Lessons from Three of 2020’s Biggest PR Fails

By Rachel Nicolas

If I could sum up 2020 in one phrase it would be, “a huge fail!” Cancelled conferences, delayed announcements and layoffs are just a few of the many complications we’ve all had to face. It seemed as though there was a new situation to address each month, and some brands had a difficult time finding their footing. While some got through 2020 better than others, a few really missed the mark. 

Here are three of the biggest PR fails of 2020, and what we’ve learned from them:

Disney

While I absolutely hate to add Disney to this list, it just goes to show that even the beloved brands can screw up. Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” was intended to be a major milestone for representation of Asians on the big screen and women behind the camera, but instead, flopped. You may have seen #BoycottMulan trending as activists criticized its lead actress for siding with Hong Kong police over pro-democracy protesters. The online uproar escalated when viewers realized Disney thanked propaganda departments and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that is the site of one of the world’s worst human rights abuses happening today, in the credits. 

“Disney prides itself on its image as a wholesome, family-friendly entertainment company … yet now they find themselves associated with murky political controversies and alleged complicity with human right abuses,” Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, said. “The fact that ‘Mulan’ is a film that touts lofty values like honor, bravery and loyalty further heightens this tension.”

What we’ve learned: Do your research when it comes to a big project or campaign. Ask the difficult questions: Will we offend anyone? How will people react? There are many things that can go wrong, but being proactive about potential issues and preparing for the backlash can help prepare a statement.

L’Oreal Paris

During the tragic death of George Floyd, L’Oréal wrote in an Instagram post: “L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind. We are making a commitment to the @naacp to support progress in the fight for justice. #BlackLivesMatter.” Following the now deleted post, users brought to light a post made by the brand in 2017, where they cut ties with Munroe Begdorf, its first transgender ambassador, after she spoke out about racism. 

“You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought. I had to fend for myself being torn apart by the world’s press because YOU didn’t want to talk about racism,” said Bergdorf. 

What we’ve learned: Do you have a diverse team? A diverse team can help make sure there are more viewpoints and save brands from making quick, poorly thought out decisions. Customers, especially millennials and Gen Zers, are holding brands to a higher social standard than before. It’s no longer enough to show your support on social media and call it a day. 

Gap

This year’s election was a nightmare in itself, but to make matters worse Gap created a social campaign that was completely tone deaf in response to such a tense moment. The brand faced huge backlash on social media for posting a red-and-blue zip-up hoodie that was meant to spark a message of unity. The post was met with immediate ridicule and was deleted for obvious reasons.

“This Tweet from the Gap wasn’t just a spur of the moment post from a social media manager who couldn’t read the room. It went through layers of approval & was put on a content calendar for today,” Jon-Stephen Stansel, Thoughtfeeder Podcast host, said on Twitter. “They were going to post this regardless of the results. And that makes it even worse.”

What we’ve learned: We don’t need to comment on every situation, and it’s our jobs as PR professionals to assist our clients in deciding which media trends call for their response and which do not. Especially if politics are involved, brands should proceed with caution when trying to capitalize on what’s in the news. 

While we’re hoping for a better year, there are many things to be mindful of when thinking about strategy – lessons that can easily be learned from past disasters. We recommend taking this month to meet internally to discuss goals, what you’ve learned from the past year and how you can grow and help your brand do better in 2021. 

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