PR Bloopers

By Garcia, Art | Communication World, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

PR Bloopers


Garcia, Art, Communication World


Because public relations is so public, goofs and gaffes frequently are exposed to the world, buck naked in bright lights of media that delight in flubs and foibles, especially when it involves bungled PR. Sometimes the bloopers are amusing, other times embarrassing and occasionally devastating for the product or service being ballyhooed. Heads can roll and rich retainers and fat fees disappear.

Archival copies of Bulldog Reporter, the Berkeley, Calif., based bimonthly newsletter that covers media relations, PR and communication were researched to pull some of the more flagrant flubs that have won its dreaded Fireplug Award."

The review provided plenty of chuckles; it's comfortable to laugh at someone else's expense, and miscues. Better them than you or me, right? But is PR itself always the culprit, or just the easiest to blame? More on that later. For now, let's review the pages of PR history over the past two decades or so and share some of the accidents and incidents that were disastrous or delicious, depending on whether you were involved or merely a bemused observer.

James Kiss, executive vice president at Chester Burger Co., a New York management consulting firm that works with PR firms and departments, remembers the splashy introduction of RCA Corp.'s new logo at an affair in a ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel before "the cream of American business" in the 1960s. It was also the occasion of one of chairman General David Sarnoff s last speeches before retirement. RCA subsidiary NBC had helped ballyhoo RCA's advancement into the electronic age over its networks.

"Then came the great moment. General Sarnoff called for the lights to be lowered and this giant screen appeared over his head, revealing the new RCA logo," recalls Kiss. "There was just one problem. The logo was upside down and backwards. There was absolute dead silence, nervous titters, then gales of laughter. General Sarnoff fumed around the stage. The old man was furious. Many heads rolled. I think he fired whoever happened to be in view."

Bob Wolcott, a 43-year veteran of agency and corporate PR, operator of his own PR consultancy in Glendale, Calif., former national president of PRSA and a collector of PR funnies and follies, recalls a similar bit of logo lunacy. This time the big buildup backfired on Western Union in the late 1970s as part of the promotion for its new corporate symbol. The company's annual report highlighted the new logo by sporting it on a special tissue-like page that wrapped inside the front and back covers. "Here was the magnificent logo-printed upside down," says Wolcott. "It looked sort of like a rook or a castle chess board piece."

Although setting up a public demonstration can be a set-up for a PR pratfall, even apparently negative incidents can turn into positive publicity. North American Aviation learned that at its 1950s introduction of the F-100 jet fighter, first plane capable of reaching supersonic speed in level flight. "People didn't really know what a sonic boom was then," says Earl Blount, recently retired from Rockwell International (of which North American later became part) after a 40-year stint that started as a writer for the company's internal magazine and ended as corporate director of community relations.

"We invited the nation's news media, flew in a bunch from the East Coast to Palmdale Airport in the Mojave desert above Los Angeles, where we wanted to show off the Fin 100 its first public demonstration," Blount remembers. "So we asked our chief test pilot to dive down and show us a sonic boom Well, he did. Two booms hit, bang! bang! Glass was flying all over the place in the reception area. Kids were crying. The pilot climbed to do it again. We were yelling in the radio for him to 'Call it off!"

The media mentioned the damage to the building but focused on the display of aviation might, providing a payoff of favorable PR. At the time, though, James (Dutch) Kindelberger, chairman and founder of North American, yelled to company PR director Ed Ryan to . …

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