Written by Andy Michael • Published 3rd July 2014 • 6 minute read
From the BP Oil crisis and supermarket horsemeat scandal to Nestle’s fight with Greenpeace and the launch of a racist board game, in this post, we’ve identified some of the worst PR disasters of all time.
Of course, there are many more examples we could have cited, including when Britain’s Got Talent used the unfortunate hashtag (#susanalbumparty) to President Bush’s famous comment “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
But these could be described as gaffes, rather than fully blown crises. Instead in this article, we look at instances of PR blunders that resulted in serious backlashes for the companies involved.
1) BP Oil Crisis
The BP Oil crisis is a classic example of reputation management misfiring. The event itself, which was the biggest offshore oil spill in US history, was a tragedy and environmental disaster only exacerbated by the way the crisis was handled.
BP’s lack of apparent empathy and compassion was personified by former BP CEO Tony Haywood who famously said in an interview “I’d like my life back”, evoking a huge backlash of public resentment and anger.
Of course, this wasn’t the only PR mistake BP made during the crisis. Their website had scant information on this situation with only minimal links to Facebook and Twitter. Also offering potential plaintiffs $5000 not to issue lawsuits showed a serious lack of understanding.
2) The horsemeat scandal
The horsemeat scandal in 2013 famously spawned a whole host of jokes, info-graphics and memes across the internet, illustrating just how influential social media channels can be when it comes to the public’s perception.
According to the Telegraph some of the stand out twitter quips included:
The story revealed beef products sold in major retailers (including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl, Ikea, Asda and Co-op) contained horsemeat, rocking the European supply chain, with abattoirs, suppliers, manufacturers and retailers all implicated.
3) Malala shot for mattress ad campaign
The poster campaign showed the young school girl being shot in the face by the Taliban, falling onto the mattress and then returning to health under the slogan “bounce back”.
Ogilvy’s press spokesman apologised to Yousafzai and her family.
“The recent Kurl-On ads from our India office are contrary to the beliefs and professional standards of Ogilvy & Mather and our clients. We deeply regret this incident and want to personally apologise to Malala Yousafzai and her family.” (The Guardian)
4) Nestlé vs Greenpeace – Give an Oranutang a Break
In early 2010 Greenpeace launched a campaign highlighting Nestle’s palm oil sourcing practices, rolling out a Take a Break viral ad campaign featuring an office worker gnawing on an Orangutan’s finger instead of a Kit Kat Bar. The tagline was Kit Kat Killer.
Nestle’s Facebook page was overrun with people begging Nestle to stop using palm oil and killing the orangutans. Rather than acknowledging the comments Nestle deleted many of them and posted the following message.
“To repeat: we welcome your comments, but don’t post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic—they will be deleted,”
This led to a further barrage of criticism adding huge pressure on the brand. In May 2010, only ten weeks later, Nestle announced it would stop sourcing unsustainable palm oil… a huge victory for Greenpeace.
5) Domino’s YouTube scandal
The pranksters posted five video clips – including a particularly revolting clip involving a sandwich – that quickly spread through social media channels resulting in a barrage of anti-Dominos comments.
Asking YouTube to remove the video proved tricky as the website requires approval from the person who posted the video in the first place – although that person was finally identified and contacted.
Following the incident, Dominos shut the store to sanitize the operation and the two employees were fired. However, they were criticised for not issuing an immediate statement. Dominos later claimed this was because they were worried about more people watching the clip.
6) Tinder “Vanity Fair Article” Outrage
When dealing with criticism, a lot of companies opt to ignore and hope that today’s news becomes tomorrows chip paper.
Not tinder. Having risen to prominence as the #1 app for the millennial dating scene you’d think that they’d be well placed to deal with criticism effectively. However when Vanity Fair claimed that the app was having a ‘corrosive effect on dating’, Tinder’s social team hit back with a 30 tweet tirade that was as bizarre as it was offensive. (note to Tinder, suggesting that users in North Korea were benefiting from being able to communicate with each other was weird and just generally not a good look).
If they were trying to sweep this under the carpet, losing your cool in front of your entire social media audience was not the way to go about it.
7) Urban Outfitters sells racist board game
Ghettopoly was a parody of Monopoly launched in 2003. As you can gather from the above quote it was a little edgy and received heavy criticism for being offensive and racist.
The game was pulled from the market by Urban Outfitters (the retailer) and in 2006 the manufacturer was ordered to pay $400,000 in damages. According to eBay’s Offensive Materials Policy, the game cannot be sold on their website.
8) Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction
When Janet Jackson’s halftime Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” was broadcast to millions in 2004 it caused a huge PR headache for broadcaster CBS, who received 540,000 complaints and were slapped with a $550,000 fine.
The incident, now sometimes referred to as “nipple-gate”, instigated new broadcasting laws in the US forcing networks to enforce stricter regulations and broadcast delays for live events.
In 2011 Netflix made a series of announcements and apologies, followed by reversals that damaged its brand and its reputation.
In July the company emailed customers saying it was unbundling its video streaming and DVD service to create two separate packages. When it was revealed that this would increase prices for DVD customers (despite having been presented as an initiative to increase choice) CEO Reed Hastings said:
“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation. Many members felt we lacked respect and humility…. That was certainly not our intent.”
He went on to announce a new DVD service called Qwikster… a month later this was cancelled. According to the Huffington Post, “It should certainly be a first-ballot entrant into the Bad Decision Hall of Fame”. It certainly was an incredible example of a crisis being caused by a brand’s own making.
The company’s share price plunged and Hastings gave up 50 percent of his stock option awards for the year.
10) The tax shaming scandal – Google, Amazon, Starbucks
In 2013 there was a spate of stories highlighting a number of multinational firms with a UK presence apparently avoiding paying tax.
Amazon, for example, reported UK sales of £3.35 billion in 2011, but only paid £1.8 million in tax. Meanwhile, Google’s ad unit paid just £6 million to the Treasury in 2011 despite a UK turnover of £395 million.
While what the companies were doing was legal, it had a hugely negative impact on the tide of public opinion, who were simultaneously facing austerity cuts to help negotiate the countries way out of recession.
Interestingly according to the BBC News Magazine “, the tide of public opinion is visibly turning. Even 10 years ago news of a company minimising its corporation tax would have been more likely to be inside the business pages than on the front page”.
While most branding experts argue over the precise impact of the stories in terms of profit and revenue there is no doubt that in the court of public opinion all these brands suffered. This can be seen by the number of social media groups and hashtag campaigns that emerged as result of the scandal.