The 2013 Gregory Awards: 10 of the most epic PR fails and triumphs of 2013

December 18, 2013
newspaper with FAIL headline

Each year, we look back in search of epic PR triumphs and failures as part of an endless quest to learn more about the art of our craft. 2013 provides a long list of PR winners and losers. This year’s Gregory Awards go to:

The Jerk who Twerked. Logic would have it that a half-naked former child star, parading on stage foam fingering Robin Thicke would amount to an epic PR fail. Not in our world. Miley Cyrus’ brilliant reinvention of herself erased all memory of Hannah Montana and firmly established her as a major force in pop music. Miley’s music video for “Wrecking Ball” has already racked up 412 million views, and her newest album, Bangerz, debuted at #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200

Obama Carelessness. What could go wrong? After 50 years of fighting for health care reform and public sentiment finally aligned behind it, how could the Administration blow the seminal triumph of the Obama Presidency? How about failing to properly manage crisis communications about a web site melt down? How about dismissing the key role communications and public relations plays in selling any product or service? Obamacare will forever be synonymous with epic PR fails, a stigma that will taint its acceptance and success for years to come.

Air Cover for Amazon. How do you dominate the news during the holiday shopping season? Fake news, of course. When “60 Minutes” gave a gushing review of Jeff Bezo’s futuristic plan to deliver products by drone, it handed Amazon the PR win of the holiday season. Never mind how silly or impractical or illegal the idea. Kudos to Amazon, and a big “How I wish I would have thought of that” sigh of jealousy from me!

Head Examined. Money isn’t always the solution, as the NFL will soon learn from its ongoing challenge over player safety. By settling a player class action suit quickly for $765 million, the League acted as if dollars were the answer. The reality is there is no simple answer to improving player safety, and the NFL should have used the opportunity to look for creative solutions that will allow us all to continue to love the game without the guilt of player exploitation. The resulting documentary, League of Denial, was damaging, but so too is the NFL public narrative that all is well and the issue has been addressed.

Real Beauty, Real Meaning. Anyone who had the chance to see Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” film, and 135 million of us did, had the rare opportunity to experience the power of a message when a brand respects the sentiment of its audience. The campaign asked strangers to describe the looks of a woman they had just met to a sketch artist. Then, the women described herself to the same artist, without the advantage of the artist ever seeing her. The end result was a highly emotion revelation of how hard woman view their own beauty compared to the beauty strangers see in them. A PR triumph for the ages, the campaign will be remembered and studied for generations — for its humanity and thoughtfulness.

Can’t Stand the Heat. Canned. Disingenuous. Seeking redemption too soon and without contrition. Paula Deen’s attempt to redeem herself from racial slurs she made to ex-employees and which came to light during an ensuing legal battle, fell flat when she cried a river on The Today Show. The American public is a forgiving lot, but not when the apology is contrived and forced.

Lights Out. No other instance illustrated the power of rapid response in a socially driven world more than when Oreos transformed the Super Bowl power outage into a reason to connect with their customers. “You can still dunk in the dark” was a Tweet heard round the world and an example of how brands can now interact with consumers in real time as news and events unfold.

Ship of Fools. Stuck at sea without power, toilets, or fresh food. Okay stuff happens. But you still have to control the media. When Carnival’s Triumph was towed into port after being marooned for days at sea, it was greeted by an onslaught of media who were free to interview passengers live as they disembarked. No restrictions. No handlers. Nothing but bad PR all around. A fail of Titanic proportions.

Immaculate Perception. How do you turn around the image of a 2,000 year old institution, plagued by falling membership, a discredited priest class, and a constituency worn down by generations of secrecy and seeming indifference? Pope Francis’ remarkable reputation redemption of the Catholic Church reads like textbook image repair. Inclusive. Humble. Pious and charitable, the new Pope now enjoys an 88% approval rating with Catholics and was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine. Wow!

Netflix Impresses. Once a cumbersome mail order DVD business, Netflix has emerged as a legitimate threat to the American entertainment monopoly of cable, broadcast, and movie production houses. Its rebound comes only two years after an unpopular change to its pricing model robbed the company of 80% of its value. But what a difference 24 months can make. After adding its own content this year, and then legitimizing its brand with an Emmy Win for House of Cards in March, the company is now one of the best performing stocks of 2013. Reed Hastings set the stage for his resurrection when he publicly apologized for the mistakes of 2011, a classic but overlooked PR strategy that too few CEOs care to use as a means for repairing damaged reputations.

There you have it. Ten Gregory Awards for the good, the bad, and the ugly in public relations for 2013. Here’s hoping we learn from the past and 2014 results in all epic triumphs while limiting the fails of the future.

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