THE BEST AND WORST PUBLICITY OF 1999: From Blair Witch to the two Bills (Clinton and Gates), it was quite a year for reputations and public relations. Aimee Grove recounts the most memorable moments

Jesse Ventura, Pokemon, Microsoft, The Blair Witch Project, Cisco Systems. These are just a few of the winners in the war for publicity in 1999, according to the results of our second annual PRWeek/Impulse Research Poll. The survey first polled PRWeek readers for nominations before a panel of judges decided the final winners - and losers, of course.

Jesse Ventura, Pokemon, Microsoft, The Blair Witch Project, Cisco Systems. These are just a few of the winners in the war for publicity in 1999, according to the results of our second annual PRWeek/Impulse Research Poll. The survey first polled PRWeek readers for nominations before a panel of judges decided the final winners - and losers, of course.

Jesse Ventura, Pokemon, Microsoft, The Blair Witch Project, Cisco

Systems. These are just a few of the winners in the war for publicity in

1999, according to the results of our second annual PRWeek/Impulse

Research Poll. The survey first polled PRWeek readers for nominations

before a panel of judges decided the final winners - and losers, of


Just a quick glance at your suggestions reveals the difficulty of

summing up a year in which the lines between entertainment and

marketing, politics and sport blurred like never before.

If you had to pick one dominant theme from the 1999 poll results,

however, it would be hard to miss the mighty Microsoft.

Besieged by bad press surrounding the antitrust trial and branded an

anti-consumer monopolist by Judge Jackson, the company easily topped

everyone’s list as the organization that received the worst publicity in

1999 (see table four).

And only Bill Clinton beat Bill Gates on the list of individual

publicity losers (see table two). It seems that even Gates’s accelerated

philanthropic efforts this summer were not enough to resurrect his image

after his surly deposition in the trial.

At least some of you gave Microsoft’s PR team credit for cleaning up

behind its 800-pound gorilla, voting it the company or group that did

the best job at overcoming a difficult situation, likely due to its

publicity efforts after the findings of fact were released (see table

seven). But interestingly, a number of voters placed Microsoft on the

opposite list of companies or organizations that did the worst job at

overcoming a difficult situation (see table eight).

George W. Bush seemed to inspire the same sort of ambivalence in voters,

which landed him on both best and worst publicity lists. Other

politicians on the ’individual with the best publicity’ list in 1999

included Jesse Ventura, whose anti-religion comments in Playboy did

little damage to his public persona; Democratic candidate Bill Bradley,

who scored big with endorsements from Barbra Streisand and the Hollywood

set as well as GOP challenger John McCain (see tables one and two).

On the other side of the publicity coin, though, Bill Clinton won in the

worst category for the second year in a row, still reeling from the

impeachment trial as well as new allegations of rape from Juanita


Wife Hillary also earned a spot on the list at number three (see table

two). While her ’stick-by-your-man’ stoicism and flattering cover shot

on Vogue last year won your applause, this year’s embarrassing Talk

magazine interview, in which Hillary seemed to blame Bill’s philandering

on childhood mental abuse - as well as her controversial, gaffe-ridden

’exploratory’ bid for a New York Senate seat - buried her in 1999.

Of course, Hillary’s challenger, Rudy Giuliani, also landed on the same

list, likely for his reluctance to comment following the February police

shooting (and death) of African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

PR probably had a more direct effect on the entertainers who made the

best publicity list. For example, before the Grammy Awards last spring,

few people had ever heard of Ricky Martin. But within weeks of his

performance at the awards, Martin’s publicists landed him on the covers

of magazines all over the country, and people in Ohio were humming ’La

Vida Loca.’ This was also a banner year for blonde bombshell Pamela

Anderson Lee, who landed on both the ’best publicity’ and ’best

publicity stunt’ lists for removing (or, some say, downsizing) her

breast implants (see tables one and five).

The Blair Witch Project was the hands-down Hollywood success story this

year. A low-budget horror film with no major advertising and limited

release beat out big studio blockbusters at the box office and took in

millions with a clever web site and well-targeted online marketing

strategy. Accordingly, PRWeek readers placed the film second only to the

Pokemon blitz as the ’product that got the best publicity,’ and voted

the movie’s web site the best publicity stunt of 1999 (see tables five

and nine).

Two sports came to prominence this year, due in great part to PR. Both

the US Women’s National Soccer Team and the World Wrestling Federation

(see table three) did an excellent job of winning new audiences in 1999,

largely by making celebrities out of the players. For example, few had

ever heard of Brandi Chastain before this summer, but now the image of

her ripping off her shirt in victory (to reveal a Nike sports bra) is

etched in our collective consciousness - and, despite Nike’s denials

that it had any role in the gesture, the incident made the list of best

publicity stunts (see table five).

For the most part, though, winners on the ’companies and groups with the

best publicity’ list tended to be hi-tech companies that performed well

on the stock market - for example, Cisco, Intel and IBM (see table

three). Hewlett-Packard scored boatloads of positive press this summer

by naming to its CEO post Carly Fiorina, one of the first female CEOs in

the tech sector and an attractive cover model for the company’s new


And Apple Computer, a winner in last year’s poll, continued momentum

into 1999 with the January introduction of five new colors for the iMac,

as well as with the launch of the iBook and the new G4.

Corporate branding consultant James Gregory attributes Apple’s

continuing publicity to Steve Jobs’s role as a ’decisive and visionary

leader’ for the company and for its cohesive corporate culture. ’They

aligned the company culture, the business processes and their

communications,’ he says. ’When all of these came together this year,

they also had great products to deliver. This is a great example of what

we call ’leveraging your brand.’’

Not all was rosy in corporate America in 1999, however. Coca-Cola

reacted with too little too late when it had a product contamination

scare in Europe this spring. The company scored just behind Microsoft

and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the worst publicity category

(see table four), and also got votes for worst job overcoming a

difficult situation (see table eight).

’It appears that they were slow to recognize the seriousness of the

problems and the damage that it could do to the brand, and that they

were slow to respond to it,’ says Larry Smith, president of the

Institute of Crisis Management. ’With a brand as well-known as

Coca-Cola, when something happens to your product anywhere in the world,

it damages you in the US.’

The NRA, however, is bestowed with the dubious honor of worst crisis

management this year in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre

(see table eight). Statements by NRA president Charlton Heston brought

the association much negative press. And then the gun group decided not

to move or postpone its annual convention, which was scheduled to take

place in Denver just weeks after the shootings.

It also wasn’t a great year for the American Banking Association and

banks in general. They were damaged by a widely publicized survey by the

US Public Interest Research Group highlighting rising customer fees and

later by cities passing measures banning ATM fees. In California,

meanwhile, Bank of America shot itself in the foot by announcing that it

would start prohibiting other banks’ customers from using its machines -

just days before it was expected that a federal court would (and

eventually did) overturn the local ordinances in San Francisco and Santa

Monica (see tables four and eight).

Similarly, The Los Angeles Times - number five on table eight - has been

unable to dig itself out of the hole it landed in after it was revealed

that the newspaper had shared with the Staples Center advertising

profits from a Sunday magazine special on the sports arena itself,

further eroding the wall between editorial credibility and advertising


Other companies proved more adept at overcoming adversity. For example,

General Electric, which made both the ’best publicity’ and ’companies

and groups that did the best to overcome a difficult situation’ lists,

was able to tackle the announcement of the legendary Jack Welch’s

retirement by emphasizing the company’s succession plans (see tables

three and seven).

It also placed features in business publications that focused on GE

alumni in top-level spots at other companies. ’By positioning the

company as a good training ground for top-quality managers, GE seems to

have done a good job at showing that the level of talent does not just

reside at the very top, and their stock has continued to go up,’ says

Tom Gable, chairman and CEO of The Gable Group in San Diego.

Sega of America, which made its comeback this year with the launch of

its new Dreamcast gaming console, was another company that made the best

of several bad situations (see table seven). Not only did the gamemaker

come from third place to take the lead in its category by the holiday

season, it also had to overcome resignations at the upper executive

levels and bugs on some of the first disks released.

Susan Butenhoff, president of San Francisco-based Access Communications,

also praises online media network for its against-the-odds PR

efforts this year (see table seven). ’They came into a market already

owned and defined by iVillage,’ she explains. ’And they had to overcome

a certain amount of jadedness and skepticism because of their celebrity

ownership (Oprah Winfrey is a backer). In the end, they have done a

great job at balancing coverage so that they come across as a smart

business venture, not just shallow content.’

Few PR events can compare to the moxie shown by Metabolife. Hit by

lawsuits and allegations of product safety concerns, the diet drug

marketer went on the offensive. In anticipation of the airing of a

potentially damaging interview on 20/20, the company put up its own

unedited copy of the interview on a web site prior to the broadcast.

Sales went through the roof (see tables five and seven).

The incident shows just how much crisis communications has changed in

the Internet Age. As noted crisis expert John Scanlon put it, ’Gutenberg

made us readers, TV made us witnesses, copiers made us publishers and

the Internet makes all of us critics, commentators and journalists.’

Riding the wave of market performance, redefining the rules of crisis

communications, blazing new trails in publicity stunts - it’s been a

wild ride for PR in 1999. Yet there are plenty of challenges left for

the millennium.

See you next year.


1 Best individual publicity

1    Jesse Ventura

2    Ricky Martin

3    George W. Bush

4    Carly Fiorina

5    Roberto Benigni

6    Bill Bradley

7    John McCain

8    Britney Spears

9    Cher

10   Pamela Anderson Lee

2 Worst individual publicity

1    Bill Clinton

2    Bill Gates

3    Hillary Clinton

4    Kathie Lee Gifford

5    Rudy Giuliani

6    Monica Lewinsky

7    Al Gore

8    George W. Bush

9    Marilyn Manson

10   Pat Buchanan

3 Best company/group publicity

1    Cisco

2    Intel

3    US Women’s National Soccer Team

4    Apple

5    Hewlett-Packard

6    Gap

7    IBM

8    eBay

9    General Electric

10   World Wrestling Federation

4 Worst company/group publicity

1    Microsoft

2    National Rifle Association

3    Coca-Cola

4    Republican Party

5    International Olympic Committee

6    Mattel

7    Yosemite National Park

8    Monsanto

9    American Bankers Association

10   Brown & Williamson

5 Best publicity stunt

1    Blair Witch web site

2    Ron Harris’s Angels’ Eggs Online

3    Beanie Babies retirement

4    Nike bra/Brandi Chastain’s T-shirt

5    Golden Gate Bridge Toll/

6    Brooklyn Museum ’Sensation’ show

7    Gates Foundation philanthropy

8    Metabolife web site

9’s CEO appearing on CNBC in boxers

10   Pamela Anderson Lee’s implant removal

6 Worst publicity stunt

1    BASE-jumping death at Yosemite

2    Hillary Clinton’s Yankee cap

3    Marketing Eyes Wide Shut as a sexy movie

4    Jesse Ventura refereeing wrestling match

5    Pizza Hut’s Hillary Clinton commercial

6    Impeachment trial of Bill Clinton

7    Monica Lewinsky’s interview with Barbara Walters

8    Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines

9    Grand Rapids, MI police’s ’behavior’ cards

10   Celine Dion’s semi-retirement

7 Best job by company/group in overcoming difficult situation

1    Microsoft

2    New Piper Aircraft

3    Democratic Party

4    Metabolife

5    General Electric

6    Webvan

7    Sega of America


9    ebay

10   Republican Party

8 Worst job by company/group in overcoming difficult situation

1    National Rifle Association

2    Coca-Cola

3    Microsoft

4    FBI

5    The Los Angeles Times

6    Bank of America

7    EgyptAir

8    Boeing

9    Carnival Cruise Lines

10   Daimler-Chrysler

9 Best product publicity

1    Pokemon

2    Blair Witch

3    Apple (G4, iBook, iMac)

4    Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

5    Palm V

6    Sega Dreamcast

7    Pashmina shawls

8    Game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

9    Atkins Diet

10   MP3


The PRWeek Best and Worst Publicity of 1999 was compiled after extensive

polling of the industry during October and November through PRWeek,

trade events and Profnet. Using an online form created by Impulse

Research, a panel of judges then evaluated the nominations to select the

final order.

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