Top Crisis PR Communications Fails of All Time

To err is human, as history has proven time and again. Everyone knows the fate of the “unsinkable” Titanic on its maiden voyage, or Napoleon’s outcome at the Battle of Waterloo. In the business world, Kodak’s decision to continue selling film over the digital imaging process it invented constitutes an epic fail of senior management.

In the realm of public relations, the discipline of crisis communication deals specifically with avoiding potential disasters, or mitigating the damage done. And for those practitioners of this relatively unknown but vital service, like us here at the firm Red Banyan, there’s never a lack of opportunity. Errors in planning, judgement or just plain carelessness have tarnished scores of hard-earned reputations in the blink of an eye.

But even with so many examples of poor decision-making to choose from, there stand a select few so egregious, they belong in a category of their own. Each one demonstrates a failed crisis response that is worth reviewing, so that it may serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

Sheer Audacity from the C-Suite

Let’s begin with a classic example of a self-inflicted fail. No one fits this crisis definition better than Chip Wilson, the founding CEO of the fitness brand Lululemon. Capitalizing on the trend toward “athleisure” wear, the company’s early days were marked by skyrocketing success.

But since that time, the company has endured a series of crises, none more glaring than the see-through yoga pants scandal. By using fabric that was too sheer, their signature yoga pants left nothing to the imagination. Late-night talk show hosts had a field day, as everyone took shots at a company with the nerve to sell high-priced pants that were actually transparent.

Instead of apologizing and promising to correct the situation, Chip poured gasoline onto the fire by suggesting that some women’s bodies “just actually don’t work” for his company’s pants. Adding insult to injury, he further shamed his customers by saying “we’re not a fat person brand.”

A lot of CEOs believe they can speak to the press directly, without any consultation. After all, they assume, they built the company, so who better than themselves to weigh in during a time of crisis? This is flawed thinking, and is precisely the reason why organizations both large and small need to consult with a reputable crisis manager.

At Red Banyan, one of our most important roles is to either act as a spokesperson for our clients, or coach someone within the organization on what to say when engaging with the press. As crisis management experts, we then formulate a public relations strategy to address all company communications moving forward. At the same time, our crisis management team conducts a risk management assessment to identify areas of concern. That is the only way to prevent any further missteps, and begin the necessary process of re-establishing goodwill.

Digging a Deeper Hole

The Lululemon fiasco drives home the fact that being the public face of an organization comes with great responsibility. Along similar lines, consider the circumstances surrounding 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, a PR nightmare and failure of catastrophic proportions.

On a massive oil rig located roughly 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, a surge of natural gas blasted through the structure’s concrete core and ignited the platform, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. Compounding the tragedy, the rupture caused 3.1 million barrels to discharge into the Gulf of Mexico, coating 1300 miles of coastline in sticky black goo until the leak was permanently sealed after months of trying.

Aside from the loss of life, many fishing and commercial businesses were ruined or severely compromised up and down the seaboard. All eyes looked to the parent company, British Petroleum, to accept responsibility. Any public relations or crisis management agency would advise them to do so.

But that is not how the firm’s CEO, Tony Hayward, chose to handle it. One month after his employees lay dead on the platform, and as TVs across the world showed toxic chemicals poisoning the Gulf and people who lived in the area were losing their livelihoods,  Hayward apologized for the “massive disruption” and in the same breath added, “There’s no one who wants this over more I do. I’d like my life back.”

As the public face of the oil giant, he would have been hard pressed to come up with a more callous response. In fact, Hayward was then forced to apologize for his apology.  Not exactly how you demonstrate empathy and authenticity.  Weeks later, he was quietly ushered out of the job by BP. 

Talk about bad optics. As the public face of the oil giant, he couldn’t have come up with a more callous crisis response. People died outright, a wildlife habitat was being destroyed, and coastal livelihoods were shuttered indefinitely. But to him, it was nothing more than an unwelcome interruption to his personal life.

A flippant apology like that is a great example of a failure to recognize the severity of a situation. Remarkably unaware of the crisis definition that confronted him, he was relieved of his duties shortly thereafter.

It is unconscionable to think that an international company with size and scope of British Petroleum did not have a workable crisis management plan in place. But they are not alone. Far too many organizations are guilty of this error of omission.

When you are embroiled in a crisis situation, it is no time to begin formulating a plan to address it. It is far better to execute a strategy that was prepared in advance. At Red Banyan, we are firm believers that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that every organization, both large and small can benefit from our corporate PR guidance. Numerous industry-leading organizations retain our services not only for on-the-spot communications advice during a time of crisis, but for proactive services like executive media training that can help them avoid missteps before they occur.

Beauty Queen, Ugly Remarks

As for another high-profile communications fail, the plight of a former Miss Teen USA highlights a concern facing everyone engaged in our hyper-connected online world—the perils of social media.

Today’s society places undue emphasis on role models and influencers. They lead our sports teams, they promote our goods and services, and as we gaze upon their well-curated images, they show us how to live our best lives. For better or worse, the entire entertainment industry perpetuates this cult of personality. The only problem is, we are all human, and we all make mistakes, including some that reveal our true natures.

That’s where the unsavory saga of our beauty queen comes in. At first blush, she exemplified the model of what every young woman wants to be—if you subscribe to the idea that beauty contests indeed deliver on that premise. For all appearances, she was poised, articulate, smart, beautiful, and talented.

And yet, within a short time after being crowned with her title, people began looking through her social media. And what did they find? They found that she had repeatedly used racial epithets on her Twitter feed. It changed the way a lot of people thought about her—whether she was actually the model for the way young women should conduct themselves. She was forced to apologize, and her insensitive comments will now always be associated with her.

Twitter Crisis

Unfortunately, thoughtlessness runs rampant on social media. And a communications failure often ensues. For another example, consider the predicament of a well-respected executive who lost his well-paying job. Why?  Because during the State of the Union address, he tweeted. And while the tweet he posted was undoubtedly sent in the heat of the moment, it disparaged the wife of a serviceman who lost his life in high-risk military operation.

His remarks were roundly criticized on both sides of the aisle, and within a couple of days, his bio had been removed from his company’s website. After many years with the firm, he had to clear out his desk.

Social media is a double-edged sword. Because they are such important brand-building tools for both individuals and organizations, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are now practically a necessity. But that does not automatically mean that people know how to use them to their advantage.

It may be tempting, but if you go online and fire off a post without thinking it through beforehand, you are courting disaster. At Red Banyan, we advocate a simple formula: Share with Care, and Post with Purpose. That’s just one of the insights our crisis management experts serve up in our extensive social media offering.

By working with you to develop a crisis management plan attuned to all the potential hazards of maintaining a public presence in today’s media-saturated society, the Red Banyan agency can help prevent you and your organization from becoming the next all-time communications fail.

Just as you’re the experts at what you do, we’re the experts at helping you make the best possible decisions during a crisis situation or providing you with the risk management guidance and training to avoid a crisis altogether. Let’s get started today.