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2021 in review: PR lessons learned from a terrible year

by | Jan 10, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

The year 2021 has provided some important lessons for PR practitioners. Unfortunately, all of them are the result of sad events.

In the order of the most recent, as of December 15, here are several that I consider provide PR lessons that relate to our business.

 

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games

  • The Situation: Despite calls from government officials around the world to move the games from Beijing, China, because of its human rights abuses, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to do so, resulting in a major PR crisis for the IOC, China, NBCUniversal and the game’s “proud sponsors.”
  • The Problem: NBCUniversal, which will televise the games in the U.S., has been accused of helping the repressive Chinese government in using the games as a propaganda platform and the “proud sponsors” of the Olympics have been accused of putting money above human lives.
    The Lesson: During a major PR crisis, it is important that an “after the crisis” PR plan should be crafted to repair the corporate damage caused by negative media coverage, to be launched immediately after the crisis subsides—in this case, at the conclusion of the February 4-20 Olympics.

Afghanistan evacuation

  • The Situation: The U.S. said they would help the approximately 300,000 Afghanistan citizens who aided the American military leave the country.
  • The Problem: Pictures of people desperately attempting to board U.S. transport planes, and not be able to, surprised the American public and caused a media backlash.
  • The Lesson: PR people should never make concrete promises about situations over which they have no control.

The Olympic Games & NBCUniversal

  • The Situation: Despite calls from health officials and the majority of Japanese citizens that the Tokyo Olympics be canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 concerns, the International Olympic Committee insisted that the games were more important than any health or public concerns and the games were held.
  • The Problem: The result was an athletic event during which the COVID-19 situation in Japan was just one of many controversies, not unusual for an Olympics, but in order to learn the details of the many controversies a person had to read the print pubs. (Controversies included: swimmers questioning whether they were competing in drug free events; protests by American athletes regarding racial matters; permitting an accused Iranian terrorist to compete; an athlete seeking asylum because she feared going back to her country after criticizing her coaches; two Chinese cyclists wearing pins with a silhouette of Mao Zedong Mao, known as Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, on the medal platform, and China’s criticism of NBC for what the Chinese said was an incomplete map of China, shown during the Opening Ceremony of the games.) NBC was criticized for its lack of reporting on the controversies in particular, and its acting like a PR arm of the IOC throughout the 17 days of the games. The IOC was criticized for insisting that its games be held during a pandemic. In addition, the IOC was criticized for awarding its Winter Olympics in 2022 to Beijing, China, and NBC for televising February’s 2022 games in the totalitarian country.
  • The Lesson: There are two takeaways from this situation: 1) PR people who work for important entities, like the IOC, NBC, Boeing and other Fortune 500 companies, should know that the more important the entities the greater the negative coverage will be when things go wrong; 2) Do not try to hide bad news, like NBC did in failing to report on the controversies. Eventually the news will become public. Just ask the hundreds of companies with PR crises that attempted to keep bad news in-house.

COVID-19

  • The Situation: Bloomberg News reported on July 4 that “A triumphant President Joe Biden all but announced an end to the pandemic in the U.S. on Sunday, celebrating what he called an ‘heroic’ vaccination campaign on the country’s Independence Day holiday,” declaring “that the U.S. had achieved ‘independence’ from the coronavirus, though he cautioned against complacency with more transmissible variants circulating in the country.”
  • The Problem: COVID-19 is far from defeated and its Delta and Omicron variants has been causing infections throughout the U.S, with some states having a health emergency as ICU beds are filled to capacity. In addition, “fully vaccinated” Americans will need booster shots to augment vaccinations that are losing their efficacy. On August 18, U.S. health officials announced that Americans who have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines should get a third dose six months after their second shot.
  • The Lesson: In many ways, President Biden’s COVID-19 Independence Day speech was similar to that of President George Bush’s speech on May 1, 2003, when under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush said, “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” The speech drew criticism as the war continued. There are two important lessons here: 1) What often happens after a rollout of a program is that it will receive some favorable media coverage, resulting in PR people claiming the effort a success. But experience shows that the early results of a program do not necessarily mean that the program is a success. PR people should not emulate President Biden’s and Bush’s “mission accomplished” statements until the completion of the program, which could be many months later; 2) PR people should let the client decide when a campaign is successful. In the examples above, the client was replaced by the media which criticized both statements because they didn’t live up to the facts.

Naomi Osaka withdraws from the French Open

  • The Situation: On May 31 after not fulfilling her media obligations Ms. Osaka withdrew from the French Open because she said the repeated questions, particularly after losses, resulted in mental health difficulties for her and other tennis players.
  • The Problem: Ms. Osaka’s refusal to do media interviews and other athletes taking political stands highlights several problems for sponsors that sign athletes to lucrative promotional deals, hoping their products will gain national and worldwide attention when the athletes are interviewed. 1) Unlike the past, when athletes earnings weren’t as great, sponsors no longer can control athletes actions; 2) Corporations try to stay clear of political controversies, but many of the athletes they sponsor go public with their beliefs; 3) the products consumers buy might be affected by sponsored-athletes actions and 4) The great majority of media interviews with athletes that have endorsed products only talk about the athletes’ accomplishments; mention of the athletes’ sponsorships are hardly mentioned, and when it is none of the talking points clients want are included.
  • The Lesson: Brands should have a diversified promotional campaign. Depending on athletes to convey brand messages should be limited to athletes who fit the image of the brand.

The Storming of the Capitol

  • The Situation: On January 6, supporters of former President Trump broke into the Capitol attempting to prevent the counting of electoral votes that would validate President Joe Biden’s election.
  • The Problem: Some Republican congressmen said that the violence was caused by the FBI, others by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while Rep. Andrew Clyde, of Georgia, compared Capitol rioters to a “tourist visit.”
  • The Lesson: When things turn sour, many supervisors—in this case Rep. Clyde and other GOP officials—will always look for scapegoats to blame. In the above examples, videotape of the break-in and subsequent arrests provided the truth.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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