6 Lessons from Past PR Disasters

How to Avoid Public Relations Mistakes

PR professionals are all too aware of how quickly and dramatically things can go wrong, regardless of how confident they feel in a message strategy or campaign. Damage control is always just one unpredictable disaster away. In recent years, some of the most powerful and influential businesses have ironically presented some of the biggest public relations blunders. Read on to learn more about these failures and how your team can strengthen its approach to public relations in the process.

Six Takeaways from Past PR Fails

Some of the worst PR disasters can offer us valuable lessons about the world of corporate communications today. Let’s take a look at six memorable examples and what they can teach us.

1. People expect transparency from powerful businesses.

Countless PR professionals use Facebook every day to carry out their job: amplifying clients’ key messages. Paradoxically, Facebook itself has shown clearly over the past three years that while it is integral to many businesses’ PR programs, it often struggles in its own communications to be transparent with its 2.7 billion users.

In 2018, the company faced criticism over working with a firm that harvested millions of users’ profile data without their permission. Their initial response involved disputing semantics rather than addressing the issue and deafening silence from top executives. This generated more PR trouble, including trolling from politicians on its own platform, another bad look. In 2020, a Harris Poll showed Facebook’s reputation ranked 97th out of the 100 most visible companies, signifying a profound lack of trust worsened by past PR failures. To date, Facebook has not met the great communications responsibility that comes with its huge power.

2. Online decisions have consequences.

The North Face boasts a variety of durable and high-quality outdoor products – and a loyal customer base. But in 2019, it committed an inexcusable PR blunder by replacing photos on its Wikipedia page with its own product shots. This quickly backfired. After all, few watch Wikipedia more closely than Wikipedia itself, which detected the edits almost immediately. And in the age of the Internet, companies like The North Face should know better than to assume online decisions will go unnoticed. “Cheating its way to the top” wasn’t a viable strategy for the North Face, and it has PR consequences for any companies who attempt it, especially online.

3. You can’t defend the indefensible.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, supervisors at a Tyson Foods processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa reportedly ordered employees to continue coming to work while privately wagering money on how many workers would catch COVID-19. This revelation caused the company to hire high-profile lawyers to investigate its own managers – a move that demonstrated commitment to weeding out the cause of the objectively disgusting behavior. However, the public backlash against the company was so fierce that its reputation was inalterably harmed. Lesson learned: keep a close eye on frontline managers and make sure they aren’t putting your reputation at risk by failing to follow your code of conduct. It is impossible to spin something so indefensible.

4. Consider controlling your CEO’s social media profiles.

CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman published controversial tweets related to the killing of George Floyd and his opposition to COVID-19 quarantines. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, loose cannon executives controlling their own social media channels can have serious consequences. CrossFit promptly lost Reebok’s brand partnership and the affiliation of hundreds of gyms across the country. While its PR team likely knew Glassman’s penchant for controversial tweets, they nonetheless allowed him to control his own accounts without oversight, leading to a massive financial and reputational repercussions.

5. Speak up on social justice issues.

Glassman and CrossFit were also criticized for staying silent initially about the death of Floyd and other African Americans in police custody. Amid a wave of corporate statements expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, staying silent can ironically make you stand out – and not in a good way. Nike showed that being on the forefront of social justice issues can be as beneficial as staying silent is harmful. Its now-famous ad campaign featuring the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a strong stance on racial equity and earned the company $6 billion in the process. Speaking up on social justice can be part of a larger strategy to communicate corporate social responsibility.

6. Even top PR firms are susceptible to PR disasters

Early in 2020, the CEO of Edelman, one of the world’s most prominent PR agencies, promised the pandemic would not lead the company to make layoffs. Less than three months after that statement, Edelman announced layoffs. This led to a loss of trust in the CEO and damage to the image of a company that prides itself on burnishing the reputations of other organizations. There are really two lessons here. First, even the most qualified PR professionals are susceptible to setting a bad public relations example. Second, it can be harmful to make promises that may be hard to keep in unpredictable times.

Learning from the Worst

PR professionals often focus on best practices for their profession – in other words, what to do in certain situations. The six lessons above show it can be just as valuable to know what actions to avoid. As companies like Tyson, The North Face and Facebook show, PR disasters will inevitably get more negative media coverage and produce reputational damage proportional to both the size of the company and the magnitude of the blunder.

Interested in learning best practices for avoiding PR blunders and improving your communications program? Contact us today.


Thomas Jilk is a Senior Account Executive at Mulberry Marketing Communications, an award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in Chicago, London and Australia. He uses his journalism and marketing skills to tell compelling brand stories for clients.