Kenneth Cole cairo tweet

There’s an old saying that any publicity is good publicity – but is it?

Kenneth Cole might be questioning it, after the tweet in the image above – that tied his retail chain’s sale into the devastating events currently happening in Egypt – was picked up and discussed on various PR and marketing blogs and news sites.

I’ve also written on here before about examples of bad PR and PR that takes advantage of tragic or upsetting situations, and questioned the sense behind it.

True, a discussion about your company or business means that at least people are talking about you – but is there a limit as to how far this should go and be accepted as a good thing?

A client approached a well-known agency in New York to run a campaign about that client’s new start-up business. The business was technology-led, and the idea behind the campaign was to run a number of press releases and forum posts that implied the current technology on the market was doomed.

This was where the PR agency’s client would step in – by providing the new technology that would replace the “outdated” one, they would become the de facto standard for this piece of software.

Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons, this backfired spectacularly.

  • First, the software wasn’t actually ready – it was still buggy and users kept having their systems frozen.
  • Second, the target audience the client was going for were already fiercely loyal to the older technology. They came out fighting when the suggestion was made that they were the equivalent to schoolchildren if they didn’t upgrade to the new software, whose users would be the advanced students of that niche.

Cue forums and tech blogs lighting up with inflammatory statements and posts about this new upstart who was saying all these bad things about the user community. The PR agency swiftly put a damage limitation exercise into place, but it looks like it’s too little, too late.

Now it looks likely that when the software is ready, it’s going to have too much baggage attached to make any headway – which is a shame, as the technology in question is an excellent idea.

So who’s to blame – the client or the PR agency? It’s a little bit of both.

For a business that wanted to be the standard in its field, releasing a buggy product and not classifying it as a beta is one of the worst things it could have done.

For the agency’s part, they should have had more balls and advised their client that pissing off your target audience is not good PR. The client hired the agency for their expertise at getting the right media attention – so they should have enforced that and made the client realize the mistake they were about to make. After all, their reputation would be at stake as well.

In fairness to the PR agency in question, it seems that in this case the client wanted to drum up controversy to get people talking about their product. That certainly happened – but was the (potentially) final result worth it?

Maybe Kenneth Cole and the tech company can tell us in a few months time…

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30 Comments on "Kenneth Cole Is Just The Latest in a Long Line of Bad PR Decisions"

Imelda Dulcich
4 years 2 months ago

Great post.

I just got an email from a company I was looking at for possible services. I decided no when I read this line: “We don’t want to pee in your cheerios, but..” (goes on to say why using them would be a great help to me.

I’m not going to use a company that doesn’t show maturity in communications.

The Kenneth Cole post will sway my purchasing decision when I see the KC Label.

4 years 2 months ago

“We don’t need to pee in your cheerios but…”? Seriously?

That’s just plain crazy. You should have replied, “Good – then you’ll understand why I’m about to tell you to pee off.” 😉

Geoff Livingston
4 years 2 months ago

You know sometimes, sooner or later, your true identity comes out. Maybe we finally saw the real Kenneth Cole, opportunistic to the point of tastelessness. You can recover from this, but it takes a real action, an amends, not platitudes.

Howie at Sky Pulse Media
4 years 2 months ago

Danny this is a refreshing take on this event. To me the infraction is minor when viewed in the big picture of things.

I think the real question for all Brands and Agencies is where does the story go. Will just PR people talk about this? Will it get to your customer base (in this case not really in my opinion). and is the event enough to cause someone not to buy your product? (this case definitely not).

BUT that doesn’t mean it couldn’t of been a show stopper. And it is a team event. See Taco Bell.

I think there are two shining moments when your PR firm of choice proves their worth. When they handle something well that helps increase sales, and during crisis management. The big problem is how do I value this. Did their work cause me to sell less than another agency would have? and Since we survived how do I know another Agency would of helped me survive easier or better?

4 years 2 months ago

That’s a great point, Howie.

I know when I blogged about Audi’s Green Police Super Bowl ad last year, it was mainly PR folks, and people from Audi forums, that picked up and shared thoughts on the piece.

The general public? That’s another part of the equation, and I guess since maybe a lot of the general public still isn’t on Twitter, much of the furore might have been missed.

So is anything learned?

Gini Dietrich
4 years 2 months ago

I think this comes down to what you say at the end – the agency needs to have the balls to tell the client no. And it comes down to what I blogged about earlier in the week – we too often surround ourselves with like-minded people and don’t allow the debates or to hear “no.”

So maybe Kenneth Cole and your technology company acted alone. Maybe they had PR firms who didn’t tell them no. Maybe it was a little bit of both. But what I do know is, if you aren’t willing to risk a client for what you know is right (and really, what they’re paying you to do), you shouldn’t be advising anyone.

4 years 2 months ago

Agreed, Gini.

Yes, having clients is definitely more profitable to a business than having none.

But at what point does the financial benefit outweigh the moral one? I’d like to think more agencies sway on the moral side, but recent events make me question that more and more.


john Falchetto
4 years 2 months ago

Danny, interesting how we all find this ethically wrong on many levels but yet the stock went up the day the tweet burst into twitter world. Actually the stock is now trading at it’s highest since Nov 2010. What does this mean?
I think we do not all have the same idea of ‘wrong’ or bad taste and obviously this twitter campaign was no mistake and it worked.
Remember the Benetton ads with nuns kissing a priest, a dying aids patient, a butt branded HIV? KC didn’t invent anything. Get people shocked and associate the shock and edginess with KC.
Although I find it in bad taste, I am not a KC customer so I guess it doesn’t matter.It seems to have worked for KC’s client base.

Gini Dietrich
4 years 2 months ago

It’s disturbing to me that their stock is the highest it’s been in three months. It’s disturbing shock value works so well. God bless the poor soul who says to anyone at Arment Dietrich, “Well it worked for Kenneth Cole. Can’t we try it?” We all know how that conversation is going to turn out.

john Falchetto
4 years 2 months ago

I think in the end companies who think this is acceptable will always find an agency to implement that type of ‘shock and awe’ tactics.
It really boils down to ‘do the end justify the means.’
More than ever I believe client self select when your firm communicates its values properly. So I guess nobody will ever say to you ‘can we do a Kenneth Cole for this campaign?’

4 years 2 months ago

Gini once fired someone for buttering her toast the wrong direction, so I think anyone that suggests that approach will have a short-lived career at Arment Dietrich.

* Note – some of the above may not be strictly true.

Gini Dietrich
4 years 2 months ago

Danny! I told you that in confidence! If I get sued, you’re going to have to pay!

4 years 2 months ago

That’s the thing, mate, that I always find so “sad”, for want of a better word. It seems shock value, and feeding off tragedy, is the way many companies succeed. Have we really run out of creativity that much?

john Falchetto
4 years 2 months ago

Run out of creativity Danny?
Actually there is also the other route which the fashion industry has been using for a while called ‘sex sells’.

Wendy Kier
4 years 2 months ago

It’s hard to imagine that someone is getting paid to produce such poor marketing on Twitter.

Astonishing that they think there brand is bigger than a countries current political turmoil.

Wendy 😉

Frank Reed
4 years 2 months ago

Just because we have more ways to tell people something doesn’t translate into having discernment or good taste. In fact, it just more of an opportunity for many to showcase how clueless, out of touch and shallow they really are.

Social media is like any other tool. It’s available to use but not everyone has the skill to use it without hurting themselves or others. As a result, people will do stupid things and people will get hurt.

I know some of the stupid things I am capable of so why be surprised when something like this happens? We can talk all day about being smart and enlightened but the trouble is that those who talk that way are usually covering up the fact that they are not.

My two cents.

4 years 2 months ago

My grandad used to tell me, “So you have a degree – so what? That just means you’re more qualified to know bugger all.”

Seems my grandad had something about common sense there… 😉

Gini Dietrich
4 years 2 months ago

I love your granddad. That’s awesome!

4 years 2 months ago

I’m thinking of using it on my gravestone. :)

Keith Davis
4 years 2 months ago

Conclusion to draw…
Kenneth Cole equals bad taste.
As you say Danny, perhaps he can tell us if it was a good decision in a few months time.

Terrible thing is, we are all talking about Kenneth Cole!
He may even have done the right thing, heaven forbid.

Niall Harbison
4 years 2 months ago

There was a really interesting case like this here in Ireland a couple of years ago. The biggest airline in Europe Ryanair got involved with a fight with a blogger. Basically he found a glitch in their website, blogged about it and blogs lit up with conversation about it. The airline came on and left some comments which the bloggers sounds found out came from Ryanair offices and it blew up further.

Up stepped the CEO and said that they were “Lunatic bloggers and that they could go to hell”. Cue a huge front page, main evening news debate for a couple of days before it all blew over. In this case profits were up more than ever at the end of the year and this was a tiny blip that the airline managed to get great additional mainstream press out of. It goes back to your point about the product or service though because they offer the cheapest flights so without that profits wouldn’t have been up.

4 years 2 months ago

I remember the Ryanair example, and all the online back and forth between bloggers and Ryanair staffers. I was astounded at some of the stuff the employees were writing – yet like you say, it didn’t do them any harm.

Mind you, I wonder if the same would have been the case if someone like Easyjet had stepped in, spoofed Ryanair and advertised something like “We do everything Ryanair does, except call our customers idiots.” 😉

It reminds me of when Gerald Ratner killed his business stone dead by publicly stating his company’s jewelry was crap. Everyone knew it was; that was the point, but you don’t have theCEO saying it!

I don’t know, mate, never fail to be amazed at some of the stuff companies come out with.

Keith Davis
4 years 2 months ago

I remember the Gerald Ratner one – he never recovered from that.
Never worked out why he said it.

4 years 2 months ago

There’s a great extract from his book from The Times archives:

Seems his wife questioned the choice of using the word crap, but on professional advice he went ahead.

Wonder what the book’s like.

Rick Rice
4 years 2 months ago

Interesting parallels here Danny – if they are parallel.

From what I’m seeing Kenneth Cole was just one clueless person having the password to the twitter account – at least for their sake I hope so. That would be, in my mind, lack of experience and sensitivity – proper apologies and new directions could fix it if they can deal with these pictures about the tweets on their windows. If it was planned and those window pix are something they set up then we move into the world of dumb. All PR is NOT good PR.

Your second example would fall to the stupid level – or if might quote you – shitidiots. Both the client and the agency should have been known better than to pick a fight they can’t prove they can win. Because my background is mostly the agency side, I’ll blame them for not giving the right advice and refusing to go against what they should have known better.

Is this the BS PR 2.0 model? Just get talked about, gain followers and fans and ‘they will come?’ With this example I think you’re showing, again, that all talk isn’t good talk.

4 years 2 months ago

Hi Rick,

By all accounts, the tweet was from KC himself (at least from what I’ve been reading so far).

It all kinda reminds me of the “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” mentality of quick buck sales stores that just open for seasonal customers.

No wonder PR gets such a crappy name…

Dino Dogan
4 years 2 months ago

Its despicable is what it is. I’ll never buy another pair of cole’s in my life. Bad PR? You bet.

The sad thing is that they planned the whole thing (from the tweet to CEO apology) and it increased their stock 2.5%

Just Fin’ despicable. KC, the PR agency and the market.

4 years 2 months ago

I saw that – makes you wonder about who the KC customer base is (or at least the ones that helped the stock go up by supporting with their wallets).


Justice Wordlaw IV
4 years 2 months ago


Very good post right here. Yes, I saw that tweet earlier and I did not like that at all. When trying to have a product you want to make sure that it’s ready in every fashionable way. Having bugs and other challenges is not a good look on your company.

Even though when you do fix those problems the customers are still going to be hesitant in trying your new product.

Enjoyed your post on this topic.

4 years 2 months ago

That’s the thing, Justice – you may “survive” the short-term angry voices, but will there be a longer tail effect on your brand? And is that worth taking a risk on?