Crisis and scandal seem to have become the norm of late, so the competition for this year’s Top 10 Worst was fierce. There really were too many communications disasters to count; my Google News Alert sends me four a day, on average.
If there’s a theme to the list this time it’s that big egos—of CEOs, management, and even the British royal family—are at the root of most problems. That’s nothing new—it’s a maxim of crisis comms that the people in charge establish the culture and the culture causes a crises—but it’s a lesson yet to be learned by too many organizations. Hey, it provides me with plenty of material: Are you not entertained?
Here is my top 10 list of worst communications moments of 2019:
#10. Ride-hailing companies stall out.
In recent years Uber’s toxic culture at the top brought on a long list of scandals. Yet depite CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation, a new CEO, and a reported half billion in image-enhancement ads, its image has not much improved. Signs point to a public that cares more about actual values than PR.
Lesson: You can’t buy trust with ads.
Lyft has long been seen as a more socially responsible company than Uber, and leveraged that image to capture a healthy share of Uber’s disgruntled customers. Yet the #2 ride-sharing company turns out to have image problems as well, more safety- than scandal-related. After a lawsuit was filed charging that the company failed to protect passengers from sexual abuse, the company issued the usual “safety is our top concern” statement, and instituted new safety measures. But the safety systems didn’t actually work, and 20 more women went public with similar stories.
Lesson: Like Uber, Lyft will need a lot more than nice statements to restore trust.
#9. The NRA loses sight of the target.
After years with an unbreakable stranglehold on American politics, the NRA now appears vulnerable to internal threats and financial mismanagement. An attempted leadership change was thwarted, it got mixed up in the Russian inquiry, and it ended up in a very public fight with its big-spending public relations firm. Its tax-exempt status may be threatened.
It didn’t help that an investigation revealed a ton of self-dealing on the part of top management at a time when the organization was facing serious financial issues. “…a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.” Now they are under investigation by New York’s attorney general. Their response is, essentially, “Crisis, what crisis?”
Prediction: The final say will come from the NRA’s real base of support, its thousands of individual members.
#8. Tesla’s truck launch breaks down.
Elon Musk is a communicator’s nightmare. Whether being interviewed getting high, lying to stockholders on Twitter, or mistreating his employees, there appears to be no end to his bad behavior. So it was fitting and hilarious when the recent launch of the much-acclaimed Tesla Cybertruck turned into every event manager’s vision of hell:
In an attempt to demonstrate the unbreakable nature of his invincible new vehicle, Musk ordered an employee to throw a metal ball at the window. Which promptly broke. Accusing the employee of throwing the ball too hard, he told him to throw it again, at another window. Which also broke.
Lesson: Lay off the weed while designing your Cybertruck.
#7. WeWork falls asleep on the job.
This list should be called “The Top 10 of Ego-maniacal CEO Screw-Ups.” This time we have Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork. After WeWork’s IPO collapsed, the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But that didn’t stop Neumann from continuing to issue bizarre statements that did little to nothing to calm investors’ fears. Soon he was out, leaving behind a lot of disgruntled employees willing to talk to the press about his drug use, office rages, and heavy-handed management. Now the new folks in charge are trying to fix the image with—you guessed it—a full page ad.
Lesson: Forget the big ad budget, change the culture and show people you’re actually doing something to turn the company around.
#6. The UAW breaks down.
The United Auto Workers scandal began in 2017 with a tax fraud investigation of both Ford/Chrysler and UAW leadership. In July of 2019 UAW officials began to be charged by federal prosecutors, starting with a former aide to a UAW VP who agreed to a plea deal. Not long afterwards former UAW VP Norwood Jewell was sentenced to 15 months in prison for accepting more than $40,000 worth of travel and meals from Ford Chrysler. In the past year the charges of corruption have continued to accumulate, including schemes to create shell companies to buy watches and other tchotchkes that UAW sold and gave away at events. Charges now include wire fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. Senior UAW officials are charged with pocketing millions in kickbacks and bribes from UAW contractors.
The UAW have responded with none of what most scandal-beset organizations might do—appoint an independent investigator, fire all those suspected of violating the rules, hire a forensic accountant, and/or change practices to prevent future misdeeds. Instead, they’ve issued jargon-filled press releases that say little more than, “We’re working on it.” Now the president has been forced to resign, another former director is charged with misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars of union funds, and the feds are being flooded with tips about corruption in senior ranks.
Lesson: That’s what happens when you issue press releases but don’t actually do anything.
#5. Prince Andrew’s royal mess.
If you’re accused of of having sex with a 17-year-old girl procured by a convicted sex offender, but not very experienced with public interviews, then agreeing to sit down for a chat with the BBC is certifiable madness. So it comes as no surprise that Prince Andrew dodged questions, gave odd answers, and appeared evasive as hell on camera. The fact that the Queen had to essentially fire him from official duties was probably a surprise to him, but not to most of his subjects.
Lesson: If you’re in the middle of a a mess, don’t agree to in-depth interviews unless you’re really prepared and have nothing to hide.
#4. Deutche Bank’s bankrupt image.
If you were once the bank of the Gestapo and provided the funding to build Auschwitz, then you have some serious image baggage. Your situation doesn’t improve if you loan $2.5 billion to Donald J. Trump, and are then investigated as part of his alleged money laundering schemes.
Over the years Deutche Bank has tried to repair its image by contributing to compensation funds for Holocaust survivors. But its woes have only gotten worse; it was deeply involved in the recent financial crisis, accused of helping create the housing bubble, and is being investigated as part of the Trump Russia inquiry. Also, by the way, it had to layoff 18,000 employees in July.
Throughout it all, a succession of new leadership has laid the blame on their predecessors, but none have managed to do anything to improve the bank’s image.
Lesson: If changing CEOs doesn’t help, point the finger at the board of directors.
#3. Purdue Pharma’s overdose.
Purdue Pharma’s silence and secrecy with the media is at the heart of the opioid manufacture’s woes. (Well, that and the apparently boundless greed of its principal owners, the Sackler family.) When, back in 2015, concern about opioid addition began to surface in voter surveys, there were just too many villains. Doctors, mental illness, NAFTA—no one knew quite where to place the blame. In the meantime, investigations by both the Justice Department and ProPublica kept running into Purdue’s role in Oxycontin’s widespread distribution.
The standard response by Purdue corporate executives and its former CEO and his family are the communications version of a very dry martini: Nine parts vigorous denial and no-comment to one part “We regret the crisis.” As a result it now faces hundreds of lawsuits, bankruptcy, and $3 billion in fines.
Lesson: Replying “No Comment” doesn’t make the question go away, it just makes the media go looking for answers elsewhere. And they will find them.
#2 Mark Zuckerberg faces regulations.
In 2019 Mark Zuckerberg left his goofy hoody-wearing-geek image behind and decided to join the ranks of ego-maniacal CEOs. Like Adam Neumann he believes so firmly in his vision of the future and the role his companies will play that he has lost all sense of what his words and actions are doing to public perception, specifically with legislative bodies around the world.
The big difference between Zuckerberg and Neumann is that Facebook went public before the CEO went nuts. Zuckerberg’s stance in his political posts and ads—insistence that propagating lies and invective is free speech—may not lose him many users. (He’s made sure they’re too mindlessly addicted to What’s App, Instagram—never mind Facebook—to look up from their phones.) Far more important are the regulatory bodies that may be the only thing standing between him and world domination. He’s even managed to inspire bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress.
Lesson: Big egos can’t see their big problems, and leave themselves vulnerable to regulations.
#1. Boeing and the 737 MAX miss their flight.
Boeing is at the top of everyone’s worst list this year, mostly because the story just keeps getting worse. For years Boeing kept a low PR profile. It made most of its money from the military, which is notoriously tight lipped about its suppliers, and most of the press they received was financial or trade. So when hundreds of reporters were beating down its doors in the wake of two crashes of its best-selling planes, Boeing was relatively slow on the uptake.
First, Boeing deflected blame to the pilots and the airline’s procedures. They issued a standard “thoughts and prayers” sympathy statement. They then went on to blame the victims (the pilots) and defend their new plane, specifically, the computer-driven system that automatically corrects the angle of the plane on takeoff. Then came reports of additional pilot complaints and a lawsuit from the family of one of its victims, and pressure mounted on the FAA to issue further warnings. Then a second flight went down and all hell broke loose.
Boeing again tried sympathy and prayers. Then the CEO got on the phone with President Trump urging him to not ground all 737 MAX planes. Which of course the media picked up on and really didn’t help reinforce the whole “Our planes are fine. Really, they are,” message.
There is little question in critics minds that the culture at Boeing contributed to the crash. According to whistle-blowers, Boeing’s workers were told to ignore problems and rush procedures in order to meet the annual goal of delivering 800+ planes. Most recently, news has surfaced that engineers knew about the failings of the plane’s safety alert system within months of the first delivery—and a year before the first 737 MAX crash.
Now blame has shifted to the board of directors, who apparently focused only on how soon the 737 MAX would help the bottom line, and the FAA, which ignored warnings and trusted Boeing. Some of Boeing’s largest customers are rethinking their orders. Whether anyone will ever fly in a 737 MAX again is anyone’s guess.
Lesson: If your business is to fly in the sky, then you ought to study up on Icarus and Phaethon. ∞