Three Examples of Bad PR, Q2 2014

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Controversy about the treatment of veterans is as old as the nation, from the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 which drove Congress from the then-capital of Philadelphia, to the Bonus Army of 1932 protesting economic conditions, to revelations in the 1970s and 1980s about the harmful effects of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. In short, the federal government has historically lagged in addressing veterans’ needs.

Recent revelations of excessive waiting times at VA hospitals and coverups of those lapses constitute a spike in a chronic crisis regarding the VA’s healthcare services spanning several presidential administrations. As frequently seen in scandals, misconduct to conceal misconduct–secret lists tallying true wait times for veteran patients, retaliation against whistleblowers–fails its intended purpose and only intensifies the public’s outrage. An official report pointed to a “corrosive culture” at the VA, underscoring the the foundation of public relations: the cultural integrity of the subject organization.

The scandal has prompted multiple resignations in the VA’s top ranks, including Secretary Eric Shinseki who received White House support to the end of his tenure. President Obama nominated former Procter & Gamble CEO and West Point graduate Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary.

Hillary Clinton: “Hellish.” “Disastrous.” These are descriptions of Hillary Clinton’s recent tour to support her book Hard Choices. Many considered the tour to be a trial run for another campaign for president in 2016. If so, the experience has exposed “flaws in the machinery,” per Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers.

Missteps in media interviews have punctuated the tour and cast doubt on Ms. Clinton’s preparedness as a candidate. The signature quote:

We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.

Critics howled and supporters winced as Clinton seemed to blithely ignore the many millions in speaking, consulting and book fees that were essentially guaranteed her family upon Bill Clinton leaving office. In subsequent mitigation attempts (i.e., damage control), she admitted her comment was not “artful” but still asserted that she and her husband were “not truly well off” compared to other wealthy people.

Other interviews on Benghazi and support of gay marriage have been shaky as well, the latter prompting a “testy” exchange with an NPR reporter. Pundits have been quick to point out that she has not campaigned (officially or unofficially) in years and that the last time she did, she lost in the primaries to Barack Obama. Ms. Clinton’s poll numbers have dropped from their highs, but she still handily beats all potential GOP contenders in hypothetical matchups.

Dr. Oz: In June, Mehmet Oz, physician, author and TV host, found himself in America’s hottest hot seat: appearing before a senate panel on Capitol Hill. In the same forum that saw Dick Fuld answering for Lehman Brothers’ collapse and Akio Toyoda apologizing for Toyota’s defects, Dr. Oz testified about endorsing dietary supplements on his show.

Oz has touted supplements such as green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and Garcinia camboja as “miracle” weight loss products. Sen. Claire McCaskill said to the doctor, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.”

Oz defended the products and his actions with statements that included:

My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience when they don’t think they have hope.

I have things I think work for people. I want them to try them so that they feel better, so that they can do the things we talk about every day on the show [like diet and exercise].

When I can’t use language that is flowery, that is exulting, I feel like I’ve been disenfranchised.

Oz told the senators that he has toned down his language but will still endorse dietary supplements on his show. He has faced heavy criticism from lawmakers and commentators, but it is too soon to say if his sponsors and audience feel the same way.

About Jason William Karpf

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