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Updated Apr 08, 2024

PR Nightmares: What You Can Learn From the Biggest Blunders

Sometimes, the best marketing intentions don’t hit as intended. Here are some case studies to consider.

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Julie Thompson, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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Public relations (PR) uses strategic communication to influence the public’s view of a person or business. As a business owner, for instance, you can employ PR tactics to strengthen your company’s reputation and encourage consumers to view your products favorably.

Even with the best intentions, however, some PR efforts go awry. While we don’t find joy in others’ misfortunes, we can glean a lot from the PR nightmares some notable companies have found themselves in.

Lessons from major PR mistakes

Below are a few examples of major PR blunders and the lessons business owners can learn from them. These situations may have started innocently but turned into PR nightmares. Take notes to avoid the same fate!

Don’t get caught in the middle of United States culture wars.

In May 2023, Target rolled out its Pride Collection, with more than 2,000 products supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Due to anger from both sides (conservatives demanding the “woke” merchandise be removed and the LGBTQ+ community not feeling supported), Target was forced to pull some products from its stores and online and move the remaining merchandise from the front to the back of the store. 

While supporting social causes used to be a significant money maker, Target executives are rethinking the benefits after losing more than 5 percent in sales in Q2 of 2023. While the percentage might not all be due to Pride backlash, it was enough to make the company pause and study the effect on its bottom line.

What can we learn from this? While Target aimed to support the LGBTQ+ community, it couldn’t entirely do so without alienating a large part of its audience. When Target hesitated and blamed its actions on employee safety, the company lost the trust needed to rebound quickly and created more hate than acceptance.

Never blame your customers.

Lululemon Athletica, an activewear company, had an embarrassing problem in 2013 with its new yoga pants: They were too sheer to wear in public. Rather than admitting to quality-control inefficiencies, the brand’s founder blamed the fabric’s translucence on overweight women rubbing their thighs together because the pants were too tight.

What can we learn from this? No matter where fault lies, blaming your customers is always a losing strategy. A sure way to squander money is to insult consumers’ intelligence, taste or, in this case, figures. Customers want a product improvement, not a defensive accusation. If your product falls short, own up to it and make it better.

FYIDid you know
The quality of your product matters for more than PR reasons. There is a direct correlation between product quality and return on investment.

Balance authenticity and appropriateness.

In 2022, Braden Wallake, owner of the Ohio-based business-to-business marketing agency Hypersocial, was dubbed the “crying CEO” after he posted a selfie with tears streaming down his face alongside a LinkedIn post about layoffs he had made at his company. The post received thousands of comments and reactions. Some LinkedIn users were not impressed with his vulnerability, saying the CEO was out of touch and highlighting himself more than helping his employees.

What can we learn from this? Being genuine as a CEO is essential, but there is a delicate balance when posting on social media. It can be challenging to achieve the right amount of vulnerability without overly focusing on yourself. 

Question the ‘facts.’

In 2001, tobacco titan Philip Morris Co. funded a study that claimed the benefits of smoking outweigh associated costs, such as healthcare, lost working days and cigarette-induced fires. To make matters worse, the company touted the “indirect positive effects” of early deaths ― like savings on healthcare and pensions ― and alleged that one foreign government in its study had a net gain of $146 million thanks to the tobacco industry. Unsurprisingly, the report received a massive backlash from the public, prompting the company’s senior vice president to publicly apologize for its “totally inappropriate … terrible mistake.”

What can we learn from this? Always check the facts and analyze a self-funded study from every possible angle. Try to poke holes in your own conclusions. In this case, the costs of smoking are complex and ambiguous ― not to mention how distasteful it is to discuss the economic benefits of death with the general public. Even if something’s true, it may not reflect well on your company to celebrate it. [Related article: Lessons in Corporate Ethics From the GM Recall]

Don’t hide during a crisis.

2013 wasn’t the best year for the cruise line Carnival, with multiple power losses and plummeting share prices. After one power outage, which understandably resulted in many unhappy vacationers, the company’s CEO was MIA when customers needed him most. Instead, a lower-level executive had to take charge of public communication during the crisis.

What can we learn from this? When an issue arises for your business, always do the talking yourself. If you don’t, you’ll communicate cowardice. The company’s most senior executives — often including the owner in the case of small and midsize businesses — should be visible and communicative with the affected customers and the public in good times and bad. Consumers want to see issues being taken seriously by the company’s highest levels.

TipBottom line
Repairing your company’s reputation is critical after a crisis. Consider a reputation management service to help with the task.

Don’t allow communication issues to escalate.

San Francisco-based OpenAI made global headlines when it abruptly dismissed its CEO Sam Altman and then reinstated him after an outside investigation by law firm WilmerHale. The CEO had been accused of manipulative business practices that resulted in a breakdown of the relationship and loss of trust between himself and the prior board.

Besides sharing the investigation’s results with the public, OpenAI added three women to its board of directors and reiterated that its “mission-driven nonprofit” will remain the same as it aims to use artificial intelligence to benefit “all of humanity.”

What can we learn from this? Instilling more transparency in your business can lead to exceeding business goals, decreasing conflict and strengthening leadership. After OpenAI’s public internal fights, the company was forced to seek a better governance structure that included improving corporate guidelines, strengthening policies regarding conflicts of interest and establishing a whistleblower hotline.

Be careful how you treat your employees.

You’d think that with a name like Better.com, this online mortgage company would’ve taken the high road when handling a massive employee layoff. Instead, its CEO decided to impersonally fire 900 employees via a group Zoom call in 2021. He made these workers feel like nothing but a number and even accused them of stealing from the company by only working a couple of hours a day. As the story went viral, the company’s toxic culture was exposed. Better’s vice president of communications, head of PR and head of marketing resigned promptly, along with other vice presidents and board members.

Incredibly, the company made things even worse in 2022 when another group of employees learned they were laid off from the severance checks that appeared in their payroll accounts. The payments were rolled out early mistakenly before the staffers could be notified of their termination formally and social media again lit up with discussions of the company’s cruelty toward its employees.

What can we learn from this? Consumers are watching. Employers can no longer get away with promising nonexistent benefits and verbally abusing their workforce. By supporting your employees’ mental health and financial well-being, you can improve employee retention and foster a positive company culture that makes customers proud to do business with you. A business owner should want to go viral on social media for treating their team well, not the opposite.

Did You Know?Did you know
Keeping your employees happy is one of the best investments you can make for your business. It’s also a good idea to calculate your employee turnover rate so that you can spot any problems with retention.

Use clickbait wisely.

The Burger King Foundation grabbed attention in 2021 with a full-page ad in The New York Times publicizing its H.E.R. (Helping Equalize Restaurants) scholarship program, which gives female employees the chance to receive a culinary education grant. The ad declared, “Women belong in the kitchen,” but quickly offered context to educate readers about the lack of women in chef and head chef positions.

But on Twitter, Burger King posted a tweet that only read, without that crucial context, “Women belong in the kitchen.” The kicker? The seemingly sexist post, bad enough on its own, was published on International Women’s Day. Unsurprisingly, the tweet was met with an outcry, prompting the company to clarify that it was about its H.E.R. initiative. However, it was relatively hidden because its initial apology was posted as a reply to the original tweet instead of as a new message.

What can we learn from this? A full-scale marketing campaign, including social media and print advertising, is an intelligent strategy. However, if you don’t approach each type of media as its own mini-campaign and adjust the language accordingly, an ad could read the way you intended in one medium but come off as tone-deaf in another. Print ads can be supported with substantial text and multiple images; trying to be clever with one-line clickbait on social media can quickly damage your company’s reputation.

Bottom LineBottom line
A social media marketing campaign can go wrong if you don’t take into account the platform you’re using and how snippets of information play differently in brief posts vs. detailed ads.

Don’t ignore grammar.

Steve Jobs was a genius. But even geniuses can stumble a time or two. When making a speech in 2008, Jobs introduced the new iPod as “the funnest iPod yet.” While technically a real word, “funnest” isn’t considered the correct term. People on the internet collectively howled with laughter and criticized Jobs’ linguistic mistake to the point where the public was more obsessed with his slip-up than with his fun new product.

What can we learn from this? When speaking or writing on behalf of your company, abide by language rules and conventions. Fumbling your word choice is not an unforgivable sin, but persnickety consumers might overlook a new product to focus on your blatant grammatical error.

Apologize for employee misconduct.

In 2009, Domino’s employees recorded themselves spitting on pizzas and putting cheese up their noses. When the footage went viral, the company’s president immediately fired the employees and apologized in a YouTube video for their unacceptable behavior. He also thanked the online community for notifying Domino’s of the stunt and rolled out new hiring and sanitizing practices to reassure the public of the company’s commitment to hygienic safety. [Related article: Why Every Brand Should Have a YouTube Channel]

What can we learn from this? In this case, we applaud Domino’s for its actions. The company took horrible publicity and turned the situation around with a solid PR response. If your employees deface your business’s name and dignity, fire them and let the public know your actions. Reassure your customers that their safety, sanity and needs come first in your book.

How to restore your company’s reputation after a PR nightmare

1. Take a step back

When you are in the middle of a PR nightmare, you must take a step back. By examining the overall blunder, you can assess the severity, determine who’s directly responsible, evaluate the facts and back them up with data quickly.

2. Communicate with transparency

Gather the people that mean the most to you, including business partners, investors, stakeholders, employees and valued customers. Tell them as much as possible about the crisis and the action steps you are taking to resolve it. This is not the time to lie or downplay the situation. The more transparent you are before it hits a global audience, the better.

3. Take action

Now that you have all the facts and have told your circle the truth, you must craft a press release through a relevant, trusted outlet. It’s essential to remain genuine throughout the process: whether it was your fault and you take ownership; it wasn’t your fault; or it was a form of mistruth through a media outlet and you need a fresh article written.

Your social media accounts should also receive a formal apology. Whether the message is general or directly from the CEO, it should mirror the press release and any subsequent response from your customer service team.

4. Rebuild trust

Brand loyalty is difficult to achieve. With inflation, social media and culture wars, rebuilding trust is crucial to the longevity of your brand.

Spend time educating your audience on your financial stability, brand values and commitment to be a better company.

5. Aim to do better in the future

No person or business is perfect. A PR crisis can happen to anyone at any time; overcoming the nightmare is only half the battle. 

You must take the opportunity to maintain your brand’s reputation, evaluate your mission and create a plan for long-term brand protection.

Your crisis prevention plan should include all of the people in step two. The more you care about relationships over profit, the easier it will be to handle future PR nightmares.

Ashtyn Douglas contributed to this article.

author image
Julie Thompson, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
With nearly two decades of experience under her belt, Julie Thompson is a seasoned B2B professional dedicated to enhancing business performance through strategic sales, marketing and operational initiatives. Her extensive portfolio boasts achievements in crafting brand standards, devising innovative marketing strategies, driving successful email campaigns and orchestrating impactful media outreach. Thompson's proficiency extends to Salesforce administration, database management and lead generation, reflecting her versatile skill set and hands-on approach to business enhancement. Through easily digestible guides, she demystifies complex topics such as SaaS technology, finance trends, HR practices and effective marketing and branding strategies. Moreover, Thompson's commitment to fostering global entrepreneurship is evident through her contributions to Kiva, an organization dedicated to supporting small businesses in underserved communities worldwide.
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