Biggest PR nightmares of 2021

The year that past saw an array of communications crises as businesses got to grips with being plunged into and then emerging from lockdowns, employee burnout due to working from home, what has been termed the ‘Great Resignation’ as people reassess their priorities with work-life balances and then increased scrutiny over diversity and sustainability practices. Some PR nightmares could probably have been avoided with some common sense and calm heads, whereas others were somewhat a force majeure and out of their control. Below are some examples of the biggest stories that hit the headlines this year for all the wrong reasons…

Yorkshire Cricket Club

It is the scandal that has engulfed cricket over the past few months. One of England’s most historic sporting clubs, Yorkshire County Cricket club, have been embroiled in a damning episode, accused of being institutionally racist by one of their former players.

Azeem Rafiq, a 30-year-old former professional cricketer, who says he was close to taking his own life, has detailed racism encountered at the club- who have been strongly rebuked for their response. Rafiq first spoke out in September 2020. Yorkshire CCC chairman Roger Hutton resigned on 5 November 2021, and on the following Monday, Lord Patel took over, apologizing to Rafiq and praising his “bravery” as a whistleblower. Then, Head coach Andrew Gale was suspended as part of an investigation into a tweet he sent in 2010.

The spotlight on the club, the players, coaches, management and even former players has never been more intense and has enforced wholesale structural change, both upstairs and downstairs in the locker room.


The Scottish brewer was publicly accused by more than 250 whistle-blowers of creating a “rotten culture” that damaged their mental health. Other allegations made in an open letter, posted on Twitter, included a focus on “growth at all costs”, a tendency mentality that ran through the veins of the company which compromised health and safety, “vanity” PR that disguised a lack of real progressiveness and the normalisation of “toxic attitudes” towards junior staff.

Brewdog has apologised fully and pledged to do things differently, though not before co-founder and CEO James Watt sent an early memo to current employees saying the company’s “fast paced and intense environment isn’t for everyone”.

In one of the most outstanding demonstrations of a lack of sensitivity and self-realization with internal comms, the CEO of online mortgage lender will be “taking time off” from his role after he abruptly fired more than 900 employees via a Zoom call. Vishal Garg, who founded the company in 2016, told the employees on the call that they “are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off”.

In an apology posted to the company’s website, Garg said that he “failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected”.

“I own the decision to do the layoffs,” Garg said. “But in communicating it, I blundered the execution. In doing so, I embarrassed you.”

Garg had not followed the correct procedures and when the video of the Zoom call was leaked to the media, the story spread like wildfire globally.


For marketeers and brands, UEFA Euro 2020 was a high budget opportunity to connect with audiences and fans globally with the star power of some of the world’s best football players on show throughout the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo’s removal of two Coca-Cola bottles at a Euro 2020 news conference coincided with a $4 billion drop in the market value of the American drink giant.

The Portugal captain was visibly troubled when he saw two bottles of the carbonated soft drink in front of him as he sat down to speak to the media in Budapest ahead of his national team’s Group F opener against Hungary and so he removed the soft drink and told the journalists looking on to drink water.

Coca-Cola were obviously stunned as one of the tournament’s major sponsors and the initial shock was a PR disaster for the brand.

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