crisis pr

As we look ahead to 2020, it pays to look back at some of the PR disasters of 2019, to glean lessons from the mistakes others made. Some massive, worldwide brands and household names found themselves in need of crisis PR help. 

Nike Scrambles to Save Face

For decades now, a large focus of Nike’s consumer PR approach has been influencer marketing. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James to Tiger Woods, Nike always goes after the biggest names, often gaining their endorsement of swoosh-embossed products. Sometimes, though, this kind of consumer PR can come back and bite you.

Nike courted controversy in both 2018 and 2019 by choosing embattled former quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a face of the company. Social media users fought each other, but for the most part, this controversy was all smoke and little fire. What did end up costing Nike, though, was the allegation that the company “reduced endorsement compensation” for some influencer athletes during their maternity leave.

When this news hit, fans were outraged and many immediately voted with their wallets. Nike scrambled, clearly under-prepared to deal with the blowback, promising to make changes while watching its market cap plummet more than a billion dollars.

Apple Faces Public Security Problems

There was a time when nearly everything Apple did came up roses. The company just couldn’t seem to lose. Lately, though, their track record has been more hit and miss. In 2019, the company kicked off the year with another major PR disaster.

Nearly a year to the day after the 2018 “throttling” controversy, media reports revealed that a “bug” in the Facetime app allowed callers to “secretly eavesdrop” on people they wanted to call. In response, Apple delayed. This allowed the story to churn, stretching across news cycles and enraging customers, who were outspoken in their criticism of a company that didn’t appear to understand how upset its customer base was.

Fraudulent College Moms

In perhaps one of the weirdest headline-grabbing PR scandals of 2019, dozens of people were implicated in a college-admissions fraud scandal. The story seemed pulled right out of a daytime soap opera: popular actresses manipulating the system, entitled teens getting by on their parents’ name and money, culpable school officials, and a bunch of people who didn’t seem one bit remorseful.

The general public responded with derision, and once-popular and well-regarded performers were lampooned as they waited to learn if they would face jail time. In response, some of the biggest names in the scandal, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, clammed up, saying little to nothing as the negative news stories and brutal social media lambasting continued.

Boeing is Grounded

Boeing had a terrible 2019, not necessarily on financial sheets, but in the headlines. Following two deadly crashes that stayed in the news cycles for months, Boeing saw one of its best-selling commercial airliners grounded indefinitely. While the company is reportedly working round the clock to fix the problems that led to the crashes, that message is not nearly enough for regulators, who have been either denying or delaying Boeing’s requests to get their jets back in the air.

The more time this story remains high up in the headlines, the more consumers are going to get a negative impression of the company and the plane in question, the 737 Max. It’s not helping that the media, in support of the main narrative, is putting out continuous secondary stories relating the history of quality complaints targeted at Boeing in general and the factory where the 737 Max was manufactured in particular. To date, Boeing has tried many different ways to push back against the PR crisis, most recently ousting the CEO. None of their efforts have made much of a dent in the growing negative public impression.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.