What the Biggest PR Losers in 2019 Can Learn in the New Year

2019 was a doozy of a year when it came to PR challenges:

  • Uber spent half a billion dollars to distance the company from its rocky past few years, launching a series of national campaigns pledging a commitment to inclusion and its overall company mission, and attempted to reinforce new in-app safety tools.
  • Wayfair had to deal with a wave of employee activism brought up by the company’s decision to sell beds to the US government for Texas border detention camps.
  • Boeing’s slow and confusing responses following the deadly crashes of its 737 MAX airplanes rattled many.
  • WeWork’s IPO imploded over the excesses of the company’s now former CEO, Adam Neumann.
  • And so on...

Who’s PR disaster was “the worst” of 2019? We conducted a survey to find out and the results were surprising. Read on for our for the biggest takeaways and what brands can learn from 2019 to not lose in 2020.

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"Mark Zuckerberg" by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Companies Need to Own Their Crises

Despite the high profile and flashy falls from grace belonging to the Ubers and the WeWorks of the world, a third of respondents named Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the biggest PR losers of the year (in Academy Award speak, they swept the major awards for “worst film” and “worst director”).

As opposed to pinpointing specific debacles like Boeing -- it was the gradual revelation of Facebook’s questionable privacy standards, inaction with regard to potential political propaganda, and election meddling by foreign entities that sank the company and its leader in the minds of the American public.

As much as the coastal elitists of Gotham and San Francisco were shocked by the incredibly rapid meltdown of IPO-bound WeWork and its well coiffed, charismatic CEO, cybersecurity was top of mind for the rest of the country. Calling reports that Russian agents influenced the 2016 presidential elections via Facebook a “pretty crazy idea” or claiming that he didn’t know about Cambridge Analytica’s data breach made Zuckerberg look as out of touch as George H.W. Bush at a grocery store check-out counter circa 1992.

Do What Your Company Does Best, But Know Your Limits

For every polarizing PR crisis, there’s an equal and opposite success story. Respondents highlighted brand stalwarts Amazon and Apple as the PR winners of 2019. This is primarily because each (mostly) stayed out of any significant controversies and continued to do what they do best.

Both Amazon and Apple increased brand power by branching off into entertainment — the former by continuing to produce award-winning programming on its streaming service, Prime Video, while the latter introduced a streaming platform of its own in AppleTV+. And their CEOs stayed the heck out of any serious trouble, even with Jeff Bezos’ divorce (it was 2019 it happens).

Most importantly, these household brands innovated in the red hot content creation space, inching into new territory, while continuing to focus on their core product lines and strongholds in their respective industries. Amazon stayed an e-commerce giant and Apple remained a global tech behemoth.

This point for brands is to try new things, but don’t forget where you came from.

The ultimate takeaway is that brands win when they are transparent, stay true to themselves and own up when they stumble-- just as any mere mortal would be expected to. And that is a lesson we should all bring into 2020.

Cheers to a prosperous and crisis-free New Year! But if you do find yourself in a pickle, you know who to call.

Posted by Jordan Cohen