Crisis PR – Top 10 Best and Worst

Posted by George Brown Sep 4, 2015 9:51:44 AM

Topics: PR, Crisis communications


A reputation is a delicate thing, which can take years to build up and mere moments to sully.

And the way a company communicates with stakeholders and the general public during a crisis can be pivotal in determining whether it bounces back stronger than ever or is irrevocably tarnished by its response to the situation.

In this post, we'll take a look at some of the best and worst examples of crisis communication and discover valuable lessons that these responses can impart.

Best Crisis Communications

10.) Morrison’s ‘Milk for Farmers’ (2015)

Unrelenting consumer demand and the continual growth of convenience shopping have spelt bad news for farmers in recent times.

Tensions boiled over recently and the farmers spoke out about the poor income they receive from supermarkets for the milk they distribute.

Several videos emerged online that went quickly viral, showing protestors marching into stores and buying all the milk off the shelves as a form of ‘protest’ against the unfair pricing.

Seemingly not the most earth-shattering demonstration, but it was painting a negative picture for supermarkets that they were greedy.

Step forward Morrisons, who last week announced they were initiating a ‘Milk for Farmers’ range to be rolled out in August, which is set to cost 23p more than the standard range, with the extra cost going straight into farmer’s pockets.

It’s a clever move by Morrisons and is one that has gained respect not only in the dairy industry, but the PR one too.

The supermarket has challenged consumers to prove they are charitable to the cause, with Aldi and Lidl following example by vowing to pay supplier’s 28p more for the milk they sell.


9.) Under Armour U.S Speed skating Olympics Design Flaw (2014)

Baltimore-based sportswear brand, Under Armour, came under huge scrutiny following the 2012 Olympic games.

Exclusively providing the US Speed Skating teams competition suits, none of their athletes medalled in the games – a stark contrast to when they won 4 medals at the 2010 Vancouver games.

Various athletes commented on a design flaw in the rear-ventilation panels on the suits, but support came in the form Olympians Michael Phelps and Lindsey Vorm who took to social media to sing the company’s praises.

Thankfully, the brand’s carefulness not to disrespect the athletes saw them pull through and last year they announced they had extended their sponsorship of the U.S Speed skating team, vowing to recommit their efforts to the suit design.


8.) JC Penney – ‘Hitler kettle’ (2013)

In a strange series of events, a user on the social bookmarking site ‘Reddit’ had noticed something peculiar on the billboard advertising American retailer JC Penney.

Things quickly took speed after the Telegraph decided to run with the story. Not a crisis as such, but JC Penney showed exactly how to deal with a situation like this – quickly and not taking yourself too seriously.

Inundated with tweets poking fun at the company, JC Penney responded with quips such as, ‘Totally unintentional. If we had designed it to look like something, we would have gone with a snowman J”.


7.) Texaco Racial Discrimination Lawsuit (1994)

Texaco were in serious trouble after secret conversations recorded between executives revealed racist discrimination, causing six African-American employees to file a lawsuit.

The CEO for Texaco, Peter Biljar, issued a public apology and admitted embarrassment, suspending the executives involved and cutting their benefits.

In an attempt to connect with its disgruntled employees, executives went on tour to apologise around the country. The company eased tensions further by hiring African-American owned ‘Uniworld Group’ to run their next advertising campaign.

Despite strong calls for boycott from public figures such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, these views were softened by the CEO’s actions, eventually paying $176m in damages and implementing further discrimination checks for executives.


6.) Cadbury Worm-Infested Bars (2003)

In a story that would make any chocolate-lover reel in horror, two bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bought in Mumbai, India, were found to be infested with worms.

Cadbury were not quick out the blocks to deal with this one and they denied any chance of contamination happening in the manufacturing stage, clashing with the FDA and the media as a result.

Soon realising the scale of the issue, the company pulled all its advertising and ran an educational PR project for the media. Publications were kept up to date with the improvements to production and they even changed their packaging.

Cadbury’s did face a huge plummet in sales initially after the incident, but thanks to aggressive advertising, they were almost back to pre-crisis levels after 8 weeks and the company reclaimed its throne at the top of India’s chocolate industry.


5.) Odwalla Foods' Apple Juice E.coli outbreak (1996)

Possibly the worst nightmare for any food company, Washington State established that an e-coli outbreak was linked to Odwalla’s unpasteurized apple juice.

One child died, 60 people were taken sick and 20 lawsuits were filled. The ultimate crisis, all of Odwalla’s apple and carrot products were recalled at a cost of $6.5 million.

Such was the gravity of the situation; CEO Stephen Williamson acted accordingly, promising to pay all medical costs. The company spent the next few months focusing on relations, taking out full pages in newspapers for and explaining the situation for example.

It was always going to be an uphill battle however, Odwalla food’s lost a third of its market value and pleaded guilty to FDA charges to the tune of $1.5 million.

Eventually, Coca-Cola bought out Odwalla Foods for $186 million in 2001.


4.) Pepsi Syringe Cans Rumours (1993)

A famous case study when it comes to crisis PR, Pepsi was involved in a strange backlash where a syringe was allegedly found in a drink in Washington.

The following week there were over 50 reports of Diet Pepsi tampering, which all turned out to be a hoax.

Negative press is not ideal - no matter what the truth is. Pepsi managed to work with the FDA, which was satisfied that the story was fabricated, staunchly denying any accusations.

In response, Pepsi produced four videos throughout the crisis to gain people’s trust of the canning process and CEO Craig Weatherup appeared on news channels armed with evidence of bogus reports.

Sales did fall by two per cent, but Pepsi’s aggressive defence was vital and proved a much better tactic for the company rather than staying silent on their innocence.


3.) Virgin Galactic Test Crash (2014)


Sir Richard Branson’s dream of commercial space travel was dealt a massive blow last year after a test flight went incredibly wrong.

Killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other, it was a disaster for such an ambitious venture and looked like the dream may remain just that.

Virgin was able to rely on its spokesperson, Richard. Branson, to immediately fly over to the crash site in California where he tweeted his deepest condolences on the way and wrote a longer, emotional blog later that evening.

PR experts were unanimous in praise for the Virgin owner, crediting the way he addressed the deceased pilot as ‘brave’, influencing the media’s narrative.

Branson remains one of the few people in business who holds a quality of empathy and looks set to keep his promise as Virgin Galactic’s first passenger


2.) German Wings Disaster (2015)

Earlier this year, the story of a German Wings plane crashing into the French Alps was everywhere, particularly due to the double-edged sword of human tragedy that it prevailed.

The event was not caused by corporate negligence, but a deliberate crash by pilot Andreas Lubitz, who was found out to have been suffering from depression.

A media spotlight was cast onto the airline and people demanded answers.

CEO of Lufthansa, Carsten Sphor, was an immediate and compelling spokesperson, vowing to ensure pilots are fully checked in all aspects of health and delivered his sentiments to all families involved.

Sphor was quoted as saying ‘Safety in aviation is no given’, but no business should ever have to pick themselves up from such a tragic event, although done amicably by German Wings.


1.) Johnson & Johnson’s Cyanide-Laced Tylenol Capsules (1982)

The classic case of how to do deal with adversity and come through the other side, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) set the bar for crisis PR.

In 1982, seven people died in the Chicago area after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules that were found to contain cyanide, prompting mass oppression to the brand.

A strong response followed. 31 million bottles ($100m worth) were pulled from the shelves, with production and advertising being completely stopped. J&J worked in conjunction with Chicago police and the FBI, but the killer was never found despite a $100,000 reward.

Post–crisis, the product was reintroduced with new tamper-resistant packaging and $2.50-off coupons. The media praised the length J&J went for its customer care and the way it handled the public outrage, the company was held in good light and it made an eventual recovery.


How Not To Deal With A Crisis

Whether it’s adversity towards a product or tragedy, reputation is one of the key elements to business success and companies will work hard to retain one thing from their customers – trust.

There are plenty of organisations that haven’t invested their best efforts into crisis communications. Take a look at some of these and learn from their mistakes:


10.) 47 King West Street #NoMoreCheapHenParties (2015)

A restaurant in Manchester sparked a lot of attention earlier this year after one of its employees took customer complaints into his own hands.

As part of her Hen-do celebrations, Mellissa Grogan-Morgan and a party of 18, visited the 47 King West Street restaurant where they were split up into two tables and fresh starters were not made for the latecomers.

Having spent over £600 on the meal, Melissa took to Facebook to criticise the restaurant on their page, but an employee taking control of the account responded with – ‘The most chavviest, worst, most vile people ever to grace our restaurant. Wouldn’t know fine dining if it slapped them in their ugly faces’.

Owner of the resteraunt, Mike Hymanson, labelled the incident ‘regrettable’, promising internal investigation and action - all showing the importance of strict social media policy and customer relations.


9.) ‘Sweatygate’ PR Employee Stunt (2015)

The tables were fully turned recently when a PR company had to improve it’s own reputation after being caught out.

Promoting a client’s anti-perspirint, the PR firm used one of it’s own members of staff as a case study of the product's success, only to be found out by the press association and ordered to remove any press it had in the press.

However, this isn’t as shocking as it sounds according to Andy Barr from PR Week – ‘We in PR land have got our knickers in a knot, this goes on in every industry – Hacking scandals, MP Expenses. Everyone does it, they always have’.


8.) Dominoes YouTube Scandal (2009)

More staff controversy, but this time in its worse form – a video that goes viral, very quickly.

In April 2009, two Dominoes employees uploaded a video to YouTube of themselves doing disgusting acts in the pizza preparation process. It doesn’t make for nice reading but you can find the video if you look hard enough.

The world of PR wasn’t completely up to speed with how Internet culture can take any negative and exacerbate it significantly. Over one million people had view the video, Twitter was ablaze with discussion and criticism.

Dominoes’ did fire the two employees involved, but their decision to wait over two days to respond damaged their reputation and the video continued to go viral with new leases of life such as edits and pictures.


7.) Tinder ‘Vanity Fair Article’ Outrage (2015)

Smartphones are changing everything about our lives – shopping, being constantly updated with what your friends are doing and even dating.

Tinder has risen to prominence as the #1 app for millennials looking for a partner of any committal value.

With this comes criticism, particularly from a Vanity Fair article, which called the concept, was having a ‘corrosive effect on dating’.

Tinder’s representatives did not take to this kindly and in a 30-tweet tirade blasted Vanity Fair’s ‘one-sided journalism’. Claiming that they are much more than an outlet for hooks ups, Tinder even bizarrely said that their users in North Korea are benefitting from being able to communicate with one another.

If Tinder were trying to sweep this under the carpet, allowing an employee to loose their cool on Twitter is defiantly not the way forward…unless it was all pre-planned?



6.) Applebee 18% Tip Pastor Fiasco (2013)

The unforgiving viral effect of the internet on a business struck again in 2013 when a waitress from a St. Louis outlet posted an unusual receipt on the website Reddit.

A Pastor from the area had taken her some of her service out for a meal, only to write ‘I give god 10%, why do you get 18%?’ as a protest against the company’s policy in regards to large-party dining.

The picture of the receipt reached news stations across the country, causing a great deal of unwanted attention for the pastor, as she claimed she had brought ‘embarrassment to the church and ministry’.

Consequently, the waitress who uploaded the picture was sacked as it breached the pastor’s privacy by including her full name, but Applebee’s was criticised for the way it allowed her life to be scrutinised without her permission.


5.) HMV Live Tweet Sackings (2013)

Illegal downloads, decline of the high street and internal instability. It hasn’t been an easy few years for what was one the nations favourite entertainment outlet HMV.

In 2013, continuing losses meant that several stores nationwide had to be closed as part of being put into administration – this meant plenty of job losses as well.

As news was breaking internally that a lot of people were about lose their jobs, one employee decided to live tweet using the hashtag #hmvxfactorfiring, with such examples like – ‘There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.”

Customers are always asking for more transparency and honesty when it comes to the brands they use, but perhaps this time it was too damaging.


4.) Cadbury’s Salmonella Outbreak (2006)

We’ve already seen how a big company like Cadbury’s can deal with a health-scare crisis with the worm infestation, but it wasn't as slick this time.

When news broke that some factories Cadbury’s used had suffered a salmonella outbreak, the company provided samples of problem products to the media and a hotline for any concerned customers.

Cadbury’s appeared to be socially responsible and dignified as it responded with reactivePR across broadcast, web and print - but it turns out, the company wasn't telling the full truth.

It was later revealed that they only told the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in June, months after the peak sales period for Easter eggs.

By sticking the boot into Cadbury’s, the FSA were able to present themselves as a powerful industry figure and that they cared about public health concerns. 



3.) Wrestlemania 24 Firework Accident (2008)

The world of wrestling is often inundated with critics stating that the fighting and injuries are faked, but this incident was very, very real.

The 24th Wrestlemania was held at the Citrus Bowl in Florida and at the end of the Undertaker’s firework display, a cable snapped which sent fireworks into the crowd.

Luckily, nobody was killed but over 45 people were injured and three people were sent to hospital. The incident was covered by news reports, footage amassed online and eyewitnesses and victims were giving interviews.

A nightmare for the gigantic WWE brand, it released a statement saying its team took ‘solace in the fact that the reported injuries were minor’.

However, they failed to follow up further with incident, failing to release any details of their investigation and even used fireworks the next day at a RAW event. Not a wise move for trying to regain any lost fans.


2.) UPS & FedEx Christmas Deliveries Failure (2013)

Dr Seuss’ character, The Grinch, is often credited for ruining Christmas, but for a lot of families, it was at the hands of couriers.

UPS & FedEx both experienced heavy backlogs blamed on bad weather and spikes in last minute shopping, but customers who couldn’t give presents to loved ones were quick to share their anger on the company’s social media channels.

Retailers bore a lot of the blame as a result, but they acted sympathetically with Amazon refunding any shipping charges and offering $20 gift cards for example.

A strange twist of events where retailers are the good guys for once and the events meant that cut-off points for Christmas deliveries were extended from couriers.


1.) Sony Pictures North Korea Hacking Scandal (2015)

A country run by a dictatorship that allows no defamation of its leader is not one to make fun of, as Sony Pictures found out in embarrassing fashion.

As the company prepared to release ‘The Interview’, a film that depicts the fictional assignation of Kim Jong-Un, it found itself under cyber attack.

Hackers released thousands of documents containing emails, some of which were exchanges about film stars.

Sony decided to cancel showing the film, stating there was threatened violence at its intended premieres, which even brought criticism from Barack Obama was said they shouldn’t have ‘caved into threats’.

It’s not the first time Sony has been at the mercy of cyberbullys. Back in 2013, its PlayStation Online network servers were brought down for several months, causing people to withdraw their custom from the company.

Sony’s sloppy security would understandably leave the public unsympathetic and suspicious of the company’s competence, even if they did eventually release ‘The Interview’ in small indie cinemas.

This succession of embarrassing events was broadcast all over the world and it was hard for people to get behind Sony when it seemed to be so easily pushed around and bullied by the cyber-nerds.

It’s the ultimate example of why having a strategic Crisis PR is vital for communicating the facts and defending your name if need be.

Managing Any Crisis

You could be forgiven for thinking that some situations are unmanageable, as social media and devices means a bad event can soon snowball into negative PR.

However, you can use this to your advantage and immediately quash any rumours or put a positive spin on it!

If you’re still unsure and maybe want some tips on conducting marketing for your business online, take a look at our guide below.

And if you’ve got any crisis PR stories you’d like to share – be sure to fire us a tweet, we always love to hear your thoughts.

PR and Marketing for SMEs


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