Recently, WWE’s PR department had to take on some overtime work following the news that Jerry “The King” Lawler had been arrested for domestic abuse following an altercation with his fiancée. The team probably thought they were in the clear from major public fiascos after that one was cleared up, until it was recently revealed that Roman Reigns (a man who has spent the last couple of years being positioned as the face of the company) had violated the company’s wellness policy and now faces a 30-day suspension that could hinder a major main event. Needless to say, it’s been a hectic few weeks.
Still, even these awful incidents can’t compare to the rain of public rage that WWE has faced over past incidents. Though wrestling fans may sometimes criticize WWE over certain creative decisions, this criticism is nothing when measured against the rain of bad publicity the company must weather when a negative public-facing occurrence transpires that suddenly puts WWE on the radar of people who would never otherwise have reason to pay attention to the company. They are the incidents that WWE came to immediately regret. They are their worst PR nightmares of all time.
15. John Cena’s Raps Catch The Attention Of GLAAD
Although there are many fans always clamoring for John Cena to return to his heel roots, the truth is that he is too deep into the role of company face for WWE to ever risk Cena even being presented in a slightly non-PR friendly manner. If you ever need proof of the dangers of an edgier John Cena, take a look at what happened when Cena engaged in some rap battles with The Rock leading up to their WrestleMania encounter. John decided to drop such classic lines as “Just don’t go racing to Witch Mountain, Rock, because your mountain is Brokeback” and “I’m like a big purple pinwheel so go ahead and blow me.” The live audience ate this up, but the folks at GLAAD weren’t so thrilled. Because of this promo, WWE had to issue a stream of public apologies and ensure everyone they were going to work with GLAAD moving forward to provide more socially conscious content.
14. Stephanie McMahon Makes A Strange Statement Following The Death Of A Fan
Sometimes, the difference between a PR catastrophe and a non-story is simply a matter of timing. A seemingly innocent quote or action delivered in the wrong context can cause headaches for an entire company. Stephanie McMahon found this out the hard way in 2015. Following a business conference, Stephanie tweeted out to over one million Twitter followers that “philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands r going 2 win.” While the statement itself is a bit odd outside the context of a closed doors boardroom meeting, the reason that this quote generated so much backlash is because it came shortly after the death of young cancer victim Conor “The Crusher” and right before WWE intended to induct him into their hall of fame.
Taken in the context of that incident, Stephanie’s tweet on the promotional benefits of philanthropy caused a lot more trouble than the WWE was hoping to deal with.
13. Chris Nowinski Becomes A Prominent Figure In The Concussion Debate
With all due respect to his talents, Chris Nowinski’s time as a WWE performer was largely forgettable. He came in, he put on some decent matches, wore a Harvard jacket around and was released without too much dismay or noise. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that between the time of his release in 2003 and 2007, Nowinski probably wasn’t on the minds of WWE at all. That would change, though, as Chris Nowinski suddenly revealed his true talents as a spokesman for concussion prevention foundations. Nowinski was on nearly every major news outlet and network detailing not only the horrific effects of concussions in sports but, specifically, how his time as a WWE wrestlers negatively impacted his overall health in a significant way. Suddenly, WWE found themselves second to only the NFL in terms of concussion questions and were often without enough answers to equal the accusations.
12. Alberto Del Rio Is Insulted And Fired
When Alberto Del Rio was released from WWE in 2014 because he allegedly slapped a fellow employee, nobody was really too disturbed. Though Del Rio fans were certainly dismayed to hear that he would no longer be a part of the company, most everyone understands that such conduct cannot be tolerated. As the saying goes, though, the devil is in the details, and the details of this incident painted an entirely different picture as they were released. As it turns out, the employee that Del Rio slapped had insulted him earlier by suggesting he should be cleaning dishes because he’s a Mexican. Furthermore, it was alleged that Del Rio was only initially suspended over his actions until the employee in question threatened to sue WWE if he was not fired. Though nobody was condoning the hitting, the WWE’s strong one-sided approach to the argument upset many people who felt that Del Rio’s moment of justified anger was being severely punished.
11. Zahra Schreiber’s Nazi Pictures
There are a few things in the world that you can never have a good PR response to and one of them is definitely anything to do with Nazis. There are very few situations when you can justify a company employee having anything to do with anything that is even slightly pro-Nazi, which WWE should be well aware of after that time that JBL started to goose step on the ring apron during a live event in Germany. Even that embarrassing incident pales in comparison to what happened to Zahra Schreiber, though. In 2012, Schreiber posted some pics on Instagram that showcased some Nazi symbols. This stirred up quite a bit of heat that only got worse when WWE decided to hire Schreiber despite her tarnished reputation. Eventually, the blowback of this move became too much for the company to handle, and they were forced to throw up their hands and release Schreiber just to escape the public anger.
10. Dawn Marie Is Fired Shortly After Announcing Her Pregnancy
Have you ever done something incredibly stupid and immediately realized your mistake after the fact? You know, the kind of mistake that you just wish someone had been there to prevent you from even considering in the first place? Well, WWE made one of those when they fired Dawn Marie in 2005. See, at this time Dawn Marie wasn’t exactly a hot property for WWE and hadn’t been given anything substantial to do creatively speaking for quite some time. For that reason, perhaps WWE had reasons to let her go that were perfectly justifiable from a business perspective. The problem was that they so happened to fire Dawn Marie not long after she announced her pregnancy and went on maternity leave.
If WWE did, in fact, have a reason to fire her beyond the fact that one of their female performers got pregnant, they never really bothered to share it with anyone including the legal team that would eventually oversee Dawn’s wrongful termination lawsuit.
9. Vince McMahon’s Sexual Assault Accusations
Though the exact demands of the position vary greatly based on the company and the individual, for the most part, you want your CEO to be a squeaky clean face of the company type of person who is not likely to cause the organization any sort of embarrassment. Then again, if you’re Vince McMahon and you have firmly established yourself as the one true authority within your organization, then sometimes the PR department is just going to have to accept CEO controversies as they come in. Though Vince has never been shy about speaking his mind and stirring the pot on occasion, by far his biggest PR nightmares are the sexual assault accusations he has faced throughout his career. From former female referees that accused Vince of forcing them into oral sex to salon workers who allege that Vince wouldn’t stop showing them nude photos of himself, the boss has more than a few awful occurrences to his name.
8. Stephanie McMahon Compares 9/11 To Her Father’s Steroid Trials
Following the events of September 11th, 2001, it was generally agreed that there should be a halt on major entertainment productions. After all, nobody was too sure when it was appropriate to really enter back into normalcy following such a tragedy. One of the big exceptions to this was WWE who held a live Smackdown just two days after the events of 9/11. This decision was, in and of itself, fairly controversial due to both the mood of the nation and the fear of such a large public event so soon after the attacks. Still, WWE handled the event about as respectfully as you could hope for given the circumstances. However, there was one portion of the evening which did not go over well and has never sat right with fans. See, apparently, someone thought it was a good idea for Stephanie to cut a passionate promo comparing the 9/11 attacks to Vince McMahon’s steroid trials (more on that later). As the public outcry would soon inform them, it was, in fact, not a good decision.
7. Pillman’s Got A Gun
As a wrestling fan, you have to be able to view certain events that take place on the show through the eyes of a non-wrestling fan. Without this perspective, you really run the risk of being able to appreciate how absurd the whole sport can be and when it is sometimes necessary to dial back on some content. Though the biggest example of this is undoubtedly the Attitude Era, in 1997 before WWE officially launched their new risqué programming, they got a taste of the dangers that come along with controversial entertainment when they decided to let Stone Cold Steve Austin “break into” the house of Brian Pillman and allow Pillman to respond to this intruder by pointing a gun at him. Not only was the subject matter very questionable for their rating at the time, but the realistic way that they presented this scene drew a lot of anger. In fact, Monday Night Raw was almost canceled by USA Network before WWE pulled off some PR magic.
6. The Melanie Pillman Interview
While we’re on the subject of Brian Pillman, it must be said how much it still stings to remember that such an incredibly gifted performer was taken from the world so young. When Brian Pillman passed away, he left behind a legacy of excellence, a heartbroken fanbase and a devastated family. To help cope with this tragedy, it’s natural that WWE would pay tribute to the man on their programming. Nobody really had a problem with this concept and the tributes themselves were respectful to Brian. What was significantly less respectful, however, was the decision to let Vince McMahon interview Brian Pillman’s wife on live television just 24 hours after her husband’s passing. The sight of the clearly distraught Melanie Pillman being rolled out for entertainment purposes was bad enough, but what really made this whole thing catch fire were the questions from Vince himself which were all seemingly intended to help distance WWE from the circumstances of Pillman’s death.
5. “Terrorists” Assault The Undertaker
Vince McMahon has been accused of being out of touch with the times, but most of these accusations have never really gone far beyond Vince not being aware of certain pop culture touchstones despite the fact he made his living in the entertainment industry. However, there are other times when you really do have to ask just how out of touch Vince really is with the world at large. Take, for instance, the time that The Undertaker was in a feud with Arab-American wrestler Daivari. For some reason, someone in creative thought it would be a great idea to have fellow Arab-American wrestler Muhammad Hassan take to the ring following their match and proceed to perform a beatdown on The Undertaker with a gang of hooded terrorist figures. Though you really do have to watch this segment to fully appreciate how painfully awkward it is, the really tragic part is that the angle aired on the same day as the London bombings. In the U.K., the segment was cut out. In the U.S., it was aired in full with only a brief warning.
4. The 1992 Patterson Sex Scandal
Given that there wasn’t really an internet wrestling scene at the time and the dirt sheet circulation was limited to a very small number of people, in the early ‘90s the backstage occurrences of the WWE weren’t really well-known. Many fans didn’t even know that Vince McMahon was the absolute power of WWE during this time, and they certainly didn’t know that legendary wrestler Pat Patterson had assumed a prominent backstage role with the company. The way that many people found out about this was in 1992 when Pat Patterson became the center of a number of sexual harassment cases against young men and boys within the company. It started with the accusations of a ring worker who accused Patterson of fondling him, but soon a wave of similar accusations began to surface regarding Patterson and other WWE employees apparently involved in these acts.
Before this nightmare situation was over, an entire culture of abuse within the company was exposed and WWE had to explain Patterson’s continued role in the company for years to come.
3. Over The Edge Continues Following The Passing Of Owen Hart
Although life can, unfortunately, offer no such guarantees, it is the sincere hope of every wrestling fan alive during the Over the Edge 1999 PPV that such an evening will never happen again in the world of professional wrestling. This was the night that Owen Hart tragically fell to his death when making his ring entrance and the entire wrestling world seemingly came to a halt. Well, most of the wrestling world anyway. See, even though WWE knew shortly after the fall that Owen Hart had, in fact, died in the ring on that night, the company made the decision that the show would go on. What transpired is simply one of the most painful events you could ever witness. It was clear from the start that absolutely nobody was in the mood to put on a show, but the event continued with little more than a mention of Hart’s passing. To this day, WWE is still having to explain their decision.
2. The Vince McMahon Steroid Trials
Sometimes in the world of public relations, you get really lucky with your nightmares and they last about as long as an actual bad dream does. Other times, you face events of such a catastrophic nature that they just may very well inspire you to take a new line of work as far away from controversy as possible. You have to believe this was the case when Vince McMahon came under indictment for his performers using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs with the consent and assistance of McMahon himself. It was a scandal unlike any the wrestling world has ever known. Within a few weeks, nearly every dark secret involving professional wrestling and steroid abuse was dragged into the bright lights of the federal court system. What’s so incredible about this entire situation isn’t that it almost sank WWE in the span of a few short months, but that it has affected the public face of the company ever since.
1. The Chris Benoit Tribute Show
As we’ve seen a few times on this list, WWE is a company that isn’t afraid to produce content around a potentially sensitive real-life incident in a timely manner. Whether or not you agree with this policy is entirely your own opinion, but there is no denying that the approach can have a tendency to backfire on WWE in major ways. This brings us to Chris Benoit. Regardless of how they reacted to the event, the Chris Benoit incident was going to be the biggest PR nightmare that WWE had ever faced. Actually, it’s frankly trivial to even describe what happened in such terms. Still, the company did themselves no favors by hosting a Chris Benoit tribute show immediately after the events that occurred before the final word was even rendered on what exactly happened. Because of this, new broke in the middle of a glowing Chris Benoit tribute show that Benoit had murdered his family as some initial reports suggested. The rest of the evening was an incredibly awkward affair that could only be resolved by effectively removing Benoit from wrestling history.
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