6 PR Lessons We Learned in 2016


By Kate Kanaby

2016 was a big year for public relations. From an unprecedented election, to corporate mishaps and brand successes, we learned a lot in terms of PR. As we settle into 2017, let’s take a look at six lessons learned from the biggest stories of the past year.

  1. Know your audience, know your message – 2016 Presidential Election

The list of PR lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election could go on for days, so it was tough to pick just one. But there was something that pervaded Donald Trump’s campaign from start to finish: The President-elect understood his audience and knew exactly what messages would appeal to them.  Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan certainly had its critics, but it struck the right cords within his audience and motivated them to rally behind him.

  1. Social media is news media – 2016 Presidential Election

Okay, so we actually couldn’t pick just one lesson from the presidential election. The second takeaway from 2016’s political showdown is the fact that social media is no longer just about #MCMs, #TBTs and photos of what you ate for brunch. Today, social media is news media, for better or for worse.  Throughout the election, Americans turned to sites like Facebook for (occasionally fake) election news, and Donald Trump spoke directly to the masses in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

  1. Embrace the art of authentic storytelling – Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”

Stories, videos and authenticity have long been staples of the PR industry, and Beyoncé masterfully combined all three with the release of her visual album, “Lemonade,” in April.  Beyoncé brought her audience on deeply personal journey of indignation and empowerment, while making powerful political statements along the way. Those authentic, raw emotions made Beyoncé exceptionally relatable, even though we can’t all say “I woke up like this” in quite the same way.

  1. Transparency is key – Samsung’s Exploding Galaxy Note 7

It had been just weeks since Samsung released the new Galaxy Note 7 when the bad news began to flow. By mid-September, the company was receiving reports that consumers’ smartphones were catching fire while charging. First, Samsung suggested owners return their phones to where they purchased them for an exchange or refund, which passed the issue onto carriers like Verizon and AT&T. When the fiery reports continued, the brand finally recalled all Galaxy Note 7s.  Unfortunately, Samsung’s initial notification started as an easy-to-miss tab on their website, and it took days for the company to send alerts to consumers via social media. Cue the struggle to salvage credibility. The bottom line? Be transparent and don’t downplay the severity of a situation.

  1. Acknowledge accountability & don’t make excuses – Ryan Lochte & Wells Fargo

Who would have thought Ryan Lochte and Wells Fargo would teach us the same PR lesson in 2016? Both Lochte and Wells Fargo faced scandals that were made worse by the way they handled them: Passing the blame and making excuses. When Lochte “exaggerated” the story of a robbery in Rio, which was actually vandalism on the part of the Olympian, he gave a long-winded excuse apology that ended up damaging his reputation even more. And when it was discovered that Wells Fargo opened more than 2 million banking and credit card accounts without customers’ approval, CEO John Stumpf’s apology shifted the blame. Strumpf implied it was all the fault of 5,100 low-level employees, who were fired, and didn’t acknowledge the role of the bank’s corporate policy and executive decision-making.

  1. Do the unexpected – “Hamilton”

Until this year, no one would have used “Alexander Hamilton” and “hip-hop” in the same sentence. Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Reimagining history, Broadway’s “Hamilton” broke boundaries in a new and unique way and captured the hearts of audiences. Sweeping the Tony Awards in June, “Hamilton” proved that the unexpected is attractive, and the buzz will inevitably follow.


Kate Kanaby is an Assistant Account Executive at Brownstone PR, where she focuses on media relations, social and digital media efforts.

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