Ineffective PR: Public Relations Campaigns that DO NOT Work

bad public relations 08.15.21

As a polymath, or someone who knows a lot about a number of different things, one of Ahmed Mostafa’s most notable quotes goes, “It’s not the s… we face that defines us, it’s how we deal with it.”

Companies that conduct ineffective PR campaigns usually pay a steep price, not to mention bad reputations. Most faux pas are self-inflicted and could have been avoided with some forethought.

Sensitivity to people’s fears and being in tune with those feelings play an important role in PR, particularly in an emergency. Such was the case of KFC.

After the pandemic was declared in the U.S. and the CDC warned people about not touching their faces to help stop the spread of germs, KFC continued to run its “It’s finger lickin’ good” commercials, a slogan it had successfully used for 64 years. Some commercials featured not only dozens of people licking their own fingers in KFC restaurants but also each other’s fingers as well.

The public outcry was fast and loud. Critics said KFC was not only acting irresponsibly but also encouraging behavior that could further the spread of COVID-19.

KFC was quick to pull its U.S. ads in March but waited until August to do so globally. In their global ads running on YouTube as well as on billboards, the words “finger lickin” are now blurred out.”

In an attempt to insert some humor, the brand released a statement saying that KFC was the “winner of the award for the most inappropriate ad slogan for 2020.” A spokesperson said they expect to reintroduce the once-popular slogan in the future when the timing is right.

Pre-Pandemic PR

PR books are filled with other failures. In 2003, the retailer Urban Outfitters agreed to sell Ghettopoly, a parody of Monopoly. Imagine pulling a card that read: “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50. Score!” Amidst outcries of being racist and offensive, the manufacturer was also ordered to pay $400,000 in damages and banned from eBay under its Offensive Materials Policy.

Today’s popular streaming service Netflix wasn’t immune either. In July 2011, it began a series of announcements, apologies, and turnarounds that negatively affected the brand and company reputation for over a year. It first declared that it would be splitting its video streaming and DVD service into two separate packages.

An earlier announcement had indicated that customers would have greater choices but never hinted that the split would cost them more. The company CEO apologized to customers who felt disrespected while also introducing the new DVD service that ended up being canceled a month later.

By then, the damage was done. Netflix’s stock price dropped dramatically, and its CEO gave up half his stock option rewards for the year. The Huffington Post called it an incredible crisis brought about by the brand itself and labeled it a first-ballot entrant into the “Bad Decision Hall of Fame.”

Public relations campaigns often fail because the brand doesn’t know and understand its target audience. They fail to test market their plan with a focus group or among others whose judgment they value. Consider how much angst might have been avoided had these brands done some advance research.

PR Fails

Good PR takes time and effort. Many PR efforts fail because there is no link between the PR actions and the bottom-line business plan goals that drive revenue. Often it is easy to get caught up with an idea that is not accountable to the bottom-line. Given below are some reasons why PR fails happen.

Lack of Planning

Without a strategic PR plan, all efforts may be haphazard. A plan helps assess the target audience and selects appropriate tools for promotion. An effective plan should determine PR goals and have tactics for every strategy.

Lack of Clarity

Lack of clarity about the target market can prove to be disastrous. PR strategies without a clear target are wasteful and unsuccessful. A target cannot be hit if it has not been identified. There are always potential customers who could become ideal clients. To win them, a business has to get to know them.

Lack of Sensitivity

For PR practitioners, sensitivity is an asset. It can lead to building meaningful relationships with clients. Being emotionally aware enables a PR professional to be aware of what other people are feeling at the moment at any given time. Communication with clients will be better as strategies will not be restricted to the company’s side of the story. Sensitivity is a skill as it will ensure that a message that is sent out will be heard, seen, and interacted with. If there is a lack of empathy, customers might lose trust in a business.

The CEO of CrossFit had resigned after making provocative comments online about the death of George Floyd. The comments caused Reebok, CrossFit’s sponsor, to cancel its affiliation with the organization. Quite a few local CrossFit franchises were hastily rebranded without the CrossFit name.

Unrealistic Expectations

The effectiveness of PR can be much greater than media coverage. In the new environment today, coverage is never guaranteed. The quality of content is of crucial importance. Pitching strategies should always be clear and realistic. A company has to maintain a consistent level of expertise to fuel brand recognition. Expectations should never be set at an unrealistic bar as that would lead to lost opportunities.

For instance, unrealistic expectations about wanting to be featured in top-tier media journals like Wall Street Journal may not be productive. On the other hand, frequent coverage in local and key trade media outlets may be more impactful for overall awareness and new business goals.


Investing in PR is one of the wisest choices that a business owner can make. If the budget for PR is inadequate, a business reduces the chance of getting more opportunities. This is because the communication between a business and its customers is hampered.

An organization may think that only six months is required to change a brand image or an annual influencer campaign is adequate. The reality is different. Effective PR requires a long-term commitment by an experienced and professional team and that comes at a price.

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