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Top PR fails of 2020 – lessons for universities and business schools

It goes without saying, that 2020 will go down in history for a number of reasons: the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, Trump’s response to the election and the attack on the US Capitol, just to name a few.

However, as the highly successful American investor and business tycoon Warren Buffett says, “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

And it’s true. Many scandalous and incredulous events occurred throughout 2020, but what we can do is learn from them. Here are just a few of the top PR fails of 2020, and what you can learn from them as an educational institution:

  1. Dominic Cummings scandal


In the past, our very own Prime Minister has come under fire for comments he has made, and having to contend with the pandemic has only increased the scrutiny he is under. However, in 2020, another political figure really took the biscuit for ‘biggest PR fail.’ Dominic Cummings, previous chief advisor to the PM, decided to make a 264-mile journey from London to Durham for alleged childcare reasons, a circumstance that allowed for breaking of the COVID-19 regulations at the time, but then drove a further 30 miles to Barnard Castle. Cummings claimed he drove this extra distance to test his eyesight. His statement was met with scepticism and criticism from both the media and the public and many called for him to resign. Only Cummings truly knows what his motives were for breaking the rules, but let’s say for arguments sake that he was bending the truth – this is what led to swathes of the public and the media to distrust him.

And this can also be a challenge with business school PR: trying to emphasise what makes your school interesting or different without deviating from the truth. When communicating research findings or a student story to a journalist, you want to grab their attention, as some journalists can receive hundreds of emails a day. However, you don’t want to exaggerate too much, or include misinformation, as this can leave the journalist feeling underwhelmed. Dishonesty is the easiest and quickest way to lose the trust of a journalist, just like Cummings lost the trust of the public.

  1. CrossFit and Black Lives Matter

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked a series of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement all around the world. This also led to companies and institutions publicly responding in support of the movement: Bayes Business School (previously known as Cass Business School) changed its name due to links with slavery, fashion brands, such as ASOS, released public statements devoting resources to anti-racism, and governments declared investigations into systemic racism. However, some companies made mistakes when it came to their public responses, including CrossFit, a successful fitness company previously owned by Greg Glassman.

A company being prominent in the public eye means it can’t really sit down and stay quiet on prevalent social issues. However, CrossFit didn’t release any statement on the BLM movement – at first. After their initial period of silence, which was heavily criticised by some, Glassman mocked the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation when they called racism a public health issue. A private Zoom call was also leaked in which Glassman asked why he should mourn over George Floyd. Glassman’s behaviour led to Reebok and a number of gyms ending their partnership and affiliations with CrossFit.

Not long after, Glassman tweeted an apology, stating that he had “made a mistake” and that the “CrossFit community will not stand for racism.” Too little, too late. The irreparable damage to Glassman’s reputation and public image had already been done. This mistake eventually led to Glassman selling the company and retiring.


This teaches a lesson that, on massive social issues, a brand which much of the public will have their eye on cannot stay quiet and say nothing. However, when you do speak, you must be careful with what you say and how you say it, as once a statement is out there – especially online – it is impossible to take it back. An educational institution can intake students from all around the world with varied and diverse backgrounds, and they will be looking to see how their institution responds to social issues.

  1. Rethink. Reskill. Reboot. campaign


A UK government-branded poster, featuring an image of a ballet dancer and suggesting she could reboot her career by retraining as an IT worker, drew heavy criticism in 2020. This was part of a campaign to encourage people who had become unemployed due to the pandemic, which included an overwhelming number of those from the entertainment industry, to retrain on another career path. This campaign was branded as insensitive and inappropriate due to the damage done to the arts and entertainment industry by the pandemic. As part of this, the government also launched a careers quiz to give people an idea of what career sector to retrain in. Both the poster and the quiz were ridiculed by the public on social media.

The campaign showed a lack of respect for the arts – a sector which most people rely on for their entertainment. If you’ve ever been to the cinema or the theatre, seen your favourite band in concert, or binged a show on Netflix, then you’ve benefitted from the entertainment industry.

It was also made worse when it was revealed that the image had come from a free image website – so the models, designers, photographers, and artists involved in the picture would not have benefitted financially at all. The campaign was branded as out of touch, disrespectful, and condescending.

This demonstrates that, as an institution in the public eye, any response or marketing campaign you publicly declare needs to be in touch with the public and consider things from others’ points of view. You need to understand, to an extent, the views your target audience already hold, what they are experiencing, and not offend or alienate them.

For more information on how your institution can engage with the media, get in  touch with BlueSky Education today.

Work pic Kyle Author: Kyle Grizzell


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