Nine stories that rocked PR in 2019

PRWeek takes a look at the major news events and communications industry issues that made headlines this year.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Astroturfing allegations

Several agencies this year have been accused of astroturfing – the deceptive practice used by Bell Pottinger on behalf of Oakbay Investments in which a fake grassroots movement is created to provide support to an organisation's PR offensive.

The first of these involved Sans Frontières Associates, working on behalf of O2 Arena parent company AEG Europe, which created a fake community organisation, Newham Action Group (NAG), to build "fake" grassroots opposition to a proposed music and entertainment venue called the MSG Sphere.

The Guardian exposed several cases of alleged astroturfing by Lynton Crosby’s firm CTF Partners, which ran online disinformation campaigns that selectively promoted CTF clients' viewpoints on anonymous Facebook pages that could not be linked back to the consultancy or its clients.

The case that really shook up the industry involved FleishmanHillard Fishburn and its client arena operator SMG Europe, which was accused by Manchester City Council of creating a community group called Friends of Eastlands and distributing false claims in a leaflet (pictured above) to oppose plans for a rival arena.

Fleishman asked the PRCA to investigate claims of wrongdoing and was cleared. Industry veteran Jack Irvine said astroturfing is much more widespread in PR than most would imagine.

Big Tobacco’s influencer playbook

Big Tobacco has turned to influencer marketing to promote e-cigarette products in what one company says is an effort to create a ‘smoke-free world’.

PRWeek discovered the use of earned social-media tactics as ad authorities began a lengthy investigation into whether they were breaking regulations that prohibit e-cigarette marketing. 

Influencers and celebrities were taken to Formula One races, parties and other events courtesy of Big Tobacco companies and popular e-cigarette brands.

Philip Morris International controversially pitched up at Cannes Lions 'Good Track' while still running aggressive cigarette marketing in Indonesia.

Social-media companies also came under fire for seemingly turning a blind eye to cases where tobacco products, such as cigars, were being promoted on platforms like Instagram.

In December, the ASA finally concluded its investigation and banned posts that promoted vaping products, including posts featuring Lily Allen.

Facebook said it has also changed its community rules relating to posts that involve tobacco products.

Boeing's crisis comms turbulence

A grounded American Airlines plane (Photo: Getty Images)

In the wake of a fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash – the second such disaster in a year – Boeing dithered for far too long until US president Donald Trump made a decision to ground its entire global fleet of 737 Max aircraft.

The manufacturer lost control of its crisis comms messaging, allowing others to tell the story about what might be happening with its planes. 

Boeing repeatedly insisted in press releases and an email to employees from chief executive Dennis Muilenburg that its planes were perfectly safe. However, as airlines and aviation authorities around the world began grounding Boeing 737 Max aircraft, urgent action by the manufacturer was required, rather than allowing due process to run its course.

As one comms expert puts it, the "company appears to be shirking, rather than acknowledging, its role in this devastating situation"

The comms failure cost two senior comms executives their jobs: SVP of communications Anne Toulouse and VP of comms for Boeing Commercial Airplanes Linda Mills. It has also cost Boeing far more in lost share value, revenue and reputational damage.

Election marred by dirty tactics

There are many reasons why Boris Johnson's Conservative Party destroyed rival parties in the general election and won a far greater majority than many had expected.

But one aspect particularly relevant to communications is how the election campaigns have set a new low in dirty tactics, including attempts to deceive and lie about rivals, and a complete disregard for facts, scrutiny and accountability.

For Johnson, avoiding media scrutiny is nothing new, but this campaign has seen the Prime Minister ratchet it up a few notches, avoiding debates that rival leaders stood up to and even going as far as hiding in a refrigerator to avoid journalists.

Seasoned reporters resorted to tweeting 'anonymous source' scraps, sometimes without basic fact-checking, in a campaign where politicians and their spin doctors pulled the strings and often played the media to their advantage.

Perhaps the most worrying trend, however, has been the use of fake fact-checking sites, bogus rival manifesto websites and a propensity to pump out blatant lies in paid advertising on Facebook – a platform that has been weaponised by politicians to win marginal seats and become the world's most powerful propaganda tool. 

And the Conservatives clearly won the social media battle, despite Labour having a far greater online following.

Can trust in political communications ever be repaired?

Greta and the power of purpose

Staff from Manifest (left) and Tin Man (right) march in this year's Climate Strike in London

Teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has inspired a global movement to tackle climate change and shown up adults on communicating the urgency of this existential threat.

The movement has often taken the form of Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, which – for the most part, but not entirely – has had a huge impact in keeping climate change front and centre of the global news agenda, placing people-power pressure on politicians and corporations.

The PR industry has been quick to support this movement, with several agencies pledging support for climate strikes and promising to push sustainability into the heart of how they operate and advise clients.

Beyond this, it also highlights the growing importance of purpose and sustainability as an integral part of communications, with several agencies rolling out purpose offerings.

M&C Saatchi's crisis

The advertising giant's accounting woes continued this year as the cost of its accounting error was revised up to £11.6m, and its shares plunged 40 per cent.

The firm revealed a £6.4m drop in profits in August, but has revised the figure after an independent audit by PwC.

The business' advertising arm offered voluntary redundancy to all of its 178 staff after the loss of the NatWest business, one of its biggest accounts. 

In addition, M&C Saatchi will restructure its UK office at a cost of £2.5m, with expected annual savings of £6m in 2020 and beyond.

And this month, M&C Saatchi's board announced the immediate resignation of non-executive directors Lord Dobbs, Sir Michael Peat and Lorna Tilbian, as well as executive director Lord Saatchi.

M&C Saatchi global chief executive Moray MacLennan said the group must now "prove the detractors wrong and restore our reputation". It will be interesting to see how they go about this in 2020.

Pitching paralysis

Taylor Herring boss James Herring calls out problems with the pitching process at PR360

Industry leaders debated whether the pitching process is fit for purpose after one industry leader described it as "shallow, time-wasting beauty parade". Although not everyone agreed, there was consensus that the process could be drastically improved.

Agency bosses noted many problems with pitches, such as bloated shortlists, a poor cost-benefit ratio, unrealistic timeframes and the role of procurement, with the latter hitting back at claims. 

This has led to several remarkable pitching car crashes, involving piglets, sleeping with clients and, erm, sleeping.

A pitch consultant warned that clients aren't taking PR as seriously as other marcoms disciplines, while experts noted that there is an imbalance of too many agencies for briefs, and the procurement process could be made more flexible.

The result is an industry under severe pressure that is in the grips of an overservicing epidemic and its practitioners often battling poor mental health.

Prince Andrew’s PR disaster 

PR professionals were left gobsmacked by the tactics and execution of Prince Andrew's BBC interview about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, labelling it one of the worst PR disasters of all time.

The hour-long BBC Newsnight programme featured presenter Emily Maitlis forensically grilling the Duke of York about his relationship with Epstein, why he chose to continue that friendship after the disgraced financier served time for sex offences, and allegations that the Duke himself had sex with teenager Virginia Giuffre (then known as Virginia Roberts) – a claim he has always dened.

Prince Andrew's responses ranged from 'remorseless' toward the victims of alleged sex offences to 'bizarre', such as suggesting he didn't meet up with Giuffre because on the specified date he was dining at Pizza Express, and that he couldn't sweat due to a condition he had as a result of serving in the Falklands War.

Communications experts speaking to PRWeek criticised the Duke's lack of empathy for the victims, ignoring the counsel of his PR adviser, and being out of his depth to face a skilled interviewer in Maitlis. One PR luminary told PRWeek it was time Prince Andrew was put out pasture, and his public-facing role was quickly scaled back.

It emerged that Prince Andrew's comms adviser had advised against the interview, and they had agreed to part ways.

It's been a year in which the usually highly disciplined Royal Family PR machine has been breached on more than one occasion. Prince Harry took comms into his own hands to criticise the media's treatment of his wife – a move one comms leader said was unwise.

Industry pioneer Tim Bell dies

Lord Bell, a titan of PR, died in August, aged 77. Born in 1941, he was a controversial character in British public life – but warm, charismatic and fun in person.

Despite a colourful career, punctuated by scandal, he will probably be best remembered as 'Thatcher's PR man' – and the agency he co-founded, Bell Pottinger, will be remembered for the South African scandal that led to its collapse in 2017.

At its peak, Bell Pottinger pulled in fee incomes of about £50m a year and employed as many as 300 people.

Bell was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2016 and will go down as one of the pioneers of the modern corporate communications consultancy. His integrated approach to advertising and PR has become the norm in corporate and political marketing strategies.

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