conference call.

Armstrong sank to a new PR low in February when he announced that he was cutting back 401(k) benefits for his workers because of rising healthcare costs. He cited two “distressed babies” born to AOL families whose medical issues each resulted in $1 million in costs. The outrage and snark were immediate, with traditional and social media lighting up in condemnation of Armstrong. He tried to explain his position in an internal communication that fell short of a public apology in the eyes of many.

The most poignant protest came in an article by the mother of one of the two babies cited by Armstrong. Deanna Fei writes, “(Armstrong) exposed the most searing experience of our lives for an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.” The article is calm but heart-wrenching as it tells the story of a little girl born in the fifth month without warning who defied the odds to survive. Armstrong ended up apologizing as well for the 401(k) cuts and reinstating previous benefits.

Kelly Blazek: This fall from grace is a reminder of the power of viral stories and the special responsibility that communications professionals have in their public conduct. Kelly Blazek, a Cleveland communications pro and head of the Cleveland Job Bank for marketing and communications job postings, sent an angry, snide reply to Diana Mekota, a recent college graduate requesting a LinkedIn connection.

“Wow, I cannot wait to let every 25-year-old jobseeker mine my top-tier marketing connections to help them land a job. Love the sense of entitlement in your generation. And therefore I enjoy denying your invite, and giving you the dreaded ‘I Don’t Know’…” Blazek wrote Mekota, denying her as well a subscription to the job bank. Mekota sent a conciliatory reply, despite being told “Don’t ever write me again.” Upon receiving no further response, Mekota shared Blazek’s screed with friends by email and posted it to several social media sites.

As was the case with the Armstrong debacle, outrage and snark exploded in traditional and social media. Blazek’s self-description as a “job bank mother” treating subscribers as “little brothers and sisters” heightened the scorn, as did her recent award as “Communicator of the Year” from the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. Others came forward having received the same nasty treatment by Blazek for trying to connect with her.

National and international media picked up the story. Blazek issued a public apology in The Cleveland Plain Dealer and shut down her online presence. The Cleveland IABC accepted return of the Communicator of the Year award by “mutual agreement” with Blazek.

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About jasonkarpf

Public Relations. Marketing. Writing. Adjunct Instructor.
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