PR campaigns exposed - The good the bad and the ugly truth

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By Edward Coram-James, CEO of Go Up

The old adage goes that there’s no such thing as bad publicity — but this is a very old saying, and its originators failed to live to see the year 2023. That’s probably a good thing, as the last 12 short months could have spelt the undoing of their entire philosophy.

From the start to its bitter end, the year was marred with missteps and miscalculations. From Kanye’s antisemitic tweets to Prince Andrew’s parental bailout, and all the way back to Kanye again for a disastrous shoutout to Hitler, it’s been a period of early starts and late finishes for crisis comms execs.

But I digress. There were certainly a few bright PR moments to bask in before returning to complete head-in-hands despair. As we settle into the new year, let’s discuss some of those silver-lining campaigns  and the failures that we can learn from.

The good

Airbnb.org for Ukraine


Few countries had a 2022 as challenging as Ukraine. In the throes of war and evacuation, many companies and governments stepped up to support the nation’s efforts to protect and rehouse its civilians.

One that particularly stuck out to me is Airbnb.org. While its parent company is known for providing cheap, quick stays (and the odd extortionate “cleaning fee”), its nonprofit arm stepped up to help provide up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees with accommodation away from the conflict.

The group partnered with international organisations to coordinate shelter across borders, and its founders committed to matching donations to the organisation up to $10 million towards the costs associated with fleeing Ukraine. The campaign certainly caused a buzz, and data showed that over 21,500 new hosts joined the free housing platform within two weeks to lend their homes to the cause.

Adidas floating tennis court


As a global clothes manufacturer, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Adidas didn’t have the best track record with sustainability. But in recent years, the sportswear supplier has used a good amount of recycled materials in its production lines, for packaging, rubber, textiles and metals.

Back in January 2022, to accompany climate plans to switch to 100% recycled polyester and climate-neutral production, Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans and launched a recycled-plastic tennis court out onto the Great Barrier Reef.

Naturally, the new feature of the marine park drew a lot of attention to the brand’s sustainability efforts and Parley’s ocean plastic initiatives. Some commentators criticised the stunt, however, for the unabashed irony of promoting plastic recycling by sending a tonne of it out onto one of the most vulnerable marine ecosystems in the world. However, Adidas volleyed back with their plans to further recycle the barge’s plastic after the event into a sports court for a local school. Game, set, match.

The bad

Balenciaga Gift Collection


And now, the rest. You already knew this one was coming, but it bears repeating: Balenciaga, what were you thinking? Back in November, the luxury fashion house took to Instagram to flaunt their brand new gift collection, comprising teddy bears donning some very en-vogue bondage gear — all held by a child. On top of the controversial and sexualising prop work, another ad included a trademark handbag aestheticised alongside text from a Supreme Court child pornography case.

Some might call this “shockvertising”. It’s not a new concept, least of all in the fashion industry, notorious for taking on taboo themes and twisting them into an aspirational source of style inspo. Calvin Klein, FCUK and Vivienne Westwood have all been guilty, though whether you agree with the ethics or not, at least they managed to boost sales off the back of their stunts.

But as the world grows more socially conscious, the bad publicity payoff is no guarantee — as exemplified by Balenciaga’s falling sales and lost ambassadors.

Harry & Meghan


In a bid to win back the public’s lucrative affections, Harry and Meghan released a six-part Netflix docuseries that shed light on their tumultuous family relations. But as public sentiment continues to turn against the couple, royal pundits have argued that the lukewarm reaction to the couple’s 2022 media circus is a product of serious public fatigue — not least because the world is still mourning the loss of a beloved monarch.

Factor in the UK’s cost of living crisis and you have a perfect storm of bad PR for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Their bemoaned living conditions appear in stark contrast to those currently being experienced by the rest of the population, unable to afford heat in their homes.

As we closed out the year, Harry’s recent biography only added to the mountain of coverage bestowed upon the pair, but some have argued that a review of tactics is in order. The short-term relief of good book sales might not make up for the reputational damage that Harry and Meghan absorbed in 2022.

The ugly truth

Once upon a time, PR was a well-oiled machine — but if 2022 was anything to go by, the wheels have come off the vehicle. We should look to the few and far between positive PR examples to guide the way in 2023, which smartly shone a light on global affairs that people care about, without making deeply polarising statements.

Now that we’ve begun a new year of business, it seems like a pertinent time to say that there's no need to reinvent the wheel in 2023 — and there’s certainly no need to dress a teddy bear in a studded leather harness.


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