Ineffective PR: Public Relations Campaigns that DO NOT Work

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 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.