From the slick ‘Yes’ campaign that almost delivered a sensational victory in the Scottish independence referendum to the embarrassing spectacle of Ed Miliband’s attempt to eat a bacon sandwich, 2014 has demonstrated the increasing importance of presenting the right image. But who were the biggest PR winners and losers of the year? Here are my top five in each category:
1. Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic crash
When the Virgin Galactic test craft SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert in the US, killing one test pilot and seriously injuring another, Sir Richard Branson immediately knew what he had to do. He made sure he got to the scene of the accident as quickly as possible, organising a press conference to show he intended to be fully transparent, and rounding up advocates for Virgin Galactic to express their support for his space tourism programme. That helped the counter negative publicity generated by his unauthorised biographer Tom Bower, who claimed insiders feared it was unsafe.
2. Greggs and their offensive fake logo
After hackers tampered with the bakery giant’s logo so it appeared as a rather offensive brand slogan on the Google search engine, Greggs gave a brilliant response and turned a brand crisis into a PR triumph. Instead of shying away from the unfortunate mishap, Greggs embraced the Twitter frenzy and tweeted Google UK directly to ‘#FixGreggs’ in return for some freshly baked donuts. Google responded accordingly, resulting in an usual online brand relationship between the two and a Twitter conversation that made us all smile.
3. Waterstones and the unplanned sleepover
Although Waterstones didn’t immediately react to the Twitter pandemonium which erupted after a Texan got locked in its Trafalgar Square store in central London, the response to the incident a week later was priceless. The book retailer teamed up with accommodation online resource Airbnb to devise a competition for ten lucky bookworms to spend the night in its flagship store in Piccadilly. Other brands also vied to jump on the ‘Win a Waterstones Sleepover’ bandwagon as Graze and Weetabix collaborated with the book seller to provide snacks for the sleepover. An excellent PR stunt all round.
4. Argos and its epic response to a customer and self-proclaimed ‘Badman’
When a grumbler customer tweeted Argos about the lack of PlayStation 4 accessories, the retailer’s humorous riposte quickly went viral. It responded in similar ‘ganster’ lingo to that Immy ‘BADMAN’ Bugti had confronted them with, gaining thousands of retweets within hours. A classic example of humanising a brand’s identity.
5. ALS and The Ice bucket challenge
Whether you were for or against the ice bucket challenge, there’s no doubting that it did wonders in raising awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association and its British equivalent, the Motor Neurone Disease Association. The viral social media sensation easily exceeded its original goals as the world became immersed (quite literally) in ice cold water, raising more than $100m for the ALS Association in the US and £7m for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK.
1. Andy Murray and that Scottish Referendum Tweet
Having refused to be drawn throughout the 1-month referendum campaign, Andy Murray finally nailed his colours to the ‘Yes’ mast hours before the vote with a late night tweet. Considering the former Wimbledon champion lives in England and has played tennis for Great Britain for more than 15 years, this was an unexpected move. ‘No’ campaigners denounced him as a hypocrite while ‘Yes’ supporters criticised him for delaying his support for Scottish independence for so long, claiming he should have had the courage of his convictions earlier. Foul play for Murray’s reputation all round.
2. The black cab protest against Uber and its boomerang effect
In June 2013, black cab licensed taxi drivers gridlocked streets of London and major European cities in a staged protest against the taxi app Uber, claiming it was “eroding the taxi trade” and drivers’ livelihoods. The protest certainly caused disruption, but also had an unintended consequence the protestors hadn’t foreseen – a huge growth in Uber’s customer base with an 850 per cent increase in users during the protest and enhanced brand recognition.
3. David Whelan and his reputation meltdown
Wigan Athletic’s outspoken chairman David Whelan courted controversy when he appointed Malky Mackay as the club’s manager. Mackay was considered a pariah after the publication of racist, homophobic and sexist texts he had exchanged with a colleague. But it was his response to questioning from reporters that made the hole he had dug a whole lot deeper. The 74-year-old claimed there was nothing wrong in using the word ‘chink’ to describe the Chinese and suggested the Jews had a deserved reputation for being money-grubbing. The Football Association charged Whelan over his comments while sponsors pulled out of deals with the club, further damaging its reputation.
4. Sheffield United and Ched Evans
When Sheffield United striker Ched Evans was released from prison, having served a sentence for rape, high-profile supporters and the club’s backers were adamant they didn’t want to see him back. Nevertheless, the club defied popular opinion by deciding he would be allowed back to train with the squad. The news was leaked to the BBC, triggering a social media storm, and then confirmed by the club a few hours later. But amid increasing opposition – the club even managed to offend its saintly patron, Jessica Ennis – it then had to perform an abrupt U-turn and reverse its decision. So the club got plenty of bad publicity and still failed to gets its player back.
5. John Lewis’s Managing Director insults an entire nation
John Lewis is to the high street what motherhood and apple pie are to Americans. So it was strange to see the retailer’s mild-mannered managing director, Andy Street, on the front page for the wrong reasons. At a drinks reception, he denounced the French as ‘hopeless’ and ‘finished’, relating the story journey from Gare du Nord. Considering John Lewis was about to launch a French language version of its website, Street’s comments were anything but timely. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested Street must have been drunk. The moral of the story: don’t pick a fight with an entire nation – especially when you want to do business there.