Asia's worst PR disasters of 2014

The year's lowlights included poor handling of an airline tragedy, a food-safety crisis and a pharma scandal, plus an overly outspoken PR deputy in Hong Kong and a strangely prophetic anti-gambling ad from Singapore.

1 - Malaysia Airlines

The twin tragedies for Malaysia Airlines that happened this year have been a PR practitioner’s nightmare that exposed gaps in the government’s ability to handle communications around incidents of distress. The first incident—the disappearance of Flight MH370—was handled in a dreadful way with an assumptive text message to victims’ families. The second catastrophe, when MH17 was shot down, saw the airline being more cautious with its media responses. But all in all the events destroyed the Malaysia Airlines brand, which was left with little control over its own destiny.

2 - Chow Tai Fook

The jewellery retailer’s deputy head of public relations was not a good guardian of her own reputation. Joanna Kot, a name that the Hong Kong PR industry may remember for some time to come, made inflammatory comments regarding protesters who were sexually assaulted during the Occupy Central standoff. As her employer faced fallout from aggravated consumers, she was forced to resign from her post.

3 - National Council on Problem Gambling

Singapore’s anti-gambling ad became a global joke after the fictional betting scenario it featured turned into reality. The ad warned of the dangers of betting all your savings on an improbable result, such as, say, Germany winning the World Cup. That was exactly what happened as Germany took Brazil to the cleaners in the semi-finals. The Council tried in vain to salvage the situation by tweaking the copy to highlight how hard it is for hardcore gamblers to stop—even if they win unexpectedly.

4 - McPR fail

Like its fast-food peers, McDonald’s might be seen as a victim in the bad-meat saga that began in July, all thanks to rogue supplier Shanghai Husi. However, in Hong Kong, the brand violated several rules from the crisis-management playbook that resulted in a "large withdrawal from the bank of trust", said one PR expert. McDonald’s first denied any relationship with the embattled supplier before being forced to admit it did when social media posts busted its lie with photographic evidence.

5 - Novartis Japan

Japan is one of Novartis’ biggest markets, but the pharmaceutical giant shot itself in the foot by admitting it did not report 2,579 cases of serious side effects in patients using its leukaemia and other cancer drugs. Novartis also allegedly misled consumers with ads citing research that was later found to be false. What’s worrying: the research in question was published in reputable international journals and peer-reviewed studies, despite the thorough sign-off procedures in place intended to ensure scientific integrity. Throughout all the scandals, the brand has referred all questions to its Swiss headquarters.

This list originally appeared as part of Campaign Asia-Pacific's year-end Best of 2014 series.

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