PR Disaster: Lessons to Learn and Expert Advice

One of the trickiest challenges you will ever face when launching and growing your business is doing your public relations right. In its most generic term, public relation involves activities that promote a positive image and foster goodwill in order to increase sales while conveying the right message.

Reputation is everything for a brand and PR campaigns play important role in improving the brand value. Other advantages include:

  • Improve engagement and image building
  • Build credibility
  • Increased sales
  • Improve and strengthen customer relationships
  • Reaching new target markets

Sounds great, isn’t it? But one wrong step and you are likely to lose it all.

What is a PR Disaster?

No matter how well you prepare, sometimes things just go out of your control. It is not always possible to prevent a crisis. When it comes to PR campaigns, learning from your mistakes can be too costly. The trick should therefore be learning from other people’s mistakes.

According to the First Research study, the U.S. public relation industry is estimated to be at $10 billion, with above 7,000 U.S. firms in action in 2013. Still a large number of businesses suffer the adverse effects of PR disasters. Why is it so? Let’s take a take look at the factors that lead to PR disasters:

1. Not Having a Plan

To make a PR campaign successful it is necessary to have a solid plan. Ask yourself a few questions before embarking on a PR campaign – who is my target audience? Why do you want to launch a PR campaign? Do I have a backup plan if things go wrong? Planning and timing are two most factors to be considered when considering a PR campaign.

2. Trying to be Innovative without Reason

A number of PR campaigns go wrong when the marketers try to be overtly innovative with their strategies. PR campaigns should be designed according to the situation and demands, trying to do something new even when it is not required can backfire.

3. Starting a Campaign without Exact Knowledge

Another major reason why PR campaigns fail is the inability to work up the details before launching the campaign. You need to make sure the story is strong enough to make waves; or if you already have a strong story you should have the right infrastructure.

Too many PR campaigns are based on speculations rather than realities. You need to dig deeper into the details to ensure you engage the right audience, spread the right message and increase the brand awareness.

4. Misinterpretation of a Situation


As the old adage says, ‘it takes years to build reputation and only seconds to lose…’ you need to make sure you take enough time to investigate a situation and understand the possible outcomes. Also make sure you have a crisis plan in place, so that you can act immediately if things go wrong.

It is best to learn from real life incidents, some of which I have learned while researching for this post. Also, while writing this article I interviewed number of top personalities of PR industry to know their views on PR disaster management and decided to include them at the end of the article. Their responses and answers are as amazing as their contributions in this field are and will serve as a valuable source of knowledge for all the PR professionals, so that they can prevent their PR campaigns from becoming disastrous.

Now let us take a look at some of the most famous PR disasters world has ever seen.

1. Reputation Management Disaster

The following are some classic examples of reputation management disaster you should rather avoid committing:

  • Malala shot for mattress ad campaign: The advertising agency Ogilvy created a campaign portraying Malala Yousafzai, a young school girl being shot by the Taliban, who falls on the mattress and returns back to health with the slogan “Bounce back to health”. This campaign backfired massively.
  • Tobacco giant says smoking deaths have a “positive effect”: A survey ran by Phillip Morris, suggested smokers’ early death can have positive effects on Czech economy. The survey also indicate a saving of “between 943 million and 1.2 billion korunas” in the healthcare, public-housing and pension costs due to the early death of regular smokers.
  • Urban Outfitters sells racist board game: Ghettopolly, a game launched by the Urban Fitters, launched in 2003 quoted “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50.” Score!” The brand received heavy criticism for the racist and offensive quote and the game had to be pulled out of the market. Urban Fitter also had to pay $400,000 for the damages.

Readers’ Take Away

A PR disaster can mar the brand reputation to an extent from where it is almost impossible to get back where you were. Even the smallest mistake can cost a lot and result in the downfall of your brand.

2. Worst PR Blunders

We have seen some of worst PR blunders left us spellbound.

  • Malaysia Airlines’ Bucket List: 2014 was a disastrous year for Malaysian airlines. After two major catastrophic events – MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanishing with 239 passengers and MH17 being shot down over Ukraine killing 295 people; the airlines launched the “My Ultimate Bucket List Campaign” that received a major backlash. Their tweet “Want to go somewhere, but don’t know where? Our Year-End Specials might just help!” got a lot of criticism and the officials had to apologise for their missteps.
  • Best Buy ‘Serial’ Tweet: Someone attempted to benefit from the popularity of ‘Best Buy’, a famous podcast that narrates a murder that took place in the parking lot of Best Buy in 1999. In reference to the belief that the murderer used a payphone after the incident, the company tweeted “We have everything you need. Unless you need a payphone. #serial”, which followed a quick apology.
  • Wal-Mart’s ‘Fat Girl’ Costumes: The Halloween of 2014 turned out really scary for the Wal-mart, the world’s largest retailer. The plus-sized costumes for women were labelled as “Fat Girl Costumes” on their online store, which enraged the customers. The message “It’s unacceptable that it appeared, and we apologize.” quickly followed.
  • DiGiorno Explains #WhyIStayed: The #WhyIStayed hashtag was associated with the NFL domestic violence controversy, which was mistakenly used by DiGiorno when they tweeted “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” A short while later another tweet from DiGiorno was seen, which read “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.”

Readers’ Take Away

Companies often try to cash in on the latest trends, but it can backfire and in a massive way. So you need to be very careful when capitalizing on the on the latest trends to your benefit.

3. Major Corporate PR Disasters

Corporate PR disasters are something that will cost your brand heavily:

  • Urban Outfitters sells racist board game (2003): As we have already mentioned about Urban Outfitter’s PR disaster, the company had no idea that promotions for “Ghettopoly” would earn them so much disgrace. The black leaders were enraged with the game that makes the players act as pimps.
  • Domino’s YouTube scandal: No doubt social media is a powerful marketing tool, but it can be used otherwise as well. Two Domino’s Pizza employees posted videos of themselves doing filthy things on social media (with nearly one million views) which made huge damage to the company’s reputation. The social platforms were ablaze with criticism and comments. The brand turned negative within hours, according to New York Times. Dominos fired the employees and apologised.

Readers’ Take Away

A good reputation is very important for brands to stay ahead of their competition and to build strong customer relationships. Thus brands should exercise extreme caution while planning and executing PR campaigns.

4. The Most Offensive PR Fail of 2015

Finally, we have the most offensive PR disaster of the year bygone.

  • Coca Cola’s German Fanta problem: The commercial produced by Coca Cola to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their sister company Fanta turned into a massive gaffe. The commercial was produced with an intention to educate the viewers about the history of Fanta and the “good old times”, but in reality Germany was passing through a turbulent phase in the 1940’s. Realising the unfortunate circumstances, Coca Cola apologised for its missteps.

Readers’ Take Away

The brands or the digital PR agency they hire, need to do an in-depth research and get into the details before launching a PR campaign. PR campaigns are aimed at strengthening the company’s relationships with their customers and improving their brand values; a poorly planned PR can be devastating.

Consequences of a PR Disaster


Reputation Damage: A company’s bottom line is directly dependent on its reputation. Once damaged it can take years to recover. PR disasters can lead to massive reputation damage and disrupt customer engagement. So come out clean and maintain transparency in your communications when mending your faults.

Losing customers: A PR disaster can fuel distrust among your customers or followers which can lead to customer erosion. No matter how trustworthy your brand is, you can hardly save yourself from the adverse effects of a PR disaster. Communicate with your customers directly and take necessary actions to win back their trust.

Reduction in brand value: PR campaigns are aimed at improving a company’s brand value and brand awareness, but a disastrous PR campaign can reduce brand value considerably. So before launching PR campaigns, understand the situations, the outcomes and the potential risks.

Customers loosing trust even if your product is good: A well-defined PR strategy is to win a loyal fan following, but things can go otherwise if things go wrong. Not only will you lose business, you will also see customers loosing trust in your brand, no matter how good the products/ services are. So make sure you integrate PR campaigns in your marketing plan in the right way.

Now that you know about some of the worst PR disasters and their consequences, it’s time to see what the experts say. I asked them the following Question.

What is the advice you want to give to young PR professionals for dealing with PR disasters?


Experts’ Views:

Brian West
Global Managing Director,Crisis & Issues Management at FleishmanHillard

In a crisis the C-suite and its chief risk officers turn to their logistics-focused crisis manual and the crisis management process quickly becomes one of checking the boxes. While this is a practical and essential part of addressing a problem, it focuses company management on simply managing a crisis, rather than leadership at a time of a significant reputational challenge. The enlightened PR professional must quickly realize this and persuade management that this is not enough.

In a time of immense pressure, with limited facts available and events accelerating, the organisation’s leadership needs a Guiding Light Strategy: how does it want to viewed by its stakeholders long after a crisis. Creating a Guiding Light Strategy gives the company a real chance of emerging from a crisis stronger than before. This is where the company moves from reacting to proposing; from following to leading; from defensive to assertive – they are in fact reaffirming what the company stands for, bringing its values to life in a crisis via its actions. The Guiding Light Strategy takes management from managing a crisis to leadership during a crisis, and management’s guide in achieving this is their strategic PR counsellor.

Peter Shankman
Keynote speaker, Angel investor, Marketer, NASA advisor, Founder at HARO

Follow him @petershankman

1. Breathe.
2. Stay calm
3. Don’t write angry.
4. Be honest, be transparent.
5. Speak about what you know, shut up about what you don’t.
6. Don’t blame.
7. Explain what you’re going to do to fix it before you explain how it happened.
8. Be available

David Meerman Scott
Marketing & Sales Strategist

Follow him @dmscott

Real-time communications is important when dealing with a PR disaster. You need to get out in front quickly and not “go dark”. Too many organizations clam up and don’t say anything.

Pratik Dholakiya
Founder of The 20 Media

Follow him @DholakiyaPratik

The first thing I’d recommend to do is learn about good and bad side of PR & its outcome before starting with anything new which the young PR professionals aren’t aware of. It could be about reaching out to any senior editor or getting any unwanted content published.

During this period most of the points will be clear about what to do and what should be ignored in all the cases.

If after this much of practice any PR disaster happens, one should take it in a way where the situation doesn’t get worse and get it resolved with the help of experts as this would be the ideal way to deal with the disasters. Going more aggressive might make things complicated and difficult to resolve in the less amount of time in hand.

Eric Dezenhall
Co Founder at Dezenhall Resources (Author: Glass Jaw)

Follow him @EricDezenhall

The main mistake PR people make is viewing crises as PR problems as opposed to complex conflicts with motivated adversaries hell-bent on destroying your client. If you view a crisis as a PR problem, you are going to expect a PR solution and most things that are called “PR disasters” are not solved by PR tactics. The Volkswagen crisis, for example, will be resolved through a collection of strategies and tactics including lawsuit settlements, punishing bad actors, recalls, expensive fixes, rebates for unhappy customers and the introduction of new products. Chapter 13, in my newest book Glass Jaw, outlays the “crisis management iceberg” which deals with the “above the waterline” communications responses to crises are and the “below the waterline” operational responses that actually play the larger role in crisis resolution.

Shonali Burke
President & CEO at Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc

Follow her @shonali

The one thing about a disaster is that you can never, ever predict when it will strike. And when it does, you’ll have your hands full just dealing with what’s going on moment-by-moment.

So do your disaster and crisis planning ahead of time. Think of all the scenarios you might possibly encounter, and devise your plans, draft talking points, documents, workflows, communication trees, and so on ahead of time. Don’t forget copy for the web and social media; in fact, if your business warrants a dark site, or at least a dark “page,” get the structure of that in place ahead of time. Yes, you’ll have to update copy in the moment, but that is far less stressful than creating everything from scratch.

Gini Dietrich
CEO Arment Dietrich, Author of Spinsucks Blog and Book

Follow her @ginidietrich

When you are dealing with a PR disaster, you must take a step back and reflect before responding. So many young professionals take things personally and immediately go on the defensive. (Many experienced professionals do, too. They just know better.) You have to remember this is not personal and there are many things that could be affecting it that are outside of your control. Be helpful. Apologize. Provide updates. And if you can’t provide updates, comment on when you can. Be a human being. Be understanding. And never, never take it personally.

Jason Falls
Senior Vice-President, Digital Strategy at Elasticity

Follow him @JasonFalls

The best thing you can do to handle disasters is plan for them. As uncomfortable as it may seem, sit around the conference table and ask, “What will we do if X happens?” If you anticipate and answer all those crisis moment questions when you have time to think about them, you’ll make fewer mistakes.

Jeff Domansky
CEO at Peak Communications Inc

Follow him @ThePRCoach

I think the most important thing PR professionals can do is to ask the question: “What if?” and then make contingency plans on how you would handle the top two or three worst-case scenarios. Here’s a suggested process:

  • What are the two or three worst things that could happen to negatively impact our business, reputation or operations?
  • What advance preparation do we need to do to handle each potential crisis situation?
  • What are the three first three steps to take in handling each of these three crisis possibilities? Prepare a one page checklist for each.

Just going through the “What if?” exercise is incredibly valuable and with a brief checklist, you can quickly identify the resources, key people and first steps needed in advance of a crisis.

Neil Patel
Co-Founder at Crazy Egg & Hello Bar

Follow him @neilpatel

I’ve found the best solution to just ignore the bad PR. Of course you want to fix anything that caused it so it doesn’t happen again, but assuming you aren’t too large of a company, your best bet is to just ignore it and wait for it to pass by.

Colin Jordan
Senior Manager Corporate Communications at Egnyte

Follow him @colinjordan

“When a disaster happens in PR, the most important thing to remember is ‘don’t panic!’. Panic leads to irrational thinking which is usually followed by a bad decision. It is important to assess your current situation, figure out how you arrived there, and then strategically plan your next move. It is also crucial to involve everyone on your team in order to ensure you are moving forward in an aligned, cohesive fashion. After a disaster, there is nothing more reassuring for the public than a united, confident voice.”

Deirdre Breakenridge
CEO at Pure Performance Communications

Follow her @dbreakenridge

When you are dealing with a PR disaster, you must take a step back and reflect before responding. So many young professionals take things personally and immediately go on the defensive. (Many experienced professionals do, too. They just know better.) You have to remember this is not personal and there are many things that could be affecting it that are outside of your control. Be helpful. Apologize. Provide updates. And if you can’t provide updates, comment on when you can. Be a human being. Be understanding. And never, never take it personally.



Behind every large brand is a powerful public relations team who work day in and day out to improve and restore a company’s reputation. If you ever get caught up in a PR disaster make sure you act quickly and tactfully. Silence can give rise to more speculations. If something ever goes wrong make sure you accept your fault and apologize. Some PR disasters are more devastating than the others, so depending upon the severity of the damage you come up with a crisis management plan.

I sincerely thank all the experts for sharing their views and making this article a great knowledge source for PR professionals all over the world.

If you have something to contribute and help people rise above such disastrous moments, please write it in the comments section.


(Image Sources: 1, 2)