The Biggest PR Losers of 2014


Yesterday we shared some of the biggest winners hidden amidst all of 2014’s horrible headlines.

There’s been so much bad news over the past twelve months that we had to follow up with another (completely subjective) list of “losers,” but as we reviewed the bunch we kept coming back to the same question: what’s the true cost of bad publicity in 2014?

A&E got lots of negative attention, but didn’t feel the need to cancel any of its “controversial” shows; the world’s hottest “sharing economy” company earned a mountain of bad press but saw its estimated value continue to rise; our nation’s real pastime stained its own reputation but scored higher ratings than ever before.

As the year ends, we ask ourselves: how many of these losers suffered real damage, and how much of the bad press was simply “noise” destined to be forgotten as soon as the next controversy arrives?

Here they are in no particular order…


Uber sorry

Over the summer, an Uber general manager declared PR to be “a waste of money,” and his company proceeded to prove him very wrong with 2014’s longest unbroken streak of bad publicity. Most prominently, in addition to some casual sexism and controversies regarding bad drivers, the company demonstrated the very worst possible way to approach media relations. CEO Travis Kalanick then combined “the public relations savvy of Miley Cyrus with the pugnacity of Alec Baldwin“(?!) by issuing a 14-tweet apology and calling it a day.

Our bold prediction for 2015: All signs point to the continued success of Uber and its sharing economy brethren, but unless the organization can demonstrate deep cultural change, the negative headlines will keep coming. Such is the nature of “disruption” itself.

Snapchat and Whisper:

This year we learned that “privacy” and “anonymity” are relative terms.

Problems at these two otherwise red-hot startups led many to ask how businesses should proceed when reality rudely disproves their key selling points. We think you’ll agree that both stumbled out of the gate in addressing their respective privacy controversies; The Whisper expose was not as monumental as 2013’s Edward Snowden blockbuster, but the Guardian PR team tells us it was one of the year’s biggest stories. Of course, TechCrunch reported last week that the latest “Snappening” had no effect on the former company’s growth, once again leading us to wonder whether there might be something to the “all publicity is good publicity” fallacy after all.



Satya Nadella, the CEO supposedly hired to help make Microsoft a cutting-edge company again, chose the best place to elaborate on his patronizing “lean back” strategy: a conference on women in the tech field. He said that women should trust in the “good karma” of the existing system rather than being so bold as to ask for raises, later claiming that he’d misspoken while ensuring the public that Microsoft pays men and women equally.

Here’s the evidence Nadella cited to back up that claim:

The United States Senate and House of Representatives:

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Americans are fed up with our do-nothing Congress, yet we continue re-electing the very people who promise to ensure that their opponents won’t get anything done next term. As Politifact told us in November, that viral meme that popped up all over your Facebook feeds last month was accurate:


We have absolutely no reason to believe that Americans’ opinions of these institutions — which were allegedly created to serve us as effectively as possible — will improve in coming years.

The U.S. intelligence community:

CIA tweet

The CIA got snarky on Twitter and released a very interesting grammar guide, but the real news of 2014 came in the form of the most epic Christmas Eve news dump in recent memory: the NSA admitted that the very surveillance/data collection techniques it had alternately denied and defended since Edward Snowden went public in 2013 “may have violated the law or U.S. policy over more than a decade.

That sound you heard in the night before Christmas wasn’t Santa coming down the chimney; it was millions of readers simultaneously screaming “I KNEW IT!”

General Motors:


Pic via Forbes

Despite newly appointed CEO Mary Barra’s best efforts and a reportedly “impressive recall rate” fueled by Facebook, there was simply no way for GM to put a good face on a still-growing tragedy facilitated by years of inattention.

For an illustration of the human price of corporate misbehavior, look no further than this November New York Times piece about Candice Anderson, a woman who pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide in the death of her boyfriend…a death eventually blamed on the faulty mechanism behind the recall.

Back in 2010, GM’s former comms chief Chris Preuss told our own Nancy Lazarus that the company’s bankruptcy “was so dire than even the media got tired of writing about us,” but that almost certainly won’t happen in 2015. Does anyone even remember the controversy about Barra’s salary? That was 2014, too.

Law enforcement:


There’s a good reason “police officer” consistently joins “public school teacher” and “nurse” atop surveys asking Americans which professions they admire most: law enforcement is an important, dangerous, and often thankless job. Yet events in Missouri and New York this year required the emergency services of crisis comms firms and reminded us in painful ways that community relations may be the greatest challenges facing any police department, despite declining crime rates. (#MYNYPD provided another reminder.)

Unfortunately, the influence of controversies like these almost always outweighs that of stories about law enforcement doing its job well — and we can be certain that public-facing organizations around the country are watching closely to determine how best to minimize such headlines in the future.

American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch:


What happens when a company drops a toxic CEO who doubled as its public face for years?

Both retailers finally fired their chief executives in 2014, but they were still plagued by stories involving inappropriate mannequins, disappointed bros, and what may have been the year’s worst social media failure. Abercrombie has yet to announce a new chief, but American Apparel dumped notorious creeper Dov Charney and replaced him with Barbara Schneider — a move that pleased investors and angered managers who insisted that he was what “makes this thing tick.”

We thought we heard something ticking.

Home Depot/JP Morgan Chase/Staples:


These three joined the data breach club in 2014, and their responses left much to be desired. JP Morgan only admitted to a breach when required by law while Home Depot blamed Microsoft and Staples waited nearly two months to acknowledge the Krebs on Security report revealing that more than one million accounts had been compromised.

Target took a year to recover from its security failure, and these companies responded even less effectively than their predecessor. Future victims will have no choice but to do better.

The airline industry:


The losses that struck Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia this year weren’t “PRFails,” they were tragedies. But customers around the world don’t much care for their air travel providers, and it might have something to do with an endless string of “I’ve been there” stories about terrible service and lost dogs.

A recent piece in The New Yorker capped the year off by explaining how the beleaguered industry managed to turn a profit: a collection of added/hidden fees best described as “calculated misery.” Even longtime fan favorite JetBlue does it; “flying cheap” is a thing of the past.

Bill Cosby:

Loser of the year

Whatever the aging star’s current and future legal status may be, Americans’ opinions soured on him for the first time this year. No one but the parties involved can speak to any of the claims made against Cosby, but The New York Times summed up his legal strategy with a brutal headline: “Hush Accusers, Insult Them, Blame the Media.

Our PR contacts weighed in, with Jason Maloni of Levick telling Bloomberg that Cosby’s days as a spokesman are over and Howard Bragman of Fifteen Minutes PR advising him to “shut up and disappear.” 2015 will almost certainly be no kinder to Cosby.

In a sign of just how far his star has fallen, one of the country’s top crisis communications firms declined to work with him and requested that we remove its name from a related post.

The NFL:

Roger Goodell

We included the National Football League on our list of 2014’s biggest PR winners to make a point about the organization being nearly immune to bad press; Sunday Night Football had higher ratings this year than last. But before deciding to crack down and tighten its regulations, the NFL did everything wrong: no one really believed that officials hadn’t seen the Ray Rice video, and Roger Goodell came off nearly as tone-deaf as Daniel Snyder in a press conference that did not include the words “sorry” or “I apologize.”

We, like millions of other Americans, will watch the playoffs and the Super Bowl this year. But public perception of the league has slipped in every related poll, especially among men — and fans may not be as forgiving next time around, no matter how many PSAs the NFL endorses.

Sony Pictures:


Pic via Wikipedia

Aaron Sorkin can wag his finger at the media for reporting on unessential information derived from the Sony hacks, but he can’t stop the public from being compelled by such a big-budget train wreck. Some of it, like the fact that top execs don’t like Adam Sandler and enjoy making casually racist jokes, was not really “news,” but the major studios’ war against Google most definitely was. The leaks painted a picture of an organization fraught with dysfunction, backstabbing, and juvenile behavior.

If the Snapchat and Whisper stories weren’t enough, Sony proved to the world that, in 2014, nothing is truly private — especially if it’s digital.

Here’s hoping for a slightly more positive 2015.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.