The Worst of Canadian PR in 2013

Political Communication, PR Add comments

My earlier post summed up what I believe to be the very best in public relations in the past year. This follow-up post looks at the dark side of Canadian PR: organizations and individuals who suffered through 2013 and offered important lessons in the process. Once again, I consider PR in government, business and entertainment.

The Worst in Government PR

Stephen Harper and the Prime Minister’s Office – What started as a relatively small matter – a small number of Senators who claimed living expenses that didn’t correspond with the rules – slowly but steadily grew into the biggest scandal to plague the Harper government since it took office in 2006. Rather than immediately take corrective action and admit fault, the Prime Minister and his entourage in the PMO stumbled awkwardly from one strategy to another, leaving a trail of contradictions that haunts them still. Those contradictions will likely continue to haunt them if charges are laid and the mater goes before a court. As the number of bodies under the Conservative bus grows, so too does the number of voices who compete for attention; any one of those victims may yet reveal more evidence to undo the government’s credibility.

One year later, the senate scandal still drags the Harper government down in the polls, as this recent coverage highlights (

The poll results highlight the dangers of keeping a leader in the dark to prevent him or her from being implicated in a scandal. Seeking “plausible deniability” is becoming harder and riskier in an era of 24/7 news channels and social media.  

The lesson here is an old one: mess up, fess up, and move on. In this case, the efforts to conceal and obfuscate may prove to be much more damaging to the credibility of the PMO than the original infraction.

Dishonourable Mention

I’ve posted about Rob Ford’s PR in the past. He dominated the headlines in 2013 for all the wrong reasons and would have been an easy selection for this post as well. The events of the past year have made it clear that the root of Ford’s problems do not lie in bad PR but rather in a sad addiction. His abuse of drugs and alcohol are – first and foremost – a medical issue. His biggest PR mistake, then, was to ignore early calls for him to take time off and seek help. The lesson he offered is that smart PR decisions are best made by people who are healthy.


The Worst in Business PR

Lululemon is a remarkable Canadian brand that was built on brilliant PR and word of mouth. They were the darling of shareholders, customers and the business media alike. That reputation took a hit in March of this year when the company announced it was recalling some of its yoga pants since these were a little too see-through.

They handled the initial crisis well enough but added fuel to the fire three months later, when the company’s CEO, Christine Day, announced she was stepping down. The timing for the decision – with media coverage and share prices still negative – was anything but strategic and both trends deepened.

The third strike came in November, when a quote by then-Chairman Chip Wilson was interpreted as him blaming customers’ bodies for the see-through fabric. It was a rookie mistake from a seasoned executive and it set off a round of high-profile criticisms and petitions. Wilson resigned his position in December, ending a miserable year of PR for the company.

The lessons here – and there are many – is to be much more strategic when faced with a crisis. In the wake of the recall, the company and its PR team needed to think carefully about next moves and about statements made to reporters. The company’s relationship with its customers and shareholders changed fundamentally in March; the events and statements that followed were not designed to mitigate the threat and, indeed, only served to make matters worse.


The Worst in Culture and Entertainment PR

This one was easy. Justin Bieber has spent much of the year eroding his goodwill and alienating many of his fans. The gaffes and insults are too numerous to mention – though this article in The Guardian does an admirable job of summing up 2013 ( 

The net result is that Bieber has now crossed the line from publicity to self-destruction. Concert tickets are not selling and his new movie is a box office bust.

The first lesson here is simple: hire a PR expert and pay attention to what she or he has to say. The second lesson is to take some time to stay out of the limelight and focus on making music for a change. It worked for Kanye, as I suggested in this earlier post:



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