PR Lessons Learned, Takeaways from High-Profile PR Blunders

Garnering publicity for a startup can be a great way of generating buzz about your new business, but it can also be a tricky endeavor. That said, having a well thought-out communications plan can keep your emerging brand on track and can help you navigate the murky waters when you do find yourself in an “iffy” media situation.
We all remember when Chicago-based startup Groupon slipped up last year by saying “s**t happens, we’re a young company” in an interview with The Financial Times, a newspaper read by investors and business executives, in response to irregularities found in their financial statements. (Their shareholders were no doubt less than thrilled with their nonchalance.)
Like startups, celebrities are also concerned with protecting their “brand” and no one more so lately than Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones have felt the strain of being under the media spotlight and dealing with the consequences of a PR blunder; for them a very public recent split. There are some important PR takeaways and lessons we can learn from these high-profile media fiascos.
PR Lessons
Loose Lips Sink Ships. It’s doubtful that Douglas, currently promoting his role as flamboyant pianist Liberace in the HBO film ‘Behind the Candelabra’, gave any thought to how his gaffe (blurting out in an interview that his stage 4 throat cancer was the result of an HPV infection he got from oral sex) would affect his wife and ultimately, his marriage. (I can only imagine their strained conversation after he made this confession.) You’ve heard the old adage “loose lips sink ships” and in this case, the ship was their marriage.
Think Team. Even if you are a celebrity or CEO, it’s important to remember that you have partners, employees, spouses and/or stakeholders who are invested in what you say to the media. (In Douglas’ case, his wife had a huge stake in his admission.) It’s important to “think team” when you are putting your communications strategy together and to consider how your words will affect your stakeholders.
Don’t Miss a Chance to Redirect Your Story. In Douglas’ case, the greatest crime isn’t the potential cause of his cancer – he later retracted his statement – it’s that he missed out on the perfect PR opportunity to redirect his story to champion a celebrity cause. Up until his retraction, he was praised by health experts for raising awareness for HPV, largely considered an epidemic, yet often taboo topic, because it’s sexually transmitted. Having a celebrity share his personal experience could have prompted a much-needed national conversation about HPV prevention strategies; however, Douglas wasn’t willing to rise to the occasion and go there (or return there, such as it is).
PR Takeaways. We all need to embrace that we are human and that PR blunders happen. When they do, it’s important that we are honest and transparent with our reactions and communications.
Take Groupon former CEO Andrew Mason’s final goodbye memo when he was ousted as CEO – it was authentic and transparent and demonstrated a level of honesty that we should all strive for in our communications. Douglas’ awkward retraction, on the other hand, didn’t feel authentic and I doubt that it changed the public’s perception on what caused his cancer (and we’re not judging in the least!); he also missed out on the perfect PR opportunity to turn his PR blunder into a platform and to contribute to the public good.
April Neill is a brand strategist, lifelong entrepreneur and founder/CEO of April Neill Public Relations, a boutique public relations firm serving small businesses and non-profits in Chicagoland. You can find April online at or at
April Neill Public Relations is passionate about helping small businesses position themselves as experts in their industry. We offer a complimentary 30-minute in-person or phone consultation. Email to make your appointment today or call (312) 772-3832 for more information.

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