This year has not gotten off to a great start for companies that should be leading the way with great examples of how to do business better. Instead, we have seen several examples of businesses doing things so poorly that the news of their actions caused many to ask whether the recession was to blame or whether these brands had simply lost their way.

The first example is that of JC Penney, who in a New York Times expose, were revealed to have been buying links for their website to drive them to the first page of Google search results. Not just one or two either, but hundreds of links for products across their entire offering.

Once discovered, they immediately fired their search engine optimization company but the damage was done. Google immediately removed them from the search results pages for the majority of their products, and now JC Penney has to work with Google to rebuild the trust that they are, in fact, generating organic links.

The second example is Kenneth Cole, who decided to capitalize on the revolution in Egypt and to post to Twitter that he had heard that the real reason people were in uproar in Cairo was that they had just seen the Kenneth Cole spring collection. He then co-opted the hashtag that had been used to group together messages about the revolt by adding a K to it to turn it into #KCairo.

Cole later apologized, but the fallout continued long after his apology. The Kenneth Cole brand page on Facebook was filled with outrage and some very pointed directions about where Kenneth Cole should store his spring collection.

Regardless of the motivations behind these two incidents, there really isn’t an excuse for brands, large or small, straying this far from the beaten path. While clever marketing can often be used to raise eyebrows, and sometimes shock an audience into action, I am not convinced that those tactics have a place in mainstream retail marketing.

Blaming economic pressures or simply a bad choice isn’t good enough either. If the CEO of your company can’t be trusted to make good decisions about what to post to Twitter, is he really the right person to have access to the account? Likewise, if you are going to try and cheat at the search game because your company is experiencing a slow period in sales, are you prepared to pay the price when you are discovered?

Are there times when you’ve been tempted by what you thought would be a short cut to getting ahead of your competitors?

Image credit: sflood02