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Tasteless PR Campaigns that Proved a Little Too Hard to Chew
By: Jeannine Wheeler
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As America mourned the loss of yet another Hollywood actor to drug overdose, there was one person who thought the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman might have presented a different opportunity. That was Valentino’s celebrity relations manager Upasna Khosla, who sent out a press release showing actor Amy Adams clutching one of the brand’s handbags on the way to the funeral home, thus ignoring the solemnity of the event. Twitter fans found the tout tasteless and the brand was forced to apologize.

If you are a PR, you may have heard this advice from your CEO: “The two things you must never do are a) embarrass the company and b) cost us money.”

Pity the following PR stunt managers who never got the memo.

Give credit where credit is due

This was one CEO who did not heed his own advice.

To prove the veracity of his product, LifeLock CEO Todd Davis put his own social security number on billboards across America. Contrary to protecting his own identify from theft, Davis’ identify was stolen and a $500 loan was taken out in his name. In fact, he reportedly became the victim of identity theft no fewer than 13 times! In addition to some dings on his personal credit report following the ill-advised 2007 PR stunt, LifeLock was fined $12 million by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising.

Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel
Journalists are used to getting a treasure trove of gifts and products through their post rooms — from dishwashers to Pradas to iPads. But some South Australian media executives were probably pretty surprised when a bowl with a dead goldfish showed up on their desks, courtesy of Advantage SA and partially funded by the Labor government. A marketing agency sent out 55 goldfish with an invitation to a tour run by Advantage SA and in a bowl inscribed with “Be the big fish in a small pond and come and test the water. SA.”

Advantage SA chief Karen Raffen was forced to apologize.

"On behalf of Advantage SA, I would like to personally apologise for any offence caused by the arrival of the fish," said Raffen "It was certainly not our intention to either harm or cause any distress to the fish or those receiving the invitation."

In fact, the PR stunt not only failed to spread any good cheer for the area, but also held it up for ridicule. “South Australia does have a reputation for the worst water in Australia but this is going too far,” a media executive told The Australian.

What Goes Up Must Come Down
Wife Swap favorites Heene and Mayumi Iizuka wanted a bit more reality TV fame, so they cooked up scheme to PR the pilot for their own series called The Science Detectives. To grab the public’s attention, handyman/storm chaser/science enthusiast Heene built a saucer-shaped "weather balloon" big enough to transport, let’s say, his aptly named youngest son Falcon. This, he thought, would create quite a stir when it appeared that the little boy had been ballooned away and carried across the Colorado landscape. After a five-hour crisis, where the Colorado National Guard helicopters tracked the boy across the state (fruitlessly, since Falcon was hiding in the family’s garage the whole time), the PR stunt was unveiled to be just that. There were very few laughs among civil authorities, including the Larimer County Sheriff’s office, to which the couple later surrendered. Light sentences and fines later ensued. No sign yet of The Science Detectives on prime time line-up, but the great balloon caper will certainly never be forgotten.

A Bully in a Twitter Shop
When PRs at JP Morgan Chase & Co brought the idea of a Twitter chat to its vice chairman, allowing students to ask his career advice, he must have thought it was a good idea. That is, until the bullies took over the hashtag #askjpm. “Do your settlement lawyers and social media people sit at the same table for lunch or different tables”? asked one. ”Why did you think this was a good idea?” asked another. “Did you have a specific number of people’s lives you needed to ruin before you considered your business model a success?” quipped another. The brand’s then 6,000 Twitter users were in full backlash during the November 2013 PR stunt gone bad. It wasn’t long before JP Morgan announced that “Tomorrow’s Q&A cancelled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board.”

Bill Gates is the Bee's Knees
Attendees of the $2,000-each charity dinner had to duck for cover when Bill Gates unintentionally released live mosquitoes during his speech at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in California in 2009. He was indeed supposed to open the insect container but the pesky mosquitoes were to be encapsulated under a further pane of glass.

"There's no reason why only poor people should have the experience,” said Gates, who is devoting his considerable passion, intellect, and finances to global health initiatives (in particular the eradication of malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea diseases such as rotavirus). Although the mosquitoes were not infected, guests ducked for cover and reportedly some were stung, leading Gates to say, “Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen,” adding that the event was designed to draw attention to the hardships of those living in developing countries.

Said Melinda Gates about the prank a few years later on NPR when asked if it was true that Bill released live mosquitoes into the audience:

“He did…and all the people in the front row all kind of cringed and got down. They wanted to climb under their seats. Luckily, the mosquitoes themselves didn't actually have malaria in the end.

Don’t Get Stung
Although Gates’ mosquito prank did manage to bring attention to the plight of third-world disease, it was indeed a risky venture and could have gone either way.

If you do not want to lie in the pantheon of PR pranks gone bad, check your idea with as many people as possible, and don’t ignore lower-level managers or team members, who can give you a much-needed reality check. And if you do go ahead, make sure your plan is failsafe and you’ve thought of a Plan B. Most of all, do be ready to pull the plug if you have to. There’s no shame in admitting you made a mistake. The real shame is breaking the two top rules of good PR practice: do not allow your brand to be held up to ridicule and do not cost the agency or brand money.

Other than that, have fun out there!


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About the Author
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.
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