The Biggest PR Disasters of 2022
By Jeremy Story
Pandemics may come and go, but there is one thing we can all count on year after year: dumb decisions that result in PR disasters.
Usually, we have to count on bureaucratic corporations to lead the way, but this year we had a number of individuals rise up to show us how to truly ruin reputations. Kanye West looked at Uber and said, “Not so fast.” Elon Musk told Facebook to hold his beer. And Will Smith, well, few corporations ever managed to ruin 35 years’ worth of hard work in five, globally televised seconds.
So, who had the biggest PR disasters in 2022?
UVALDE POLICE DEPARTMENT/TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY/U.S. BORDER PATROL
The response to the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs reminded us of the life-saving impact one or two heroic people can have. That makes the situation at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, that much more heart-wrenching. In Uvalde, 376 Uvalde Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety and U.S. Border Patrol officers descended on the school, and for 76 minutes not one of them did a damn thing to put an end to a shooting spree that killed 19 elementary school kids and two teachers.
KANYE ‘YE’ WEST
Kanye spent most of the year proving that you don’t have to be a big corporation like Uber or Facebook to set the standard for PR disasters. Since uttering and then doubling down on his antisemitic rants, Ye has been kicked off Instagram, dropped by Adidas, escorted out of the offices of Skechers, dumped by Footlocker and Gap, and lost representation by CAA, United Talent Agency, and his law firm. The financial hit to Kanye now exceeds $1 billion, according to economists.
Riding a string of successful companies including PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk was considered one of the world’s smartest business executives. Then his ego tricked him into buying Twitter for $44 billion, a price he later acknowledged was far too high. Once backed into that corner, you’d expect him to slash headcount and try to improve profitability at Twitter for a few quarters and then flip it.
Well, he did half of that. Musk cut headcount but then he took about every step he could to alienate advertisers – who provide about 90% of Twitter’s revenue – by eliminating the verified “blue-check” program and offering amnesty to hate-speech purveyors. Musk may have offered the best perspective on his Twitter strategy when he Tweeted, “How do you make a small fortune in social media? Start with a large one.”
FIFA World Cup 2022
The FIFA Men’s World Cup is the largest, most-watched sporting event in the world, and the month-long tournament will deliver an estimated $7.5 billion in revenue to FIFA. It is a juggernaut, and you might expect that it would be run by savvy executives. Alas, the 2022 World Cup has been known more for self-inflicted wounds than any of the action on the pitch.
Whether it was picking the repressive regime in Qatar to host in the first place, banning European countries from wearing rainbow armbands to support LGBTQ+ rights, not protecting the thousands of migrant workers who died constructing stadiums in Qatar, or blindsiding mega-sponsor Budweiser days before the start of the tournament by not allowing beer sales in stadiums, FIFA has set a new standard for corruption and complicity.
The 2022 Denver Broncos were a slow-motion trainwreck, and a reminder of the power of setting expectations. With a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive system and a new quarterback, the Broncos could havve easily tried to get people excited about the progress they would make in year two. Instead, they raised fans’ hopes for year one and saw the backlash start at about minute 59 of their first game (an inexplicable 64-yard field goal attempt that missed).
No one carried the weight of the miserable season more than QB Russell Wilson, head coach Nathaniel Hackett and GM George Paton. Wilson has always been an odd duck, but that personality trait gets amplified (and mocked) when you are losing. Whether it was an oddly timed “Let’s Ride” or bragging about working out on the plane ride to London, 2022 was the year that Wilson was exposed as an average quarterback and a below-average teammate.
As bad as Wilson’s year was, it was worse for Nathaniel Hackett. The first-year head coach made so many unforced errors in his NFL debut that he may never be able to recover. Conventional wisdom quickly became that he was in over his head and rumors swirled that he would be the fifth NFL coach in history to be fired midway through his first season. Even former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl wanted him gone.
And as bad as Hackett’s season was, the Bronco who had the worst year was GM George Paton. He was the man who hired Hackett and not only traded two first round and two second round draft picks to acquire Wilson, but then signed him to a five-year, $245 million extension before he had even thrown a pass for the Broncos. That decision looks worse and worse each week.
Slip-and-fall attorney Frank Azar had quite the year. In January, he sued an accountant that he hired to correct tax returns created by a different accountant whom he had also sued. He alleged negligence in both cases. In March, Azar sued an Alabama-based law firm alleging it was stealing clients through a deceptive Google ads campaign.
And in May, Azar sued his insurance company, claiming that it wasn’t covering legal costs associated with defending him against a lawsuit by a former employee. In that suit, the former employee alleged that the Azar’s firm’s “culture of heavy drinking and drug use” during work hours forced her to leave.
It has now been 40 months since Comcast– and DISH-subscribing fans could watch the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche in our local market. Someone needs to tell Stan Kroenke and Altitude Sports to stop the madness.
DANIEL SNYDER/WASHINGTON COMMANDERS
Dumpster fires would take offense at being compared to the NFL’s Washington Commanders. Since owner Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, it has endured losing season after losing season, but it has been a recent string of allegations related to workplace harassment, financial improprieties and targeting his fellow owners that have kept the team in the headlines.
Snyder was forced to relinquish operational control of team after a Washington Post investigation included allegations from 40 women who had been harassed or discriminated against by Snyder or other male executives. Other headlines focused on allegations that he had cheated the NFL and the IRS by underreporting ticket sales so he could keep a larger portion of the team’s money.
It was an ESPN report in October, though, that sent the future of Snyder’s ownership into a tailspin. That report said that Snyder had used private investigators to dig up dirt on his fellow owners to use against them if they tried to force him to sell the team. Confident the scheme would protect him, he reportedly told a colleague, “They can’t f— with me.”
Legendary investor Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” and no one proved that adage correct more than actor Will Smith. Smith spent a career building a reputation as a charming, likeable actor who could deliver audiences to anything he starred in. Like Tom Hanks, Smith recalled the era of Jimmy Stewart, a beloved actor who had a way of playing everyman characters in compelling ways. And then the 2022 Oscars happened.
In the slap heard ‘round the world, Smith inexplicably climbed on-stage and struck host Chris Rock. It was a surreal moment that instantly redefined Smith’s image, undoing 35 years’ worth of reputation-building. Smith immediately had two projects tabled, “Fast & Loose” and “Bad Boys 4,” and the summer release of his already-completed film “Emancipation” was delayed. Meanwhile, Smith’s Q Score, – an industry metric of likeability among the general public – dropped from 39 to 24, a nearly 40% decline.
CNN invested $300 million to launch CNN+, a subscriber-based streaming news service? Thirty-five days later, they shut it down.
Rumors of the actor’s bullying and harassing behavior have circulated for years, but it hit a tipping point in 2022 when production of the film “Being Mortal” was suspended following reports of Murray’s sexual assault against a female production assistant. That news opened a floodgate, and actors including Geena Davis, Seth Green, Lucy Liu, Anjelica Huston, Richard Dreyfuss and Sean Young all shared stories of Murray’s bullying behavior. His troubled personality hasn’t done much to slow his film career to this point, but his legacy ultimately may not be exclusively what he put on film.
Given that Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre’s NFL playing career ended with a “d— pic” scandal, it’s hardly surprising that he’d find himself in a tough spot again. And, unfortunately for Favre, he violated Crisis Communications 101, which is to get all the bad news out at once as quickly as possible.
Instead, a scandal that started with Favre fraudulently receiving funds from Mississippi earmarked for an anti-poverty program in exchange for no-show speeches has slowly blossomed into a deeper investigation into his actions to use $5 million in similar funds to pay for a volleyball arena at his alma mater, where, coincidently I’m sure, his daughter plays … volleyball. Leaked text messages show Favre and the state’s former governor conspiring to make the deal happen.
Crypto-bro and FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried was a late addition to the list, but he definitely earned his spot by losing more than $8 billion in customer funds, tanking his personal net worth from an estimated $20 billion last year to $100,000, and finally being arrested for fraud. Bankman-Fried claimed the company was the victim of changing economic conditions, but FTX’s interim CEO told lawmakers that the company collapsed because of “old fashioned embezzlement. Either way, everyone can agree on Bankman-Fried’s general assessment: “I f—— up.“
Jeremy Story is a Vice President at GroundFloor Media, where he leads the firm’s Crisis Communication & Reputation Management practice. He has more than 20 years of experience helping companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 100 prepare for, manage, and recover from crisis issues.