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PR Nightmares: How Businesses & Public Figures Respond After Scandals

Anna Johansson
Anna Johansson

While there’s no concrete formula for dealing with PR nightmares, it can be helpful to study what others have done in the past.

For businesses, celebrities, athletes, and public figures, PR nightmares are just that—nightmares. While it’s important to learn from mistakes and seek forgiveness from those you’ve harmed, it’s also important to act swiftly and protect your brand image.

While there’s no concrete formula for dealing with public issues, it can be helpful to study what others have done in the past.

Let’s start by looking at some examples, before delving into the takeaways.

Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Capsule Fiasco

In 1982, seven people were killed as a result of taking Tylenol extra-strength capsules that had been tampered with and laced with potassium cyanide. The killer was never found and the ensuing aftermath was devastating for Tylenol, which had previously had a strong and positive relationship with consumers.

Johnson & Johnson should be applauded for how they responded. They put customer safety first and the bottom line second.

The company immediately pulled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol that were currently on store shelves. This bold move cost Johnson & Johnson more than $100 million, but was the quickest way to alleviate concern. They also got the Chicago Police Department involved, as well as the FDA and FBI.

They offered a $100,000 reward for the killer, as well.

After the crisis was over, Johnson & Johnson reintroduced Tylenol with new tamper-resistant packaging that we now see on all bottles today. They also offered generous $2.50-off coupons to all customers.

If you look at crisis management in the business world, this case study stands among the best. The media sided with Johnson & Johnson and consumers quickly removed any blame from the company.

Michael Vick Dog Fighting Scandal

Until the summer of 2007, Michael Vick lived a life of luxury and fame. He was the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, the face of the Atlanta Falcons, and seemingly had it all. Then came July 17, 2007, when Vick was indicted by the federal government in relation to a dogfighting scandal that was held on his Virginia property.

Facing a possible jail sentence of up to six years, as well as the need to repay the Falcons $28 million, Vick’s life of fame and luxury looked to be over. He ended up spending 19 months in prison and was forced to repay millions the NFL. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. But the story doesn’t end there.

Year after year, Vick was consistently ranked by leading publications as the most hated or disliked athlete in professional sports. With little to lose, Vick hired the public relations firm Sitrick and Company. While the campaign was very secret and took a while to develop, it ultimately paid off.

Eight years later, many of the ‘haters’ have finally forgiven Vick. He’s played for three new NFL teams—something very few thought he would ever do again—climbed out of debt, and started to regain the positive image he once had.

Vick’s been able to do so by investing time and money into public education of animal cruelty, as well as keeping a squeaky clean record. He also conducted a 60 minutes interview after being released from prison, where he infamously said, “I blame me.”

That’s the one phrase that changed everything for him.

Toyota’s 2010 Recall

In 2010, Toyota recalled a grand total of 8.8 million vehicles for major safety defects. These issues included problems with the car’s accelerator, which jammed in some instances and even caused deaths.

What’s so interesting about this crisis management case study is that Toyota initially screwed up. Because they couldn’t find the exact issue, the company leaders decided it was best to remain in the shadows and send a PR team out to handle the media backlash.

That was a major mistake. The slow response further damaged their reputation.

However, despite the mistakes, Toyota eventually got its act together. They apologized, offered extended warranties, heavily invested in creative marketing campaigns, and pointed to the company’s otherwise spotless track record. The NHTSA and NASA ultimately exonerated Toyota and took full blame for the issues, which further helped.

BP’s Oil Spill Disaster 

Want a quick lesson on what not to do when dealing with a crisis management situation? Look no further than BP and the oil spill of 2010. Instead of taking responsibility and owning up to the mistakes made, CEO Tony Hayward made the situation much worse. Just check out some of the statements he made in the weeks after the spill:

  • “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”
  • “I want my life back.” (Foolish, considering 11 people died as a result of the disaster).
  • “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
  • “I don’t feel my job is on the line.”

Folks, this is the exact opposite of how you’re supposed to respond. He lacked remorse, cheapened the situation, and tried to play the victim. You don’t need anyone to explain to you what’s wrong with the way BP responded.

Taco Bell’s “Seasoned Beef” Lawsuit

In 2012, Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, was sued for false and misleading advertising. The lawsuit said the company’s “seasoned beef” only contained roughly 35 percent beef. Well, Taco Bell quickly responded by refuting the claims—which made sense in this case, since they were indeed false.

Taco Bell publicly shared percentages—88 percent beef and 12 percent secret recipe—even going so far as to divulge what ingredients were contained in that secrete recipe. PR channels included digital marketing, local newspaper ads, YouTube videos, Facebook content, and more. The lawsuit was dropped within four months and Taco Bell was able to resurface stronger than ever.

Quick Takeaways from Past Case Studies

As you can see, every company chooses to respond differently to their own scandals. So much depends on the severity of the issue, who’s to blame, how visible the issue is, and how much control the company has over the recovery. While you’ll have to cautiously deal with your own circumstances as they arise, here are some helpful takeaways to remember:

  • Apologize or refute. There are only two possible responses to a crisis. You either have to boldly apologize or boldly refute. And if you’re going to choose the latter, you must be 110 percent sure you can prove your innocence. Otherwise, it’s better to simply take the blame and deal with the aftermath. What you cannot do is fail to respond. Apologize or refute—those are the only two options.

  • Head to social media. In 2015, crises proliferate on social media. If you want to stop a scandal in its tracks, that’s where you have to go. Issue an official apology, engage with users, and create original content that offsets the negative press. This is one medium which you can somewhat control, so use it to your advantage.

  • Tout your track record. If the crisis you’re dealing with is the only blemish on an otherwise healthy track record, use that fact to your advantage. Recall the past as much as often and remind customers that you’re committed to integrity.

Companies and organizations are like people—not one is perfect. While you can’t control everything that happens, you can control how you respond to difficult times. Keep these case studies in mind and tactically respond in a way that positions your company well for the future.

Image via Austin Kirk

Image Credit: nortonrsx / Getty Images
Anna Johansson
Anna Johansson Member
Anna is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for, and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends.