Sales & Marketing

The biggest PR disasters in history, as decided by PRs

20 min read

18 August 2017

Deputy Editor, Real Business

Real Business asked PRs to unveil what they thought were the biggest PR disasters. We came away with a list spanning Asda, United Airlines and even the Queen.

One of the best business sayings is arguably that, “countless success stories are replete with mistakes and obstacles”. But if you fail to both adequately address those mistakes and relay ways of change to customers, you could easily land in a pile labelled PR disasters.

Taking credibility and turning errors into positive action and perception is something we’d all like to think as easy to do. It’s more difficult than it seems. But at the end of the day, saying and doing nothing is worse. That’s what we found out after asking PR professionals about the biggest press blunders – and how they could have better been handled.

(1) When airline staff beat up a passenger – 2017

Ruth Armitage, communications consultant, opined: United Airlines’ overbooking fiasco has to rank right up there in the history book of PR disasters. The technicalities of the airline overbooking system have been well documented, but what is truly inexcusable is the CEO’s indifference to the situation.

“With a reputation for being PR-savvy, ‘Friendly Skies’ boss Oscar Munoz appeared to lie low and hope it would go away. Surely he learned his lesson from the social media-fuelled ‘leggings ban‘ only weeks before? In this information-driven world where everyone and anyone is a publisher, news travels fast and while Munoz lay low, the horrific scenes of the passenger being forcibly removed from the plane were watched by – quite literally – the world and his wife.

“If Munoz had reacted as quickly as the news was spreading, he could perhaps have salvaged a small shred of dignity. The overdue tweet issued by the company was couched in terms of the effect of the incident on the company, rather than the passenger. Never underestimate the general public and their ability to differentiate between a corporate script and a heart-felt apology.

“He should have also accepted responsibility for staff, not the incident. Staff got it badly wrong and United needed to get on the right side of the catastrophe. In large part it’s because the company didn’t have a plan. Most people, still reeling from the images they had witnessed, just wanted to know what was going to be done about it. You can’t fix the past, but you can make the future better.”

(2) Eating a sandwich was deemed a marketing stunt – 2014

Jess Hawkes, digital PR specialist at Impression, said: “Witnessing Ed Miliband attempt, and fail, to eat a bacon sandwich during the 2014 local election campaigns could be considered one of the most iconic PR disasters in UK history.

“The stunt was contrived initially to position him as ‘at one with common English people’, but it was particularly detrimental given that its results achieved the opposite effect. The stunt quickly gained traction, with the media and Internet deeming Miliband entirely ‘out of touch’ with ‘the ordinary working man’.

“When an irreversible fail of this strength occurs, an effective PR team should not work to counter the negative rhetoric, but work alongside the current angle to become ‘part of the joke’. It both softens and leverages the news already active.

“The Miliband case study is a great example of a public figure who had to uptake the position of not taking himself too seriously, which thus mitigated the situation. It is an angle Miliband has continued today, most recently tweeting Theresa May a tongue in cheek comment referencing the bacon incident when a similar scandal arose involving the PM eating chips. It goes without saying that when any form of affront of character is concerned, a lot can be said for learning to laugh at oneself.”

(3) Spilling around 5m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – 2012

Bill Shaw, PR director at JJ, claimed: “One of the worst PR disasters I can recall involved Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. It led to the loss of 11 lives and a subsequent spill of around 5m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“This was first and foremost a massive human and environmental disaster but Hayward, by his actions in 2012, also cost the company dearly. His comment to a journalist that he wanted his ‘life back’ is now infamous, as is the revelation that he took a day off to go sailing in the Solent during the height of the crisis.

“A further gaffe was made with what many deemed a wooden apology issued via YouTube. It mainly served as a springboard for further criticism and ridicule over him and the company’s handling of the situation on social media channels.

“BP has estimated that this disaster cost $61.6bn in clean-up costs and compensation. While it’s impossible to say whether a smoother handling of public relations would have lowered these costs, most would agree it would have mitigated the long term damage to BP’s reputation. Hayward, who had initially been considered an effective media operator, was dismissed later that year.”

Up next: Even the Queen makes it onto our list of PR disasters

(4) Using someone famous to attempt resolving a political issue – 2017

Bex van der Vliet, PR manager at Screamingfrog, said: “The infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad is one that comes to mind in terms of PR disasters. Using a privileged Kardashian to resolve political unrest through sharing a canned drink was branded ‘tone deaf’ – and critics from all sides called the brand out for trivialising the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“Following the criticism, Pepsi pulled the ad within a day of its release, stating that it had ‘missed the mark’ and apologised for putting Jenner ‘in this position’.

“The backlash over the advert demonstrates the need for creative professionals to conduct thorough research and gain an outside perspective to their ideas, whether it’s through another agency, by conducting thorough market research or reaching out to consumers.

“While the trend for ‘meaningful marketing’ is growing and producing some fantastic content, there can often be a fine line between being inspirational and trivialising important social matters which in this instance, Pepsi got very wrong.”

(5) Try not to do things in bad taste – 2013

Danielle Booker, director of technical PR consultancy Lyme Communications, opined: “Who could forget about Asda selling a ‘mental patient fancy dress costume’ for Halloween? It came complete with machete and blood stained straitjacket! I think this was back in 2013. The extraordinarily bad taste costume was seen to fuel the stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness, and appalled shoppers.

“They instantly took to social media to share their shock and disappointment in the supermarket. It was then taken up by the media.

“Asda did apologise and removed the costume from sale immediately. The company also announced it would donate to a mental health charity – but did its recompense go far enough? I think throwing some cash at this poor taste blunder was not the answer. The damage to its reputation could have been lessened if it had taken action to readdress the negative stereotype that the costume reinforced, perhaps with a positive campaign.

“I think a lot of work has been done by mental health charities over the last few years since this blunder, and there are certainly far more positive stories in the media today.”

(6) Taking too long to comment – 1997

Sara Tye, founder and managing director of redheadPR and CEO of Etape Suisse, said: “One of the biggest PR disasters was the lack of comment and action from HRH the Queen after Princess Diana died. Probably one of the most high-profile news items and deaths ever – it was handled poorly by the Royals and by Buckingham Palace.

“There is a saying that ‘A gap left with no communication can be filled with misinterpretation, fear and dread’. We’ve all felt that at some stage in our lives, and the country felt this when the Queen left it days to return to London to mourn the death of Princess Diana with the people. She made a decision to stay with the boys in Scotland and unfortunately it was misinterpreted by many.

“This was the start of a profile/perception issue for the Queen. It took years to turn it around. It took films, documentaries, softening up, Prince William and social media to make sure our Queen felt more accessible. Could this have been mitigated? Of course. Better decision-making and discussions at Buckingham Palace on immediate and short-term PR actions, plans and outcomes would have helped.

“There was probably little communication of the reaction in London and at the gates of Kensington Palace until the family saw it on the news. Had someone been there and relayed the information correctly, then maybe a different decision would have been made. Also, the softening of the Queen could have started earlier. The approach taken now by the Royals in terms of perception is just fantastic and maybe it took a crisis to turn it around.”

(7) Always admit to the truth – 1998

Brenda Gabriel, publicist for Gamechangers, claimed: “Who could forget that impassioned addendum at the end of a speech about education policy proposals? When then President Clinton responded to allegations about an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky – complete with emphatic finger pointing – most of us were sucked in by his vehement denial of any wrong doing.

“For the next several months and through the summer, the media debated whether Clinton had lied or obstructed justice. Thankfully, Lewinsky, whose reputation as a liar was likely to be cemented, had been advised to hold onto the incriminating ‘stained’ dress worn during the sexual relations that never happened. After turning it over during a grand jury trial against Clinton, he admitted to having been engaged in an ‘improper physical relationship’ with Lewinsky.

“That evening he gave a nationally televised statement saying as much. Although he was acquitted of all charges of perjury and obstruction of justice he remained in office – but not without cost to the reputation of the Democratic party.

“During the 2000 election, polling showed that the scandal continued to affect Clinton’s low personal approval ratings, directly affecting Al Gores campaign. Vanderbilt University’s John Geer later concluded that ‘Clinton fatigue or a kind of moral retrospective voting had a significant impact on Gore’s chances’. The other theory was that Gore’s refusal to have Clinton campaign with him damaged his appeal – either way, it was clear the populace didn’t want to be ruled by the colleague of a liar.”

Tesco and Uber were always going to make it onto the list – read on for more PR disasters

(8) Swapping one type of meat for another – 2013

Stuart Skinner, managing director at PHA Media, explained: “The Tesco horsemeat scandal in 2013 famously spawned a whole host of jokes, infographics and memes across the Internet, illustrating just how influential social media channels can be when it comes to the public’s perception.

“The story revealed beef products sold in major retailers (including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl, Ikea, Asda and Co-op) contained horsemeat, rocking the European supply chain, with abattoirs, suppliers, manufacturers and retailers all implicated.

“The issue here is erosion of trust in supermarkets and faith in the care offered to customers; the products were mis-sold, customers were misled but the absence of a quick, frank apology and explanation by numerous companies left a huge vacuum which was filled by negative commentary. 

“It ranks among the biggest PR disasters as there was a lack of humility, with some even relying on ‘spokesperson’. Were words offered from more senior people, then things may have been different.

(9) When your social media campaign gets hijacked by consumers – 2015

Sara Collinge, UK managing director of Clarity, said: “Social media has become an influential part in how brands communicate with the public following a crisis. Yet it has put new demands on PR and comms professionals as they’re often forced to act with a level of immediacy that would not have been the case in the days of the BP oil disaster.

“We’ve even seen social media campaigns hijacked by consumers if they are seen as disingenuous. That’s what happened to SeaWorld in 2015 in wake of the documentary Blackfish (which portrayed a lack of care for its animals). The park tried ‘educating’ the public with an #AskSeaWorld campaign. It invited users to post questions on Twitter that would then be answered on a SeaWorld Cares site.

“People quickly asked SeaWorld questions it was trying to avoid in the first place. The whole incident raised the profile of the documentary even further, exactly the opposite of what SeaWorld wanted to achieve. This just shows brands can’t expect to cultivate positive discussions around the brand, consumers now drive the conversation.

“PR disasters come in all shapes and sizes. In almost all scenarios the answer is not to bury your head in the sand and hope the crisis will eventually blow over. It’s often better to proactively manage a crisis with consistent, clear communication. And, if you’ve done something wrong, accept responsibility and apologise.”

(10) A series of “unfortunate” events – 2017

Richard Tompkins, managing director at W Communications, said: “The worst PR disasters are formed not by the problem or action of a company or person, but the way the communication is handled thereafter. Consumers are not an unsympathetic bunch – they understand mistakes and accidents happen, they know that (most of the time) these are not deliberate. But what is key is transparency and clarity. It is when this is missing, or there is a feeling of being misled that issues become disasters.

“The main offenders tend to be the big corporates, those with the most to lose, those with a share index price that may take a beating with investors who’ll be banging down the door and those with a CEO whose head will be on the block for any financial impact on the business. Nowhere has this been more true than with Uber and the behaviour of CEO Travis Kalanick.

“Revelations about a secret spying programme, sexual harassment and embarrassing leaks about executive conduct led the majority of investors to see Kalanick and his (failed) attempts to keep these issues quiet, as a serious liability to the company’s future success. Uber’s recent trials encapsulate the ingredients of all the worst PR disasters. Kalanick’s resignation was inevitable. The blame lies firmly with him for his attempts to cover up the disgraceful actions within his company.

“Businesses that fail to take responsibility, that think customers won’t have images or phone footage, that there won’t be leaked info to media, that content and opinion won’t whip around the world across social channels before they have the chance to prepare an inevitably watered-down statement, will face considerable economical and reputational damage. Uber’s self-inflicted PR disaster should be held up as one of the best examples of what not to do.”