When Good Intentions Go Bad: PR Blunders

I was recently invited to give a presentation to the PR class at the Nova Scotia Community college on the different aspects of blogging—from personal blogs as a way to practice your craft, to professional blogs to grow your profile, to blogs as an integral part of a solid content strategy. As a creative consultant, blogging is a big part of my job—both for clients and for our own NATIONAL blog. But it’s also a big part of what I do for fun—or at least the excuse I use to have brunch every weekend to keep my breakfast blog DejeunEH going.

One of the hardest parts of blogging is answering the question: “What should I write about?” To help answer this question, NATIONAL’s Atlantic team holds a weekly newsroom/editorial meeting to brainstorm content for our social channels, for blog posts, and for stories and opportunities for our clients. We also hold these meetings with a lot of our clients as part of our collaborative process.

So—in the spirit of collaboration and brainstorming—after the formal part of the presentation, I hosted a newsroom editorial session with students to brainstorm some potential topics for a NATIONAL blog post. The deal was that we would collaborate to come up with a topic, I would write the words and give them credit for their help and input.


In 2016, Honey Nut Cheerios made the bold decision to pull its iconic bee mascot off its box design in an effort to raise awareness for the world’s declining bee population. The Bring Back the Bees campaign also included a call to action to visit the website and sign up to receive a free packet of wildflower seeds.

The special mix was designed and provided by Vesey’s Seeds, a family-owned company from PEI. The campaign generated a lot of buzz and positive attention across Canada. Based on the success of last year’s campaign, the 2017 version was extended to include the US as well.

Here’s where things get a little sticky. Critics have been very vocal about the fact that for many US regions, the seed packets include non-native species that could potentially become invasive species, spread disease and wreak havoc on local ecosystems. Vesey’s has been quick to respond to help provide context—as well as an explanation—in defense of its product. But the damage had been done.

Regardless of which side of the argument you agree with, this is an example of how sometimes even the best of intentions can backfire and have the opposite effect.

General Mills and Honey Nut Cheerios aren’t the first this has happened to—remember McDonald’s Our Food, Your Questions campaign from a few years back? In an attempt to be more transparent about its food preparation and business practices, McDonald’s opened itself up to any and all questions consumers had. The public stepped up, but the questions weren’t always positive. Two words: Pink slime.

But rather than pulling the campaign, McDonald’s opted to ride it out and respond to every question they were asked. Some of the more popular questions were even turned into video responses. So even though its good intentions turned quickly into negative responses, the company was able to save some face by being committed to its message.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not possible to salvage a campaign that has gone off the rails. In 2015, Starbucks launched its controversial Race Together campaign. The idea was to encourage dialogue and discussion around a very real and important topic—race relations. However, when the campaign launched the feedback was incredibly negative and resulted in a significant backlash against the company and its somewhat contentious CEO. The campaign didn’t gain traction (at least not in the positive sense) and ended after a short period of time.

It is interesting to note, however, that Starbucks’ quarterly profits weren’t negatively impacted by this blunder, but in fact rose.

While there can certainly be a place for companies to offer their support (and resources) for social change, cause marketing is a tricky space even for the savviest companies.

Authenticity is important for successful cause marketing strategies, but so is doing your homework. To go back to our initial example of Bring Back the Bees, strategically speaking it makes a lot of sense for Honey Nut Cheerios to align with this cause. However, more research could have been done to ensure the seeds it was providing were the best option for the campaign’s cross-border expansion.

For McDonald’s, authenticity played a big role—both in being transparent but also in sticking to the strategy even when things started to take a negative turn. But it could have benefitted from a bit more research and/or awareness around some of its customers’ feelings towards the brand.

And for Starbucks, while its intentions may have been in the right place—race relations are an incredibly important issue—its execution left a lot to be desired. Of course we should be having these conversations, but maybe the morning coffee run when you’re rushing to work and there’s a lineup of people behind you waiting impatiently for their fix isn’t the best time. The whole effort came off as inauthentic and while it did spark a lot of dialogue, it wasn’t the right (or positive) kind.


Thanks to the NSCC PR class of 2017 for the great topic ideas and fantastic input. If these bright minds are any indication, the future of our industry is in great hands!