12 Most Damaging PR Disasters Of the 21st Century


It’s never going to be a simple life in the public eye, but some businesses and brands don’t make it easy for themselves. We’re only human, but in today’s (often big and scary) digital world, mistakes can be amplified to brand-damaging extremes.

All it takes is one questionable tweet and a storm can erupt globally in a matter of minutes. From a customer standpoint, this immediacy is brilliant as it means brands and businesses must be more transparent than ever before in order to neutralize unhappy consumers or employees on a rampage.

For the brands themselves, however, the nature of the internet and social media can be both a blessing… and a nightmare. Here are the biggest PR own-goals of the 21st century to put everything into perspective.

1) British Gas Hashtag gaffe, 2013

If you’re going to invite the Twitterati to join your brand for a ‘tweet-up’, it’s probably best not to do it on the same day that you announce a 10 per cent price increase to all your customers. That’s the unbelievable gaffe made by the already less-than-popular British Gas, with the resulting torrent of #AskBG tweets being every bit as unfavorable as you might imagine…

#AskBG: British Gas hikes prices, then takes to Twitter

2) HMV Twitter Horror, 2013

When making nearly 200 people redundant, we’d recommend locking out their access to the company social media accounts before the announcement. This detail was overlooked by high street entertainment store HMV, prompting tweets on their official account that read: “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!!

HMV failed to act swiftly and if the sarcasm in the original tweet was too subtle for some, a later entry read: “There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand“.

As if that wasn’t enough to publicly humiliate the brand’s mismanagement of the crisis, @hmvtweets later tweeted, “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks!) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”. There are own goals, and then there’s snatching defeat from the jaws of just losing!

A screengrab of the Twitter account before the tweets were removed

3) Google, Amazon & Starbucks Tax Scandal, 2011

If you’re a business that operates in the UK, should you pay UK tax? It almost seems obvious, but Amazon, Google and Starbucks would suggest not. Amazon, for example, reported UK sales of £3.35 billion in 2011, but only paid £1.8 million in tax.

Meanwhile Google paid just £6 million to the Treasury in 2011, despite a UK turnover of £395 million. It’s not illegal, but the British public didn’t much like it in the face of austerity Britain.

4) McDonald’s Pink Slime Nightmare, 2012

You know that Big Mac you love on a Saturday night? How did you feel about it after the ‘pink slime’ scandal a few years back? How about the fact that the row had been brewing for over a decade after scientists branded the ingredients as ‘salvage’, rather than ‘meat’? Images emerged in the media of this gooey patty, reportedly containing the additive ammonium hydroxide.

However, McDonald’s turned the allegations around by releasing videos detailing its ‘trade secrets’; showing exactly how it produced food. This transparent approach regained consumer trust, but will anyone truly forget those slime images?

5) Big Mistake-opoly, 2003

Let’s re-imagine the traditional board game, Monopoly, in the context of the urban ghetto – what could go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out with Ghettopoly. As if it wasn’t racist enough that the railroad properties were replaced with liquor stores; houses and hotels were replaced with crack houses and projects.

The game was criticized as offensively racist by black clergy, forcing Urban Outfitters – amongst other retailers – to pull it from the shelves.

6) JP Morgan Chase Q&A Fail, 2013

In the wake of a global recession and accusations of financial wrongdoing, it’s fair to say that bankers are not the most popular people on the planet. So it came as no surprise to anyone other than J.P. Morgan Chase & Co that the open invitation to tweet questions directly to their management was met with a less than hospitable response by the world at large.

Their ill-conceived #askJPM campaign generated 6,000 tweets in just six hours, ranging from the cynical to the openly hostile. A response rate of 1,000 tweets per hour might sound like a marketer’s dream, but with comments including, “Can I have my house back?” and, “Is it true ‘JPM stands for ‘Just Pay More’?”, JPM had cause to doubt the old adage that ‘any coverage is good coverage’.

7) Sex and the Sponsors, 2009

When breakout athlete Tiger Woods was forced into admitting extra-marital affairs following a car crash in 2009, associated stock prices dropped by 5.71%. Corporate sponsors, Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors severed ties with Woods, while Gillette suspended their advertisements.

8) BP Deaths, 2010

Petrochemical companies are never candidates for the world’s favorite companies, but BP took this to new depths with The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 11 people were never found and it’s now considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, with more than 200 million gallons of crude oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

9) Nipplegate, 2004

America’s NFL Superbowl is world-renowned for its half-time entertainment, but even that couldn’t prepare the globe for 2004’s (Super Bowl XXXVIII) Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. The infamous incident has since become known as ‘nipplegate’, as CBS was slapped with a record fine of $ 550,000 after the FCC received 540,000 complaints from irate viewers.

10) The “Bullet in the Chamber”, 2012

When Nike launched their campaign calling Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius – who became the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal, ‘The bullet in the chamber’, little did they know that he would go on to shoot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in their Pretoria home. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for homicide and a three-year suspended prison sentence for reckless endangerment.

Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp

11) Horse Meat Scandal, 2013

Are you enjoying that Beef Lasagne? How about if you knew it consisted of horse meat? That was the problem that confronted consumers in 2013’s meat adulteration scandal. In one of the biggest food frauds of the 21st century, Tesco burgers, as well as those at Burger King, Co-op and Aldi all tested positive for horse DNA. And we’re not just talking trace amounts here – it’s reported that up to 100% of the meat content was ‘horse’ in some cases.

12) Obama’s Racist Nan, 2008

And finally, even one of the world’s leaders and instigator of global change, America’s first black president, Barack Obama, is not exempt from PR own goals. In 2008, he appeared to call his own grandmother a racist as he described her as: “A woman who confessed her fear of black men. She is a typical white person.” Obama later backtracked by saying: “Those are fears that are embedded in our culture, and embedded in our society – and even within our own families; even within a family like mine that is diverse.” But was the damage already done?

Have something to add to this list? Share it in the comments.



How bad grammar may be damaging your brand


A Forbes columnist has argued that ‘Internet speak’ and brands trying to sound like their customers could be eroding reputations.

By Kevin J. Allen | Posted: July 18, 2014
If you watched “Weird Al” Yankovic’s video for his new song “Word Crimes” this week, you saw a pretty great summary of grammar’s sad state.

Your brand, it seems, might be in danger as well.

It’s easy to blame the Internet’s hyper-speed culture for creating some super annoying shorthand, but for some of us, grammar is still valued.

Writing for Forbes, Jason DeMers asks an important question: Is bad grammar killing your brand? He writes:

For business owners, advertisers, and marketers, the effect of the internet on grammar and spelling reaches further than many expect. It goes beyond personal communications and being slightly irked at random typos and errors that one may come across while perusing the web; how a brand communicates and connects online is a reflection of the company itself, and that includes using certain types of languages on various social and digital platforms.

When developing a brand voice, there’s always the question of how conversational you should be in what you say and how you say it. It’s a delicate balance—and one that can make or break a brand’s image.

The need to be “authentic” is often mistaken as the need to sound like your audience. Sound too much like your audience, though, and you can end up coming across as just as roughly as they do.

How do you strike a balance? 

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