As we enter 2015, it’s valuable to take a parting look at the digital world of public relations in 2014. Last year saw its share of scandals, blunders, and crises including:

  • • widespread rape allegations aimed at major public universities,
  • • diminished trust in law enforcement due to numerous high-profile deaths of unarmed civilians,
  • • digital blunders by brands like American Apparel, DiGiorno, DHL, and Urban Outfitters and,
  • • reputation crises for public figures like Justin Bieber, Donald Sterling, and Bill Cosby.

We at Lambert were interested in how the social media world reacted to some of the major PR crises of 2014, and how they influenced digital conversations about the affected brands. Using Infegy’s Atlas social media monitoring platform, we analyzed five of the top public relations crises of 2014. Here they are, in order of the most frequently-discussed:
1. Sony Hacking Scandal (586.6K digital mentions detected in 2014)
Word Cloud With Sentiment for the Sony Hacking Scandal
The Sony Pictures Entertainment email hacking scandal was the gift that kept on giving in 2014 (and will likely continue into 2015). Hackers (believed by some to be sponsored by the government of North Korea) breached the entertainment and technology giant’s systems sometime in late 2013, seizing an estimated 100 terabytes of data.

The scandal began for Sony when the hackers announced the attack (via an ominous message inserted on every Sony employee’s computer screen) November 24, 2014. In the weeks that followed, the hackers published yet-unreleased films, scripts, employee salaries, scandalous high-level internal emails, and personnel information. Worse – the hackers claim to have even more information they plan to release in 2015. [Timeline of the attack]

What began as entertainment tabloid fodder ballooned into an international incident when threats to movie-goers prompted the company to cancel the theatrical release of “The Interview” (a Seth Rogan/James Franco comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un). The cancellation prompted outcries of censorship from A-list actors and even President Barack Obama weighed in on the decision. Elsewhere, the status of films still in development may be affected. Sony Pictures Entertainment Employees (current and former) also filed three class-action lawsuits against the company for failing to protect their privacy.
The fallout from the scandal (which broke in November, 2014) is very evident in this chart:

Sentiment Timeline for Sony in 2014
Overall Digital Sentiment for Sony in 2014

2. Ferguson Protests (580.1k digital mentions detected in 2014)
Word Cloud With Sentiment Analysis for Ferguson Protests
In the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, and a grand jury’s subsequent finding of insufficient evidence to bring charges against the officer, Ferguson, MO became the battleground for issues of race and police power in the U.S.
That alone would be a challenge for any municipality to confront, but the situation was made worse by a string of catastrophic PR missteps by local authorities. Some of these included:

  • • Shortly after the case gained national media attention, the city of Ferguson hired Common Ground Public Relations to handle crisis communications – only to end its relationship with the firm shortly thereafter when it became apparent that the firm had no black employees. The city then hired PR practitioner Devin James, but subsequently ended that relationship as well after James’ criminal record (which included the shooting of an unarmed man) became public.
  • • The Ferguson Police Department repeatedly released conflicting information about the shooting, and initially refused to release the name of Darren Wilson, the officer involved in the shooting. When they finally did name Wilson, they drew widespread criticism for bundling the announcement with a police report and video allegedly showing Michael Brown (the shooting victim) shoplifting cigars from a convenience store immediately prior to the incident.
  • • Throughout the civil unrest that accompanied the shooting and grand jury decision, the Ferguson PD responded with excessive force – arresting protesters without charging them, accosting journalists (including some from the national newsmedia), and adopting paramilitary tactics. All of this was captured in HD-quality and broadcast instantly via social media to a worldwide audience. In one particularly striking example, an officer with the St. Ann Police Department (on hand to assist the Ferguson PD) was recorded pointing a rifle at peaceful protesters and threatening to kill them (resulting in his subsequent termination).

As a result, the city of Ferguson had perhaps the most relentlessly negative sentiment chart of the top case studies of 2014 (unfortunately things weren’t going well even prior to the shooting of Brown):

Sentiment Timeline for Ferguson, MO
Overall Digital Sentiment for Ferguson, MO in 2014

3. NFL Domestic Violence (266.8k digital mentions detected in 2014)
Word Cloud With Sentiment Analysis for NFL Domestic Violence Scandals
The NFL faced a firestorm of criticism in 2014 for its handling of domestic violence cases perpetrated by pro football players. This crisis was epitomized by the scandal in which video footage emerged of Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. Commissioner Roger Goodell (who later lied about having access to the video evidence) was roundly-criticized for initially giving Rice a two-game suspension that was lengthened to an indefinite suspension after continued public outrage. The crisis prompted the NFL to adopt a standardized discipline policy for domestic violence cases.
You can see the dramatic effect on the usually-positive conversation about the NFL in this chart:

Sentiment Timeline for NFL in 2014
Overall Digital Sentiment for the NFL in 2014

4. General Motors Recalls (252.1k digital mentions detected in 2014)
Word Cloud With Sentiment Analysis for GM Recalls
The massive recall of General Motors’ vehicles resulting from faulty ignition switches continued to pose a public relations crisis for the automaker in 2014. The problem of vehicle safety was worsened when GM was swept up in a larger recall (affecting nine other automakers) of airbags, manufactured by automotive parts supplier Takata, that failed to deploy in crashes.
Despite positive reviews for how GM CEO Mary Barra has handled the ignition switch recall, a well-received new vehicle lineup, and increased sales for 2014 – you can see in this chart how the recalls have affected the sentiment of conversation about GM online:

Sentiment Timeline for GM in 2014
Overall Digital Sentiment for GM in 2014

5. Uber Crises (215.7k digital mentions detected in 2014)
Word Cloud With Sentiment Analysis for the Uber Scandals
2014 was a year full of PR crises for the app-based transportation startup. It faced all of the following this past year:

  • • a lawsuit from the National Federation for the Blind
  • • criticism for sabotaging competitors
  • • leaked comments by senior leadership threatening to retaliate against journalists who report negatively on the company
  • • allegations of privacy abuses against customers
  • • an alleged rape in New Dehli, India

As a result, you can see the plunges in sentiment about the company took each time a scandal broke:

This past year has served as a stark reminder that social media is the default channel for public conversation (which continues to expand in both quantity and breadth, according to the latest Pew Research Social Media Update study). While this has created unprecedented challenges for brands to communicate, it has also forged powerful tools to monitor, understand, and manage these obstacles.

Many of these crises involved the longstanding concerns of security, privacy, and transparency online. As this post was being written, the U.S. Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) Twitter and YouTube accounts were hacked and vandalized (though fortunately no sensitive information was obtained). It’s a painful reminder of the enduring PR adage “nothing is ever ‘off the record.'”  If any utterance (even a snarky email to a colleague or an offhand comment at a meeting) could become public, the only defense is for us to endeavor to be the best version of ourselves at all times.

On a note of optimism, these crises also illustrate that it’s never all bad news. With the right PR counsel and commitment to positive change, any brand can eventually recover from a serious crisis.

Derek DeVries is a digital strategist at Lambert.