I saw a request today for PR disasters in recent history and that got me thinking about past marketing disasters. We all have them. This first disaster took place while I was riding a shuttle bus in Chicago in 2000. I was attending the old PCS tradeshow and had left my co-worker to go to the hotel to work. My phone rang and through the static I could hear my boss screaming at me in a mixture of chinese and english. I got off the bus at some other hotel to try and get a better signal and then I heard it. Our Chief Scientist had gone to a standards meeting in China and encountered a reporter. The reporter said, I heard your new company is doing well. The Chief Scientist proceeded to tell the reporter in detail the names of all the potential customers we were engaging with and that we had a deal with a major wireless carrier in the US. And the reporter published it. And the screaming began.
My boss called me not to tell me to be prepared in case we were asked about it, but to tell me to call the newspaper and have them print a retraction. I remember the conversation went like this:
Me: So did he actually tell the reporter we have that company as a signed customer?
Boss: Yes he did. But he didn't know the reporter would write about it.
Me: Did the reporter not identify himself? Did he know he was a reporter?
Boss: Yes he did know that. But he didn't know the reporter would write about it.
Me: Was the reporter taking notes while they talked?
Boss: (Background conversation) Yes, he did.
Me: Then there is nothing we can do. The reporter did his job.
And the screaming started again. There was truly nothing that could be done, no trickery was involved, it was just an executive enjoying his moment in the spotlight.
The article published, the customer screamed and walked away from us and life continued. The damage with the customer was done - perhaps if we'd had a deeper relationship or commitment we would have been able to salvage the relationship. I don't doubt that part of it was a language issue but to this day when I work with Executives my first piece of advice is never tell a reporter anything you don't want to see in print.