The Biggest PR Winners of 2014

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2014 was, by most accounts, a year filled with bad news. As Slate’s brilliant “Year of Outrage” piece showed us, our culture now effectively moves from one terrible story to another; we discard each instance of bad behavior in record time to look for the next thing that should make us angry.

And yet…

Beyond all the terrible tweets, shamed celebrities and general #PRFails, the year also included its share of success stories. Today we present our own subjective, by no means comprehensive list of people and organizations who fared better than most in 2014.

In no particular order…

CVS Pharmacy:

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You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to defend “Big Tobacco” today; one of the world’s largest holding companies recently refused to confirm that a cigarette company would be its newest client.

Still, CVS drew nearly universal praise for choosing to become the first pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco thanks to both the historical nature of the move and the effective execution of Edelman’s multimedia “CVS Quits for Good” campaign. The first party to embrace change will always be seen as a leader, even when the change itself feels inevitable.

Derek Jeter and LeBron James:

The news was full of athletes behaving badly in 2014, but Jeter and James were both heralded as hometown heroes for keeping things (relatively) modest and avoiding their colleagues’ propensity for showing their worst faces to the world. Jeter even felt generous enough to do a bit more of the thing he seems to hate most: speaking to the press.

And yes, LeBron’s “I’m back” campaign was still bombastic — but it was less obnoxious than his “I’m going to Miami” campaign, wasn’t it?

The Tower of London:

If you’re going to pull a stunt meant to turn heads around the world, you’d better make it something to remember. The team behind the royal art piece “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” did just that by filling the famous tower’s moat with 888,246 ceramic red poppies — one for each British or colonial life lost in World War I.


The phrase “branded content” (or whatever they’re calling it now) usually translates to “things the average consumer would never read or watch,” but Chipotle and AOR Edelman bucked that trend by following 2013’s master class in messaging with more installments in the ongoing “responsible fast food” campaign. The brand used the worlds of television, advertising and literature to its advantage by hewing to the most important principle in content creation: if it’s not a press release, then it should never be all about you.

The Interview:

The film got middling reviews at best and inspired the most disastrous data leak in memory; we can understand why some reports claim that its writer/star/primary spokesperson Seth Rogen is far from the most popular man in show business at the moment. But the disproportionate amount of attention paid to what critics called yet another 90-minute collection of “men acting like boys” themes and poop jokes cannot be overstated…and it did “set an all-time record for online sales.

We’ll let others decide whether this is a good thing.

Malala Yousafzai:

Yet another Edelman client, Malala used her newfound position as anti-terrorism activist to become history’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner while simultaneously criticizing those who support terrorist groups around the world, advising Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan on the Boko Harem kidnapping (along with Levick), and questioning the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s ongoing drone offensive. Who else can make such a claim?

The NBA:

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Pic via Mike Segar/Reuters

The NFL couldn’t seem to decide how to respond to its big scandals this year, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted quickly and decisively — so much so that the main criticism leveled against him held that he was TOO harsh in punishing Donald Sterling for exercising his right to free (racist) speech. The fact that most parties making that argument happened to be political contrarians and Mark Cuban only further proves that he made the right decision.


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The retailer provided a model for the many, many companies that will experience security breaches in the future: buckle down and take bold action. Firings, hirings, operational shifts, and a greater focus on transparency ensured that the biggest story surrounding the chain this holiday season involved a 17-year-old who turned into a meme on the strength of a single photo.

The data security industry:

Any party selling expertise in data storage/security and related software no longer has to worry about proving its relevance; headlines do that job more effectively than any pitch ever could.

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift:

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You may well be tired of hearing the names of two of the world’s biggest pop stars, but in 2014 they taught us the value of consistency. As Lady Gaga’s stunts provide ever-diminishing returns, Knowles and Swift simply keep doing what they’ve been doing all along. For the former, that meant getting attention for the release of a non-album; for the latter, it meant becoming the spokesperson for a city she barely knows after breaking up with her longtime publicist.

Knowles and sister Solange also showed us that social media is the new key to crisis communications, as if we didn’t already know that.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge:

Some cynics have argued that the Ice Bucket trend eventually resembled other, less noble marketing campaigns and that the money donated to the organization may have been better spent researching conditions that affect far more people around the world every day. But the movement — and it really was a movement for a time — proved that a good idea, when executed well, can unite millions behind a cause.

The secret ingredients in this case were simplicity, fun, and inclusiveness.



The President’s defining healthcare initiative still faces more than its share of detractors and existential threats, and pundits will probably debate the relative effectiveness of the #GetCovered campaign and Obama’s “Between Two Ferns” appearance for years. But despite the fact that the administration suffered an embarrassment over inflated enrollment numbers in November, the website finally started working — and reports released last week indicate that the plan “is easily on track” to meet its “relatively modest” goal of ensuring 9 to 10 million Americans by 2015. Any shortcomings are certainly not due to a lack of effort.

The NFL:

Roger Goodell

This one seems a little counter-intuitive, but stick with us.

Yes, the league had a terrible year, revealing itself to be a mismanaged organization in sore need of “positive role models” and anything approaching accountability. Its public face, Roger Goodell, also showed the world how not to give a press conference. But the sport remains as popular as ever, and despite the organization’s lateness in cracking down on domestic violence, all the well-deserved outrage barely touched the league’s standing among its most important, fastest-growing demographic: young women. To borrow a phrase once applied to financial institutions, the NFL is “too big to fail.”

Again, this is only one list. Now who did we miss?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.