HOW NOT TO IMPRESS THE PUBLIC

HOW NOT TO IMPRESS THE PUBLIC

Moves that backfire, products that don't do what they ought to: These are serious mishaps that hurt a business's credibility.

And they're the kind of thing that made Fineman Associates' recent list of the year's worst public relations blunders.The software giant Microsoft goofed by attempting to use public-relations overkill, buying reams of newspaper ads to fend off the government's antitrust suit and win public support.

Instead, it should have downplayed its seemingly Faustian powers, says Michael Fineman, president of the San Francisco-based public relations firm that sponsored the survey. The nation didn't appreciate Microsoft's arrogant approach.

Coca-Cola lost some of its fizz after it botched a contamination crisis. After more than 200 people, including school kids, got sick in Belgium and France after downing the soft drink, the company waited 10 days before then-chief executive Douglas Ivester flew to Brussels to apologize.

During that time, the press sniped at the company's ghastly approach to crisis management. Critics connected the gaffe to Ivester's decision to retire after only 25 months on the job.

Exxon blundered in its attempt to heal its image, tarred a decade ago when the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

The company renamed the vessel and reassigned it to the Mediterranean, but it was too deep for the region's shallow ports. So Exxon lobbied and sued to allow the ship to return to its original Alaska-California route, re-igniting public fury.

Less grand, but equally egregious, was the Great West Casualty lawsuit. After an 81-year-old woman accidentally stepped in front of a grain truck and was killed, the truck company's insurer, Great West Casualty, sued her estate for negligence, seeking damages of $2,800.

Her daughter said, ''I'm not paying them for killing my mom; I'll sit in jail first.''

After The Wall Street Journal exploded the story, the company apologized, sort of, in the final paragraph of a news release: ''In retrospect, we believe the company's protective function could have been fairly served without recourse to the filing of the small claim.''

The Journal of the American Medical Association also came in for censure after dismissing editor George Lundberg for publishing an article on the view of college students that oral sex wasn't sex. Critics railed the association had become a self-interested political lobby.

The management of the Los Angeles Times lost some luster when management downplayed its mission of objectivity to focus on short-term profits, devoting a Sunday magazine section to the new Staples Arena with which it shared ad revenue, but without telling its reporters or readers.

To restore its journalistic integrity, the Times published a 14-page mea culpa and new internal guidelines.

Seattle's RealNetworks came in for censure by playing Big Brother. It was tracking the listening habits of its 13 million users and keeping files on them without their consent. After the story broke, chief executive Rob Glaser conceded the company had ''screwed up.''

Last but not least, Major League Baseball's umpires quit in an attempt to force contract concessions. Baseball's moguls quickly hired minor-league replacements, prompting the quitters to scramble to keep their jobs with little public support. It was a costly call on the part of the umpires.