Keep Your Dignity in a Malicious Digital PR Crisis

Sometimes PR disasters are born of pure stupidity, sometimes they’re born of gross misjudgement and sometimes you find yourself in the mire through no fault of your own. Two recent examples stand out: Clint Eastwood and the Republican Party; and a highly disgruntled, self-proclaimed power social media user and Woolworths.


In the first instance, Eastwood was supposed to boost the Republican Party’s PR; after all, you can’t lose with a legend of Eastwood’s standing in your corner, can you? But his rather embarrassing introductory speech, which was twice as long as it was supposed to be, veered into the inane with Eastwood questioning an invisible Barack Obama.

The Republican Party and Mitt Romney actually escaped from the situation relatively unscathed. Eastwood’s reputation bore the brunt of the fallout, but it could have gone spectacularly wrong for Romney. PR people and spin doctors scrambled to put out the fires and distance themselves from the ageing star – and they did a good job.

malicious digital pr

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Eastwood, meanwhile, spawned a new meme – Eastwooding, in which people are pictured engaging empty chairs containing invisible presidents.

Obama, on the other hand, re-affirmed his admiration for Eastwood as an actor and shrugged off the criticism as part of the job. He emerged with dignity intact, showing everyone exactly how to handle a malicious attack.


Yeah, that’s not actually a meme, but a girl’s gotta try.

At the beginning September 2012, a disgruntled blogger, Justin Harrison, pounced on Woolworths South Africa, blasting the company for its racist employment policies. Race is a hot potato in South Africa, always has been probably always will be, so he immediately got attention. He claimed that Woolworths blatantly refused to employ white people. The man was so incensed that he decided to engage the company in all-out war. He’s called for boycotts and all sorts of things.

He hit a chord with a lot of similarly disgruntled white people who feel that affirmative action has run its course and that unfair hiring practices must stop. This is a debate that extends far beyond the scope of this article, and one which we won’t touch. Instead, we’ll look at the effects of the war.

Masses of people support Harrison and bombarded Woolworths’ Facebook page with what amounts to hate mail. Woolworths had to shut down its page because it simply couldn’t cope with the barrage of people engaging in slanging matches. Masses of people have hit Twitter and Facebook in support of Woolworths and denouncing Harrison as an attention-seeking, scandal-mongering social media hound. Masses of people can’t believe the storm in a tea cup and think the idea of a boycott is a joke.

Woolies categorically denies the allegation, stating that it has never and will never engage in discriminatory hiring practices. It’s been accused of weak PR and not doing enough to douse the flames. But numbers of its employees, white, black, Indian and coloured, have taken to social media to refute the claims, basically telling the world that they are hogwash.

Harrison is facing very public questions over his intentions and integrity, especially on the social media sphere.

Lessons to be learnt

The lessons here are this: don’t take on a major corporation that has a strong reputation for corporate social responsibility and quality products unless you have irrefutable proof of wrongdoing. And don’t take them on unless your reputation can withstand public scrutiny.

Woolworths’ reputation is strong enough to withstand this kind of attack, but its response, which could be considered quietly dignified, may have left something to be desired.

Lessons from Eastwooding and Woolworthsing: remaining calm and dignified during malicious attacks is the way to go. Your attackers end up looking silly and you end up with a swell of new support.

This guest post was written by Sandy Cosser on behalf of a well-established PR company that helps you avoid PR disasters, but manages them when they occur.

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