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