PR Lessons To Learn From Past Disasters

28 May, 2021 (Friday)

A brand cannot function effectively without proper crisis management and proper PR. Public Relations is what helps brands network with the audience and increase brand awareness and it is what helps brands damage control during times of trouble. While some brands are a pro at damage control and averting crises, some aren't successfully able to do so. Sometimes the damages erred cannot be solved by mere social media apology or a press release.  A good way to learn how to avoid PR nightmares is to learn from the experiences of other companies and everything they did wrong. Here are some of the major PR disasters of the past and our takeaways from them:

Lesson 1: Think before you speak

One cannot start the list without the mention of Gerald Ratner, who was infamously known as the man who lost $10 billion in 10 seconds.  In 1991, Gerald Ratner, the then CEO of jewelry brand Ratners, which was handed down to him by his father, called one of his own products "total crap".

Addressing the high-profile Institute of Directors annual convention at the Royal Albert Hall, Gerald Ratner said, "People ask me how can you sell this product for such a low price. I say it is because it is total crap."

The media had a field day and the company’s shares dropped £500 million in a matter of days.


Lesson 2: Get rid of the "Woe Is Me" trope and take responsibility for your own actions

When BP CEO, Tony Hayward, went to the US Gulf Coast to apologize to its residents for the worst oil spill America had then seen, the CEO showed no empathy. He tried to downplay the calamity that had occurred and further went on to blurt, "I want my life back," to the media. 

In the days following the visit, the CEO was seen taking a sailing trip amidst the chaos. However, it didn't end there. BP released a one-minute video featuring Haywood saying, “I’m sorry.” The company was later on mocked for the video due to lack of remorse and sensitivity and BP ended up becoming one of the most loathsome brands of all time.


Lesson 3: Social Media apologies don't cut it and the importance of empathy.

United Airlines is infamous for the number of PR fails they fall victim to. However, in 2017, they outdid themselves. The airline had overbooked a flight, a common occurrence. When an elderly doctor refused to get off the plane, United handled the issue horribly. They summoned security, who forcibly removed the man from the plane who was injured and bloodied by security. With people taking several videos of it, the entire situation went viral on social media with many demanding an apology from United. 

However, the company did little to appease the situation. Oscar Munoz, the airline's CEO, absolutely missed the message with his apologies. He expressed regret for “having to re-accommodate” consumers. Instead of apologizing for the assault, the man went through, he attempted to frame the issue as one of overbooking.


Lesson 4: Words matter

The Boston Marathon is arguably one of the largest marathons ever and Adidas is one of the most well-known sponsors of the Marathon. In 2017, the firm decided to send a post-race email congratulating its participants. The email's subject line said, "Congratulations, you survived the Boston Marathon!" 

For those unaware, the email would seem ordinary. However, the Boston Marathon once faced a terrible tragedy in 2013 when two extremist brothers detonated a pair of homemade bombs, killing three people and injuring hundreds.

Recipients of the email quickly turned to social media to call out Adidas for their insensitivity. Adidas was, fortunately, able to turn the situation around by taking the appropriate action swiftly and sending across a genuine apology wherein they took accountability for the mistake made.