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Top Five Communication Blunders of 2013

Around this time of year, I like to think back on the many challenges that communicators and their companies faced and figure out who really missed the mark. While there will never be a shortage of blunders to focus on, these were truly the biggest communications mistakes of the past 12 months. -- Paul Argenti

by Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication, Dartmouth College
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1. JP Morgan/Chase - #AskJPM

This company was once my shining example of how to communicate effectively during the financial crisis. I am very sad to put them on this list given the quality of their communications team, but their #AskJPM fiasco ranks as one of the worst gaffes of the year. JPM’s marketing wizards decided to set up a Q&A on Twitter with superstar banker Jimmy Lee at the same time the bank was being hit with a $13-billion fine for its transgressions during the financial crisis. After 24,000 tweets—arguably one of the fastest and most negative reactions to any major global brand on Twitter—they pulled the campaign and realized that maybe their reputation wasn’t what it once was.

My advice: Listen to your communications people, especially when they are world-class experts.

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2. Lululemon - shifting blame

Sometimes I just say to myself, people are going to think I make this stuff up. When faced with a quality control problem around the sheerness of its new yoga pants, instead of trying to fix the problem, CEO Chip Wilson suggested on Bloomberg TV that it was merely the result of heavy women rubbing their thighs together because the pants were too tight for them. How much more insensitive can a person be when faced with a relatively minor issue?

My advice: Don’t blame customers for your mistakes, and know when to shut up!

3. Chick-fil-A - Being Unauthentic

Last year was a bad year for Chick-fil-A's communications, but this year they didn't make things better. My gripe with Chick-fil-A is that they don’t know how to leave well enough alone. Companies can certainly have opinions about gay marriage or any other subject, but they should try to stick to their guns and remain true to their beliefs. Instead, CEO Dan Cathy, who clearly supports the most traditional definition of marriage, decided to put the entire controversy back on the front burner by befriending Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride. This only served to remind us of Chick-fil-A’s false Facebook accounts, its lies about the termination of the relationship with Jim Henson Co., and the entire Twitter controversy. It also called into question the veracity of Cathy’s beliefs.

My advice: Stick to your guns and know when to fold your cards.

4. Carnival - Hiding at the Top

You would think a company that had gone through the horrible Costa Concordia disaster in Italy would be better prepared for its next challenge. Instead, when one of its ships lost power at sea last February, CEO Micky Arison was once again unavailable for comment. Instead, the company trotted out their Carnival Cruise Lines CEO to take the fall. One of the most basic rules of crisis communications is that your top person needs to be on hand when things hit the fan. Arison seems more concerned with tweeting about his Miami Heat than trying to fix systemic problems with the company’s fleet.

My advice: Put your CEO front and center when you are in a crisis and under attack.

5. Obamacare - Inappropriate Ads

Trying to draw young people to a non-working website with online ads that are, at best, in bad taste ranks up there with the dumbest communications acts of the year. Depending upon which state you were in, you were subjected to sexually suggestive ads that were degrading to women or spots that encouraged reckless behavior with young men standing on top of kegs. Using sex and alcohol to sell health insurance online makes no sense, people! What’s more, we later found out that some of the ads were funded by the conservative Koch brothers.

My advice: Keep your communications classy and you won’t have to worry about being attacked by fakers.