PR Gone Bad — Sorry, Wichita State

pr-news-wichita-state

You’re writing a routine, run-of-the-mill marketing email selling subscriptions to a website and you want a catchy subject line tied in to current events. What could go wrong by telling people not to be like a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and “not seize a big opportunity?”

Plenty, if you’re PR News.

The online website PR News this week sent an email with the subject line, “Don’t be like Wichita State.” When public relations professionals across the country opened the email the message continued, “… and not seize a big opportunity like $300 off a PR News subscription,” along with a snazzy basketball graphic.

Who could possibly be offended? Except, of course, for people from Wichita State. And there friends and family. And PR professionals who expect the source for public relations news, seminars and other resources to practice good PR.

It didn’t take long for the email to travel to Wichita State, as PR professionals. PR News tried to apology, but according to the Kansas City Star, it didn’t go well.

Hague received a response from PR News, though the organization’s vice president for marketing, Amy Jefferies, didn’t respond to him by the correct name.

“Hi Beth – I am truly sorry for this oversight on our part and any stress this has caused you. A very important lesson has been learned by my team for future promotions.”

She added, “Are there any PR News products I can offer you and your team free of charge – Guidebooks, a PR News subscription or conference attendance?”

Without correcting her mistake with his name, Hague thanked Jefferies for her note and the offer of freebies and replied that “at this stage, having just been insulted by your organization, free products are not something we’re interested in.”

 

A follow-up article in the Star indicated a second, more professional apology was extended. An apology email was also apparently sent to the same group of recipients as the original email, although I did not receive it. I changed my email preferences with PR News to be removed from the solicitations similar to this one, which is hopefully the reason I did not receive it.

I’m not sure you can hit more of a home run for errors than PR News did. I don’t want to judge PR News too harshly because every PR professional makes mistakes, even big-name, hot-shot PR types. Sometimes errors pile on top of themselves, and sometimes in cleaning up a mess you make more messes.

I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if the subject headline had read, “Don’t be like Duke,” instead of Wichita State. Why not Duke? Their loss to Mercer was truly embarrassing, while Wichita State lost to one of college basketball’s most-storied programs in one of the biggest conferences in the country. Wichita State’s loss wasn’t embarrassing at all.

Was it a big-market, coastal-bias against a small school from the Midwest? Maybe. I don’t know. But I hope the lesson PR pros take from this is not that it’s wrong to belittle the Midwest, but rather that it’s wrong to belittle anyone. Public relations is supposed to be a celebration of what companies, organizations and individuals accomplish, not a denigration of what others have done. The best campaigns sell yourself, not run down your competitors. Sadly, sometimes being a bully works. But it’s not what we should do.

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