The eight biggest PR stories of 2018

PRWeek casts a beady eye back over what hit the PR headlines in 2018.

Which PR stories defined 2018? (©GettyImages)

1) The Presidents Club: Rudely exposing itself

An undercover investigation by a female reporter for the Financial Times lifted the lid on a charity gala dinner at The Presidents Club, during which some of guests at the men-only event were given to believe that the all-inclusive cost of dinner and drinks should also include the attentions of the young hostesses serving them. 

Cue red faces and protestations that they left early by many guests after the story broke. As one commentator for PRWeek quipped, it was a Presidents Club only Donald Trump could be proud of.

WPP, one of the companies named as being involved, quickly "ended its association with the event", while Great Ormond Street Hospital promised to return the sizeable donation it received.

Safe to say that the event will not be staged in a similar format next year, if it goes ahead at all.

2) Oxfam: The scandal that had it all

It was the scandal that had it all: public and media outcry, criticism from corporate partners, and serious questions from parliament and regulators.

Oxfam's reputational crisis occured earlier this year, after a Times investigation discovered that senior employees had regularly paid local prostitutes for sex in earthquake-struck Haiti in 2011.

As if matters couldn’t get any worse, it transpired that, despite investigating and taking action against the employees concerned, the charity had failed to report its findings to the regulator, prompting accusations of a cover up.

Oxfam is still feeling the effects of the scandal as 2018 comes to an end, with a loss in overall income from personal and government donors.

3) Facebook: Anti-social media

Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix

It’s fair to summarise that Facebook has had what the Queen once described as her ‘annus horribilis’ – a 2018 to forget.

One of the many, and ongoing, scandals it endured was via its partnership with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, when it emerged that the latter had harvested the personal details of 50 million of the social media company’s users and then used them to target voters in the US presidential elections of 2016.

The hashtag (ironically) #QuitFacebook was one visible example of public ire at the misuse of their personal information, particularly to influence their voting habits, and £25bn was wiped off Facebook’s value during the course of a single week as investors fled in droves. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the pond also began asking questions, although they have yet received few clear answers and the issues of privacy and suspicion as to whether personal data was misused during the 2016 EU Referendum vote continue to rumble on.

Cambridge Analytica meanwhile, did not survive the white heat of the media glare and closed down in May, after its then boss Alexander Nix boasted to undercover reporters for Channel Four News about the less-than-savoury tactics his firm could use to topple political rivals.

The latest PR disaster came in November, after the New York Times revealed that Facebook hired public affairs agency Definers to run smear campaigns against critics – leading PRWeek commentators to suggest a change at the top was required. 

4) Sorrell: The king is dead, long live the king

The departure in April of Sir Martin Sorrell as chief executive of WPP, following allegations of personal misconduct,
after more than 30 years in the job, shook the entire marcomms industry and made national newspaper headlines over 'sex, cash and bullying claims'.

Two key questions mattered after the story broke: Who would replace him and what would Sorrell do next? Both eventually received answers – Mark Read would become the CEO of WPP while Sorrell told the industry he had no intention of going quietly into retirement. And, of course, he didn't.

5) PRCA/APPC: A very public affair

A proposal by the board of the public affairs trade body the APPC to merge into the PRCA raised hackles on both sides and descended into acrimony. Detractors said the organisation, with its own culture and rules, should be saved and that the larger entity, the PRCA, would subsume its distinct identity.

Supporters of the scheme argued that the merger would give public affairs members a bigger voice and better membership benefits than they previously enjoyed. Members eventually voted by 57 per cent in favour of the proposal.

But the ill feeling rumbles on, as last week's social media spat proved.

6) Nike: Just doing it 

It is rare that a brand displays either the bravery or the insight into public mood to come up with a campaign that makes consumers proud to buy their products. But sport clothing and equipment giant Nike achieved exactly that when it made controversial American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick - who led the ‘Take A Knee’ protest during the playing of the national anthem - the star of its latest film.

The campaign was everything last year’s Pepsi advert, starring Kendall Jenner, was not: daring, truthful and brimming with purpose. Suffice to say, Donald Trump despised it, while the President's supporters posted pictures of themselves burning their Nike trainers on social media.

Nike continued the theme this week when is backed footballer Raheem Sterling in his fight against racism in the sport. 

7) Ryanair: Unaware

Racist passengers are not, in and of themselves, an airline’s fault, but they are its problem. When footage, filmed by a fellow passenger, emerged of a man racially abusing a black woman shortly before take-off on a Ryanair flight, it quickly went viral on social media, with users asking who the man was and what action the budget carrier intended to take.

As is so often the case, the initial incident was amplified by the airline’s poor handling of it, in this case offering nothing other than a short tweet stating that it was "aware of the video" and had reported it to police. In a subsequent statement, Ryanair said it had apologised to the victim and was treating the incident with the "seriousness it warranted".

The airline’s comms director perhaps sensibly announced in November that he was leaving the job next spring to spend more time with his family.

8) Iceland: Good cause and effect

Iceland (the supermarket) bookended 2019 with trolley-loads of positive PR - all of it stemming from its unwavering commitment to championing good causes.

At the start of the year, the retailer stole a march on rivals by announcing plans to go plastic-free on its own-brand packaging within five years, ahead of the Government’s suggested 25-year timescale. "The world has woken up to the scourge of plastics," MD Richard Walker said in a statement.

Then, with Christmas approaching and everyone patiently waiting for this year's John Lewis ad, Iceland did it again: its striking festive film, in partnership with Greenpeace and apparently 'banned' from TV by the regulator, launched and subsequently went viral on social media. The campaign delivered more than 65 million views, as well as a significant lift in sales and consideration.

All eyes were on 'Rang-tan' and the devastating environmental impact of palm oil, which the supermarket has commited to removing from its own branded products – all in all, another lesson in effective social cause marketing and the power of earned media.  

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