This post was first published by Brendan Reilly on March Communications’ blog M+PR Nonsense.

FailMembers of the Australian coal industry now find themselves swimming against a strengthening current of Internet backlash, with some calling its most recent campaign “the PR fail of the year” — and they’re not wrong.

While coal as a viable source of energy certainly has both its proponents and detractors the world over, the “Little Black Rock” campaign — sponsored by the Minerals Council of Australia — is indeed an unequivocal failure from a PR point of view for two glaring reasons.

Make Sure the Numbers are on Your Side

In any PR campaign, whether you’re using video, infographics, blog posts or any other type of content, always make sure you are on solid ground when it comes to statistics.

For example, as part of the “Little Black Rock” campaign, the coal industry touts its huge contribution to job creation in Australia. Yet, a study conducted by The Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, shows that the coal industry only employs one-tenth of the workers it claims responsibility for in Queensland, the province where that industry predominantly operates.

Also highlighted by the campaign is the supposed contribution to the national economy made by coal. This, however, has been countered in the media with reports of rising government subsidies and falling coal prices in the world market.

Now, it’s not that hard to find statistics on both sides of an argument to support differing points of view, but the PR failure here is that the people behind this campaign did not do sufficient opposition research. They should have gathered every statistic they could find that went against their assertions and been prepared to counter them. A huge part of public relations is not just in what message you put out to the public, but knowing and handling what message your competition and/or detractors are using.

Don’t Get Behind the Wheel of a Car You Can’t Drive

Social media is a wily creature and it has been known to bite the hand of those who don’t respect its power. In this case, part of the “Little Black Rock” campaign was the hashtag #coalisamazing. But, instead of likeminded individuals using that hashtag to further the Minerals Council of Australia’s cause, it was hijacked and used against the coal industry by droves of users on Twitter and other social channels, using it to post pictures of coal’s effects on people and the environment around the world.

The Minerals Council of Australia essentially created something they could not control and it was turned into a weapon against them. Now, instead of positively positioning their message, they are stuck defending themselves and this campaign.

Creating a hashtag to be used across multiple channels involves careful thought and planning. Do your research to see if similar hashtags exist and what conversations they are associated with, and think about the most effective ways to use your hashtags to drive your message.

When launching a new product or highlighting an emerging trend, whether it’s business- or consumer-facing, in the public or private sector, make sure your numbers are reliable and you have a plan for how your content is going to be distributed and used to guide the conversation across your social channels. It’s a good step toward avoiding a “PR Failure of the Year” moniker that a grand total of zero brands covet.