The 10 Worst PR Disasters of 2013- Part 2

This is our second installment identifying five of the 10 worst PR disasters of 2013. You can read our first installment here. Don’t forget to check out our 10 best PR campaigns of 2013 in this post and this one.

1. Lakeland Police Department

Photo courtesy City of Lakeland

LPD Chief Lisa Womack. Photo courtesy City of Lakeland


This is a hyperlocal story that wound up making headlines across the nation. I’ve had a personal interest in this because I had the privilege of working with members of the police department in the past when I was a reporter. The public information officer at the time was excellent about sharing information.

LPD wound up being in the media for nearly all of 2013, for a variety of issues including a sex scandal that resulted in multiple firings, a police stop now dubbed “the bra-shaking incident,” (video here) difficulty in gaining public records access by the public and the media, an officer who sexually assaulted a woman who had dialed 911, and about $250,000 in taxpayer funds  spent to keep a grand jury presentment from going public. Visit The Ledger, and search Twitter for #LPDScandal and #LPDMess if you’d like more of the back story.

LPD didn’t make our list of the worst PR disasters because the department faced a scandal in 2013. It made the list because of the manner in which many of these issues were handled in the media.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is a media darling, due to his approach regarding the release of information. When bad news happens, his philosophy is to tell as much of the story as soon as possible. You know what that does? It gets the story off the front page in short order. You tell the media everything they want to know as soon as you know it, and they’ll publish their story and move on.  Withhold information, play cat-and-mouse, and find ways to be uncooperative, and the media will latch on and start digging. What would have been a front page story today and B2 of the Local section tomorrow will play out on the front page for days to come. Check out the front pages of The Ledger this year and see how many included an LPD story.

There’s a rift between LPD Chief Lisa Womack and State Attorney Jerry Hill, which has made the problem worse for LPD. The department would refuse to release something, and then a reporter would get the very record in question from the State Attorney’s Office or the Sheriff’s Office without a problem.  In the sexual assault incident involving Officer Julio Pagan, LPD refused to release a 911 tape. Hill’s office released with without hesitation. That tells me this wasn’t a public records issue. That is just another needless blemish in LPD’s reputation.

In the Tampa Bay area, this has been the story that simply wouldn’t go away in 2013. Rumors are flying that 2014 will shape up to be more of the same. We hope not, but we shall see.

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

2. The Anthony Weiner mayoral campaign 

The headlines alone were enough to be a public relations disaster. But here’s something to keep in mind for all you would-be politicians: the days of  being creepy and gross without other people finding out have ended, due in large part to social media. Weiner’s sexting caught up with him once again (he resigned from Congress in 2011 because of it) and derailed his campaign for NYC mayor. In the end, he garnered a sad 5 percent of the vote.

3. Obamacare

PR powerhouse Weber Shandwick won a $3.1 million contract to roll out the Affordable Care Act campaign. But all the best PR tactics couldn’t combat the negative publicity that plagued Obamacare. From website glitches and a requirement that people enter personal info before browsing insurance options, to the site development’s price tag and Americans getting letters from their insurance companies stating they’re being dropped, this has been one ugly mark on a program designed to provide insurance to the masses.

The lesson to be learned from the Affordable Care Act public relations disaster is this: whether you’re a small business or a federal government, get your stuff together before you roll out a program. You need to consider every possible misstep and element that potentially could go wrong and figure out what you would do if that happens.

4. Paula Deen 

Poor Paula. It’s as though she went from southern royalty to white trash in 2013. I feel like Paula got a raw deal. But the kerfuffle around whether she used racial slurs – and how she addressed the issue – presented a good lesson in public relations damage control and crisis management.

I keep a note on my desk that reads, “Be honest. Be humble. Be authentic.” This is what people who find themselves in a PR crisis must do if they hope to rise from the ashes.

USA Today ran an interesting story that polled several PR professionals after watching Paula’s Matt Lauer interview on the Today Show, which you can read here.

A better story ran in the Reading Eagle in July 2013. My favorite quote of the piece is this:

“Don’t lie, and take ownership of the story,” said Tom Sheehan, principal and creative director of Tom Sheehan Worldwide in Reading. “If the media own the story, you’re on the defensive. You have to make it a non-story.”

He said others caught in their own scandals, such as Martha Stewart (insider trading) and golf champion Tiger Woods and former president Bill Clinton (infidelity), have made comebacks.

“People love to forgive and love to see comebacks,” Sheehan said. “Five years from now, it will be as if it never happened.”

I highly recommend reading the whole Reading Eagle article for tips on handling a PR crisis.

5. Stupid PR agencies that pitch off-topic

It’s embarrassing (but not shocking) that with all the tools and knowledge at our disposal, public relations practitioners continue to use ridiculous tactics such as those called out in this scathing column published in November 2013 by New York Times columnist David Segal.When a PR expert posted the link to this column on his Facebook page, a friend left this comment:

This reminds me of the day I called Peppercom and made an intern cry after she responded to my (Help A Reporter Out) request for a source on medical marijuana with a pitch for a new life insurance product. WTF?


Here’s hoping we learn this valuable lesson in 2014.