Understanding the biggest PR failures of 2022
From the Balenciaga scandal to Will Smith's Oscar slap and Ye professing his love for Hitler, Edward Coram James, chief executive officer of the Go Up agency unpacks 12 months of PR disasters.
You know those years when come Boxing Day everyone’s talking about the incredible PR campaigns of the year? You know the ones. You do remember them right? Squeeze that old noggin of yours. They weren’t that long ago.
2014 was the year when come New Year's Eve the universally approved safe zone first date small talk revolved around comparing John Lewis’ Monty the Penguin ad, to Sainsbury’s Great War football Christmas campaign. Where the success of a campaign was measured by how many new oceans have been officially designated, following grab your handkerchief, we’re in for a real tearjerker PR blitz.
Fast forward to 2022 which ended up being a bad year for PR, and when I say bad, I mean bad. The type of year where, instead of chatting about Christmas campaign tearjerkers, we are once again lamenting foot in their mouth, or perhaps a whole body in their mouth bad press with a million questions and the wrong answers for each one.
Forget the elephant in the room, 2022 was all about the herd of Diplodocus’ on the lawn. Some might ask why is it so darn hard for brands to get PR right. We’re not asking you to recreate the original Coca-Cola Father Christmas advertisement. All we’re asking here is that you read the room, stop your brand ambassador from saying he loves Hitler, don’t sexualize babies and whatever you do, and don’t let the Fresh Prince sucker punch everyone-hates-Chris while promoting King Richard.
Let’s start with the obvious, Balenciaga. What were you thinking? I actually need someone to answer that question for me, it keeps me up at night. Not because it was outrageous that’s obvious. But from a very pure and innocent what were you actually thinking here? Explain the PR thought process to me, I beg of you. Apologies aren’t enough. I just need someone to sit me down and show me the whiteboard from their creative meetings, then join the thought process dots for me. “Okay, everyone loves babies, right? And, everybody loves sadomasochism…”
Before that debacle, there was Ye's racist outburst followed by his tragic crisis management solution to go on TV and say he loves a certain mustached Nazi from the 1930s.
Then, of course, there’s Harry and Meghan. A six-hour Netflix special where the Prince and Princes claim they are camera shy and all they want is privacy and blame everything on everyone else, while the rest of the UK can’t afford bills and have to decide between eating and heating. It is as if we are participating in some confusing, surrealist 2022 Monty Python Secret Cinema dystopia. This is so bad, it’s a good factor: 10. This is a great crisis comms factor: 1.5. And don’t even get me started on the Will Smith slap. Or come to think of it the preceding Chris Rock tearing down people with a serious disease joke.
You know that you’ve had a bad year when one of the few examples of good PR was a funeral. To be fair to the Royals, in one of their darkest hours, losing the matriarch and rock of their family, stepped up to the plate and showed the world what they do and how they do it. It was a PR masterclass executed with seamless perfection, and teaches the PR world the lesson that it seems to be lacking in recent years: plan, prepare and practice.
2022 will not be a year where we close it out talking about all the good PR. It will be yet another year, in a long line of years, where we discuss very bad PR. So my advice for 2023 is to get creative again, get fun again and get interesting again. I know life is hard right now but people don’t want to be reminded of that every time they see a campaign. They want to be reminded that, as testing as life can be sometimes, there are still a lot of things to smile about.
The covid crisis, the climate crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and the new-normal state of perma-crisis have been difficult. Life can be hard and devastating but that doesn’t mean that we have to throw constant PR crises into the mix as well. Just because we’ve all gone a little mad doesn’t mean we should have to sit down to watch your clients having meltdowns on a national stage.
This doesn’t mean that social media platforms and TV shows should be giving a platform to racism. That doesn’t mean that we should have to watch another six-hour special of “The Sussexes”. And definitely doesn’t mean that we should have to watch whatever Scooby-Doo Balenciaga seems to want us to watch.
So, here’s my challenge for 2023. If we can’t give things weight, and we can’t re-find funny can we at least keep things sane?