Slideshow: If You Thought Airbnb’s PR Crisis Was Bad…

The rental agency Airbnb issued a lengthy public apology yesterday afternoon, following days of dreadful press spawned by the story of “EJ,” a customer whose home was ransacked by someone who’d rented it through Airbnb.

In the letter, CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky (pictured) stated that the company had “really screwed things up” in not doing more for EJ immediately, and that it’s beefing up safety controls and customer service. Most notably: Chesky said Airbnb will soon begin covering the personal property of hosts for up to $50,000.

The apology wasn’t perfect; there remain differences between what Airbnb and EJ have said about her case that have not been addressed. (The company stated last week that it was working closely with authorities to find the person who ruined her home. She later stated that not only was that not true, but that she had received at least one “veiled threat” from Airbnb after blogging about her experience.)

Still, if history is any indicator, industry watchers won’t be dismayed with the company for long. Following is just a sampling of some other major — and now mostly forgotten — tech PR fumbles to happen this year.


[slide title=”Etsy’s Offensive Greeting Cards”]

Back in January, Etsy — an e-tailer that sells homemade items — found itself caught up in a firestorm, one centering on a greeting-card maker who goes by the moniker YouStupidBitch.

Among the YouStupidBitch cards made available at Etsy were greetings that poked fun at disabled children, victims of rape, and breast cancer victims. One card, featuring a woman curled up on the floor or her shower, read: “Congratulations! You’ve Been Bad Touched!” Another read, “Congratulations! Your Kid Has Down Syndrome!” The accompanying art featured a child with Down Syndrome whose thought bubble said, “I can count to potato.”

Initially, Etsy declined to kick YouStupidBitch off the platform, claiming it was protecting the First Amendment rights of the author of the cards.

It took 17,000 signatures on a petition asking for the cards’ removal, along with a segment on the show of CNN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell — but two months after complaints first surfaced, Etsy stopped selling the cards. (At least through March, their creator continued to sell other cards on Etsy, including one titled, “Congrats on Your Starter Wife.”)

Etsy also released a statement saying that while its platform had “prohibited disparaging or promoting hate against people based on race or religion,” its policies had “never covered gender, people with disabilities, or sexual orientation.” That changed on January 11, it said. “”We no longer allow items or listings that promote, support or glorify hatred toward or otherwise demean people based upon race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation; including items or content that promote organizations with such views.”

[slide title=”The Groupon Super Bowl Ads”]

Ah, yes, those multimillion-dollar Groupon spots. How quickly we forget that in February, the daily deals service signed off on three Super Bowl ads that were mostly memorable for the offense they caused viewers.

In one, actress Elizabeth Hurley gets 50% off a bikini wax after trivializing deforestation in Brazil. In another, actor Timothy Hutton seemingly turns the plight of Tibetans into a joke. Says Hutton in the commercial: “Mountainous Tibet, one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.”

The Monday after the Super Bowl, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason told the Wall Street Journal that he disagreed that the ads were offensive, calling them instead a “spoof” on celebrity-studded public service announcements. Mason added that Groupon intended the ads to help raise charitable funds, including for the Rainforest Action Network and the Tibet Fund.

By the end of that week, in the face of continued criticism, Mason pulled the whole ad campaign and offered an apology on the company’s blog.

“Five days have passed since the Super Bowl, and one thing is clear — our ads offended a lot of people. Tuesday I posted an explanation, but as many of you have pointed out, if an ad requires an explanation, that means it didn’t work.”

[slide title=”The Infamous Kenneth Cole Tweet”]

Anyone remember when designer Kenneth Cole thought it might just be hilarious to use the unrest in Eygpt as a selling opportunity? In a tweet read — and reviled — around the world, Cole wrote in February:

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC”

When the tweet went viral, getting retweeted up to 1,500 times an hour, Cole apologized, tweeting:

“We weren’t intending to make light of a serious situation.”

When the second tweet did nothing to stem the tide of animus toward Cole, he took to Facebook, calling his tweet “insensitive.” In “hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate,” he added.

One outcome from the affair was the creation of the spoof account @KennethColePR. Among its tweets at the time:

“Wardrobe got you water-BORED? GITMO of our new spring collection. #KennethColeTweets”

“People from New Orleans are flooding into Kenneth Cole stores!” #KennethColeTweets”

[slide title=”Facebook’s Failed Whisper Campaign Against Google”]

I’ll admit it. I experienced great schadenfreude when Facebook was busted in May for hiring PR firm Buson-Marsteller to plant stories criticizing Google’s privacy practices. It was all too absurd, considering that for years, Facebook’s users have harshly criticized the company over its own privacy policies.

It was also fitting that the blogger who the PR firm tried to hire not only turned the assignment down but also went public with its email pitches to him. (How’s that for ending Internet anonymity, Facebook?)

You can revisit the blogger’s email exchange with Burson-Marsteller here.

[slide title=”News Corp. Phone-Tapping Scandal”]

Of all the PR scandals of the past year, there’s little question that the one engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is the biggest and that its fallout will be the greatest. (It has earned its own Wikipedia entry.) And no wonder: It’s been simmering for at least 10 years. That’s how long ago employees of News Corp.’s News of the World newspaper allegedly hacked into the cell phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, then members of the Royal household, then other celebrities and politicians. All the while, we’ve learned, NotW was allegedly paying off police to keep them quiet.

Since the scandal broke, News Corp. has shuttered 168-year-old News of the World, withdrawn its bid for BSkyB, and seen numerous of editors — current and former — arrested on suspicion of intercepting private communications.

But one senses the worst may be to come. It will be some time before we know the outcome of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into whether News Corp. employees had hacked into the voicemails of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

In the meantime, just today, British authorities arrested 71-year-old Stuart Kuttner, a former managing editor of News of the World, on suspicion of phone hacking and bribing police, according to Scotland Yard.

Kuttner is the 11th person to be arrested over the controversy.