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Bad PR: A Run Down.

26th April 2017

The Guardian have posted some useful tips on saving a sinking ship…

Unlike the international corporates, small businesses won’t have dedicated PR departments to advise them what to do during an onslaught of public criticism. At the same time, when you read our compilation of PR catastrophes you’ll wonder how these mistakes could be made in the first place. They’re not in any particular order because in their own way, they are all completely ridiculous.

1. United Airlines

United Airlines displayed a unique way to remove passengers from a plane that was overbooked by the company. The passenger, who ended up with a bloodied face, was described by the CEO as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ to make doubly sure it would blow up in to an internet sensation, and almost $1b was wiped off its market share. (UPDATE: Dragging United Airlines to unknown depths, it was reported today that a giant bunny has died ‘mysteriously’ onboard a UA flight. Nothing like a bunny death to fuel the #BoycottUnited fire.)


2. Pepsi + The Civil Rights Movement

Pepsi thought it appropriate to reference a seminal moment in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, with a Kardashian sister calming police/protester tensions with a can of sugar. If only Pepsi had been more involved in civic troubles throughout the years. It inevitably suffered a backlash – some sneering at the oversight and insensitivity, others utterly outraged. Including Martin Luther King Jr’s daughter.

(In other news, this Heineken advert has been lauded for getting to the heart of political engagement.)

1. Susan’s Unfortunate #

Susan Boyle was a big deal when she sang I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent. There was a time when these talent shows would occasionally unearth an overwhelmingly sentimental life story/song combo, and the whole country would go in to meltdown. Surprising, then, that Susan wasn’t afforded a PR company wise enough to pull the plug on using #susanalbumparty to launch her new album.

2. Supermarkets getting it so wrong.

Both Tesco and Asda came under fire for a shambolic oversight when they stocked ‘Mental Patient Costumes’ for Halloween 2013. The costume itself could have been any terrifying horror character, so not only was the use of ‘Mental Patient’ deeply insensitive, it was also totally unnecessary. Doubling up on the disaster, good work.

3. IBM Missing the Point.

IBM might want to talk to Collective members the Stemettes to get a better understanding of women in tech. They chose #HackAHairDryer as their rallying cry to address gender imbalance in technology, and open the door to women. Presumably the campaign would have gone on to include an iron, oven and hoover had Twitter not eaten them alive in retaliation.

The Stemettes are addressing gender imbalance in STEM industries.

4. Bud Light

The UK is still trying to come around to America’s love for light beers. But, more baffling is the campaign to launch Bud Light last year. Check this out for the mother of all tagline mess-ups: ‘The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night. #UpForWhatever.’ Try not to focus on the ridiculously clunky messaging. What really ruffled peoples’ feathers was a beer company advocating the removal of consent from a discussion. Ouch.

5. Watch those links.

Sending a text to the wrong person, accidentally uploading a photo to Facebook, angry tweeting when drunk… all the perils of the internet unfortunately, and that’s just how it is in 2017. Be. VIGILANT. ESPN analyst Gerry Hamilton accidentally posted a link to hardcore porn instead of a sports-related story he was referring to. Multi-task away, but remember, links can ruin your LIFE.

6. Uber – The gift that keeps on giving.

Another day, another PR catastrophe for Uber. This time, an Uber driver was filmed telling the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick that he had gone bankrupt as a result of raising standards and dropping prices. Kalanick called this ‘bullshit’ and said ‘some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!’ Door slams. An admirable effort to push public opinion further against Uber, when it didn’t seem possible.

7. Big thanks for the pollution, VW.

Not one that pulls on the heartstrings. Volkswagen manipulated emissions data, the Chief Executive had to resign, billions of euros were wiped from its market value and sales were down 8% in 2016. A further £25b has been spent on claims and they now offer a six year warranty on their cars. It all escalated pretty quickly, and scramble around as they might, VW are finding zero sympathy.


As a small business, it’s unlikely that a slip of the tongue will lead to a billion dollars being wiped off your market share. But public perception of your brand is vital if you want positive word of mouth and customer loyalty. Check out the Guardian’s tips: Crisis Management for Entrepreneurs.

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