PR Fails from 2022 and What We Can Learn from Them – Part 1

Every failure supposedly contains a lesson – which is why we’re closing out 2022 by looking back on some of the most noteworthy PR fails of the past year and what we can all learn from them. When it comes to poor communications, 2022 was a rich text. There were simply too many epic disasters to unpack in one blog; this is going to have to be a two-parter.

Woman V.S. Lettuce

In September, who would have thought that a U.K. Prime Minister would lead our annual round-up of PR fails, and that it wouldn’t be Boris Johnson? And yet, despite his many, many, MANY PR gaffes, Johnson managed to hang on to his office 23 times longer than his successor: Liz Truss, the PM who failed to outlast a head of lettuce.

Liz Truss wanted to do things differently, implementing sweeping economic changes with no room for compromise. She surrounded herself with ideological purists who moved quickly to execute her vision, and announced all of her key initiatives at once. This communications strategy backfired spectacularly. Truss’s plans to borrow billions to fund tax cuts for the wealthy roiled Britain’s financial markets and sent the pound to an all-time low against the dollar. At the same time, energy costs jumped 80 percent, leaving the county’s most vulnerable unable to afford heat and power.

Having already shown her entire hand, Truss was left with no option other than folding. She was forced to reverse all of her signature economic policies, fire her top ally and back Labour party economic proposals, a stunning about-face that destroyed her credibility within her own party right after she had earned the ire of the general public. As the government crisis continued, an opinion piece in The Economist compared likely length of Truss’s premiership to the shelf life of a lettuce. The Daily Star took the joke to the next level, purchasing a head of iceberg from Tesco for £0.60 and livestreaming its decay next to a framed photograph of Liz Truss.

After a mere 6 weeks in office, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss resigned. Her leadership saw the worst approval rating for a prime minister ever recorded, with 70 percent of the public unhappy with her performance. The lettuce was declared the victor, and Truss retains the title of shortest serving prime minister in British history.

Executives need a team of rivals willing to challenge them and explore risks and vulnerabilities in their preferred strategies. They also need patience. If Truss had been willing to engage in more negotiation, or roll out her signature policies in a more measured cadence, she would have had more room to maneuver once the markets and public turned against her. Indeed, she might not have spooked investors as all if she had used a more cautious approach.

PR Lesson:  
When it comes to unveiling a “bold new vision,” make sure you first gather truly diverse perspectives on its likely reception. Even then, don’t overcommit to a specific course of action; give yourself space to absorb and respond to new information once your plans meet reality.

Twitter’s Tricky Time

Twitter is a big part of our agency’s bread and butter. We’re incredibly active across client accounts and our own as a means of sharing news, connecting with journalists and being part of the community that resides in this corner of the internet (Hi #AVTweeps!). So when the stories started to emerge about Elon Musk purchasing Twitter, we held our breath. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad, maybe it would not be a big deal. Well….

There have been countless stories this year about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Fast Company gives my personal favorite summary in their story “For better or worse, 2022 was the year of Elon”

“By any measure, Musk’s Twitter takeover has been a hot mess: His ad hoc approach to “free speech” absolutism combined with mass layoffs has resulted in a spike of hate speech, spooked major advertisers, alienated high-profile users, and energized competitors. A scheme to monetize verification status has so far sputtered, and Musk himself has said that the enterprise is flirting with bankruptcy.”

Earlier this month Twitter suspended accounts of several prominent journalists. While the backlash has resulted in many of them being reinstated, it continues to be a tricky time for Twitter.

The Twitter dumpster fire also shows us the dangers of allowing a company’s brand to become too closely tied to an individual’s. As the media has decried Twitter becoming Musk’s personal playground, another company tied to his name had been shedding value. It had the worst performance of any major S&P 500 stock in 2022 according to the Wall Street Journal, losing over 70% of its value. His extremely public micro-management of Twitter has contributed to an impression that Tesla is rudderless.

PR Lesson: Don’t rely on a singular platform to connect with your audience, and don’t let a single voice become synonymous with your brand. Strengthen your PR program by deploying disciplined spokespeople across multiple platforms.

Everything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You

One of my favorite media training pillars we teach clients is “Say what you have to say and then stop talking.” So many people fear dead air and work to fill it – but guess what? You don’t have to – and in many cases, you shouldn’t.

Just ask FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, an instant case study on what not to do when your company is accused of wrongdoing. Up until his arrest in the Bahamas, Bankman-Fried was giving free-wheeling interviews with vague “mistakes were made” responses and wrongly predicting that he wouldn’t be arrested. As his gave interview after interview discussing details of a major financial disaster and apparent fraud at his company – to the New York Times, YouTubers, New York Magazine, and Vox among others –   many onlookers wondered “What is this guy doing?” Turns out, the answer was “helping the FBI build its case.” SBF may have thought he was controlling the narrative by suggesting that colleagues were to blame for FTX’s implosion – but now, some of the executives he sub-tweeted in the early days of the scandal have turned state’s evidence. SBF is now out on a $250M bond while he awaits trial for eight federal criminal charges related to alleged fraud at his collapsed crypto empire.

PR Lesson: Know when it’s time to stop talking.

Speaking of: 1000 words in is the “stop talking” mark for any single blog post – tune in next week for part two of 2022’s biggest PR fails. Until then, check out our list of some of the most elucidating PR fails of 2021.

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