Navigating a Public Relations disaster is a nightmare for any brand, capable of inflicting irreplaceable damage to its image. This underscores the challenge brands face and the importance of crisis communication in the era of online virality. In this article, we’ll explore the intricacies of PR nightmares and give examples of public relations disasters, revealing their origins and far-reaching consequences.
A PR crisis is when a company’s intentional or unintentional actions lead to negative public reactions. The consequences range from reputational damage and loss of customer trust to legal issues and financial penalties. Countless crisis moments have made a lasting impression on public opinion on a brand's persona, whether just for a couple of days or even a few years. Dissecting the anatomy of PR disasters can provide valuable insights into reputation management.
In today’s social media landscape, a PR crisis echoes across the internet, so the process of recovery is even more challenging than steering clear of negative PR. Exploring these cases offers perspectives on regaining composure and preventing situations from spiraling out of control. Most importantly, it’ll show why having a ready-made crisis management plan can save your brand.
There is no one way to deal with a PR disaster, but strategies can guide public relations principles and should be in place to figure out how the company will react. Leaving a controversy unchecked or running wild without addressing it to employees and the public can be consequential.
Does the company have a first response unit? Is there a risk analysis in place? Will there be a public statement?
While each situation is unique, crisis management aims to create this process so organizations can handle uncertain situations and safeguard their key asset - reputation.
The uproar around a PR nightmare is usually related to ethics and social responsibility. If an unexpected crisis does come about, the goal should be to shorten the lifespan of the backlash. For many companies, their own promotional campaigns can turn into PR nightmares. For example, Pepsi’s 2017 ad with Kendall Jenner was released during protests against racial inequality and police brutality and faced criticisms for insensitively mixing product promotion with social issues. The ad led to an apology and campaign withdrawal.
Before launching campaigns or social media posts, gather feedback and consider potential criticisms by imagining different scenarios. This way, you can get different perspectives you and your team may not have considered. Ask others from your company to analyze and pick apart the campaign. The more viewpoints you have, the better. Implement this feedback during the drafting stage, ensuring time and money haven't been spent creating a controversial campaign. Expanding the outlook of a campaign lowers the likelihood of a crisis.
If the mistake has already been made, restoring reputation involves analyzing the crisis and monitoring responses. Start by letting your employees know how the situation is being handled and take quick action by setting the bar straight with the public. This might mean admitting the mistake or distancing yourself from the person responsible. Being honest and quick in crises will help calm things down. See below for our top 13 PR nightmare examples.
In 2022, Taylor Swift announced her highly anticipated ‘Era’s Tour’ for which Ticketmaster was entrusted with selling tickets. The company shocked fans by announcing that they wouldn’t be selling tickets to the general public; instead, customers had to navigate the presale codes and purchase times, leaving millions of dedicated fans unable to buy tickets. For those lucky enough, the experience was still rough. Many encountered malfunctions, forcing them to wait hours to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets.
Swift took to social media, revealing that she and her team had repeatedly asked Ticketmaster about their ability to handle the overwhelming fandom.
In response, Ticketmaster apologized to Taylor and her fans on Twitter.
However, they denied allegations of unfair practices. To make matters worse, scalpers bought bulk tickets, reselling them at high prices. Angry fans accused Ticketmaster of deceit, prompting Congress to review the 2010 Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger. Ticketmaster's reputation hasn’t been the same with this PR crisis, as they seemed wholly unprepared for this scenario.
Greenpeace created a parody ad campaign that depicts an office worker enjoying a Kit Kat resembling a chocolate-covered ape finger instead of the usual wafer treat. As he takes a bite, fake blood spills over a keyboard, and the text on the screen reads, "Need a break? Spare the orangutan a break." Greenpeace intended to call Nestlé out over their lack of social responsibility. Nestle was accused of getting palm oil from a company in Indonesia, Sinar Mas, who are clearing forests where orangutans live and violating laws to make more palm oil.
The ad campaign was shared online, leading to protesters dressed as orangutans outside Nestlé's U.K. office, criticizing the company's environmental practices. Nestlé tried to remove the video from YouTube, but Greenpeace reposted it on Vimeo and spread the news on social media. Despite this grave PR crisis moment, Nestlé firstly denied the accusation, then responded by saying they had changed their palm oil supplier but couldn't be sure if palm oil from Indonesia was in their other suppliers' shipments. Not a bright moment for Nestlé.
Seeking to expand their brand to the international markets, fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana faced huge backlash when they released a series of promotional videos that showcased a Chinese woman attempting to eat pizza with chopsticks. In the video series, the narrator also seems to mispronounce the brand’s name, poking fun at how Chinese people say “Dolce & Gabbana.” Following this, a fashion blogger shared alleged messages where designer Stefano Gabbana insulted China, causing outrage. This attempt to play on Chinese culture upset social media users, and it started trending on Weibo, a Chinese blogging website.
The hashtag #boycottdolce trended, leading to a mass withdrawal of Chinese actors and models from their runway.
D&G deleted the videos within 24 hours, but the situation had already escalated.
The company issued an apology statement, and Gabbana wrote on Instagram that his account had been hacked. D&G’s reputation took a dive in China. Even three years after the scandal, a Hong Kong pop singer faced criticism on social media for donning a D&G cloak in her music video.
A mindless and harmless action in the public eye can still seem intentional and dramatic when it comes to celebrities and brands. During a pre-match conference, Christiano Ronaldo made a simple move that cost Coca-Cola $4 billion in value. The conference table had two bottles of Coca-Cola and water. Ronaldo decided to remove the two Coke bottles and hold up the water, insinuating people should drink water instead.
Even after the blow had de-escalated, online memes stayed rampant.
This moment shows how sometimes a PR crisis can arise even when a brand is not directly involved, but ignoring the problem is not a solution. After Coca-Cola faced a drop in value, they released a simple, straightforward statement stating, "Everyone is entitled to their drink preferences.”
In response to the media intrusion, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry surprised the world in 2020 by announcing that they’d be stepping down from their senior roles in the Royal family. What came next was a media frenzy and PR crisis for the royal family. Dubbed ‘Megxit,’ Meghan and Harry left the royal family because of media scrutiny, racism, and a lack of support. A subsequent interview with Oprah Winfrey left the Royals reeling with racism claims.
Megxit represented a significant crisis communication situation for the royal family.
It involved addressing media scrutiny, managing public perception regarding the couple's departure, and handling the narrative surrounding their decision. As claims of racism abounded, the Royal family released a statement from the Queen commenting on “ differing recollections of events”. The attention drew negative attention to the Royals, who, up until then, had been very popular with the public. Deserved or not, the incident has left a cloud over them since.
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It was decided by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in 2017 to not provide transportation services around the airport for one hour in protest against Trump's Immigration Order, which restricted Muslim-majority countries from visiting the US.
Meanwhile, Uber announced on Twitter that it had stopped charging surge prices around the airport, resulting in higher rates during peak times.
Uber continued offering services around the airport, just at a higher price, despite the company's statement that this was their way of supporting the protests. Badly handled PR moves can influence and modify clients' opinions of the company, rapidly turning them against the brand. The company's actions led to the creation of a campaign with the hashtag #deleteUber.
After initially agreeing to get on a later flight when the airline asked for volunteers to leave an overbooked flight, Dr David Jao and his wife soon changed their minds when they were informed the next flight wasn’t until the next day. They refused to leave, and airport security were called.
Videos of the incident spread across the internet and showed him being forcibly removed and dragged down the aisle.
People were shocked at the force used.
Some called for a boycott. Others took to social media to take pictures of ripped-up United Airlines loyalty cards. The two security staff lost their jobs.
CEO Oscar Munoz initially referred to it as ‘re-accomodating passengers’ and later sent an internal memo calling Dr. Dao "disruptive and belligerent." According to witnesses, however, the opposite was true. As the backlash grew and grew, United U-turned and issued an apology to him and other passengers, stating that no one should be treated like that. Munoz called it a “system failure across the board’ and changed airline policy on overbookings. The incident reminded everyone (United Airlines included) of the power of social media and is cited as how not to handle PR.
One notable publicity stunt gone wrong came at the 2004 Super Bowl, when singer Janet Jackson, who was performing with Justin Timberlake, suffered a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ that exposed her breast live on television.
An MTV spokesperson verified that the torn costume idea was planned by MTV staff. However, they clarified that nudity was not the intended outcome.
The incident generated negative press attention for both participants and quickly became known as ‘Nipplegate.’
If all parties hoped to bury the incident, they would be severely disappointed. The event happened around the same time YouTube started to take off, and the clip soon became the most-watched on the site, creating a PR nightmare for the CBS network, which received 540,000 complaints and a $550,000 fine. Discussions followed about what should or shouldn’t be shown on live TV, the term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ was added to the English dictionary, and Jackson was effectively ‘canceled’ before the term even existed. Her career has not fully recovered since.
The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not just an environmental and financial disaster but also an excruciating public relations catastrophe for the oil giant, especially in the way it communicated in the aftermath. The phrase "I want my life back" became emblematic of the inadequacies and tone-death response of BP and its then-CEO Tony Hayward. It was uttered when Hayward expressed to the media his wish for the crisis to be over, carelessly stating, “No one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back." Oops.
The public, understandably, reacted with shock and anger.
The incident, at this point, had caused the loss of human life, staggering harm to the environment, spiraling economic costs, and financial hardship for many.
His comment came off, at best, as self-absorbed and at worst, uncaring. BP underestimated the damage caused by the spill, even making futile attempts to downplay the environmental impact. Hayward ‘left’ BP a few months later. BP’s reputation has not been the same since.
This is one for the books. Literally!
Two former execs of Wells Fargo were made to pay $75 million back of their own bonuses for their role in creating two million (yes, million!) fake bank accounts.
It seems sales targets at the bank were so hard to reach that to do so, money from actual customer accounts was shifted into fraudulently set up accounts to make it look like new ones were opened. The customers of said mentioned actual accounts then got charged overdrawn fees when they had insufficient funds in them.
Over 5,000 employees were fired due to their involvement in the sandal, and the bank paid a fine of $185m payout to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). As expected, Congress wanted a word or two, so Chief Executive John Stumpt was hauled before Congress to discuss the matter, later taking early retirement. The Head OF banking, Carrie Tolstedt, was sentenced to three years probation for her role in the scandal, which lasted between 2011-2016.
When HyperSocial CEO Braden Wallake took to social media with "the most vulnerable thing I'll ever share,” no one was expecting a teary-eyed video of the CEO showing him crying after laying off staff. And it seems very few wanted it either.
While the exact number of employees he had to lay off wasn’t clear, the video drew criticism from some who felt it was self-absorbed and "cringe-worthy". This display of emotion for a decision impacting others was controversial for some. While Wallake maintains he doesn’t regret the video, the video backfired and led to mockery more than anything else, probably not the look he was going to. Be warned: Think before you share.
The hygiene and personal care brand faced significant backlash for an ad showing a forensic sketcher drawing women as they described themselves compared to a stranger's description. The ad, designed to show the disparity between women’s perceptions of themselves and reality, came across as condescending and shallow.
The ad featured a very narrow group of predominantly young and thin white women and not more diverse forms of beauty Dove claimed to champion. The message received by many was that beauty is paramount, and it drew criticism for promoting and confirming traditional beauty standards. The ad fell flat, causing such headlines as "Beauty Above All Else: The Problem With Dove's New Viral Ad" and "What's Wrong With Dove's Real Beauty Sketches Campaign?" Ouch.
No stranger to PR disasters, comments made in 2006 by then Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries were condemned for promoting elitism and exclusivity based solely on physical appearance. In an interview with Salon, Jeffries stated that the brand preferred "thin and beautiful people" and the ‘cool kids.’
Ellen DeGeneres and Kirsty Alley weighed in on the comments, accusing the brand of ‘sizeism,’ the former even displaying an Abercrombie & Fitch ‘large’ polo shirt on her show, mocking the brand's perception of ‘large.’
A Change.org petition was signed by over 70,000 people in protest. After two weeks of backlash, the company apologized and issued a statement saying, 'We look forward to continuing this dialogue and taking concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion.’ But the delay and contents of the apology made it feel forced, only exacerbating the crisis for Abercrombie & Fitch.