PR horror stories: What happens when PR goes wrong?

crisis communications

As PR professionals, we live for the buzz of generating results and exceeding campaign KPIs. But, sometimes, things don’t always go exactly to plan, despite your best efforts, and crisis communications experience is needed. What happens when things go wrong? Here are some horror stories (not of Tonic’s making 😬) that we’re sure gave PR teams far and wide a few nightmares…

Media training… what happens when your spokesperson completely ignores it

In July, BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire battled through an uncomfortable interview with fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood. The six-minute interview was about Julien Assange’s extradition to the US. Airing on 22nd July 2020, it quickly escalated with Vivienne calling the media, and Victoria, ‘morons’. She signed off the video call by shouting ‘get me out of the cage’. Vivienne’s passion for supporting Assange was clear, but her delivery of some messages made people question her facts. This included Victoria, who called out some of her comments as ‘complete nonsense’.

Watch the full interview and cringe just imagining being the PR team responsible for setting it up:

Always be prepared… what happens when you’re not?

You might remember a recent chicken shortage at KFC stores across the country. Well it wasn’t the first time the fast-food giant stopped clucking and had to launch into crisis communications mode. In 2009, a coupon offered in the US by Oprah brought customers in their thousands – and KFC was not prepared for it. What was supposed to be a complimentary meal for Oprah’s fans, turned into a fight for free food as stock quickly ran out. Each voucher downloaded from the TV hosts’ website could be redeemed for two pieces of grilled chicken, two individual side orders and a biscuit. But doors eventually had to close as customers turned to violence and staged sit ins when they were turned away.

Read more about the chicken chaos. What lengths would you go to for free chicken?

Read the room… what happens when you say the wrong thing?

Perhaps one of the most memorable communication faux pas’ is a speech given by Gerald Ratner, CEO of Ratners Group. Recognized for turning a struggling chain of jewellery stores into the UK’s biggest seller, worth $1 billion dollars, in 1991 Ratner was invited to speak at the prestigious Institute of Directors annual convention.

Following advice from a public speaking consultant to add more jokes to his drafted speech, Ratner went on to say the following to a room of over 6,000 business owners, journalists and dignitaries: “Ratners doesn’t represent prosperity — and come to think of it, it has very little to do with quality as well… We do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap… We even sell a pair of gold earrings for under £1. Some people say, ‘That’s cheaper than a prawn sandwich!’ I have to say, the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings.”

In the days following the speech, Ratners Group shares dropped by £500 million (US$1.8B today) and by the end of 1991 its stock was down 80%. Customers boycotted the chain causing hundreds of stores to close and the majority of its 25k employees to be laid off.

Find out more about the PR disaster.

A modern-day example of business leaders falling fowl of bad communications is Elon Musk. Earlier this year she tweeted to his 39.5 million followers that Tesla’s share price was ‘too high’. This caused shares to drop by 12% – which is worth around £11 billion. Ouch!

Brand guidelines… what happens when ambassadors go rogue?

In 2017, Helen Mirren was the face of L’Oreal as the beauty giant marketed its latest moisturiser. An advocate for honest advertising, Mirren accepted the brand ambassador role on the condition that Photoshop couldn’t be used to hide her wrinkles or imperfections in the advert. However, the partnership hit a snag when Mirren was interviewed at a brand event in France. To the shock of the interviewer (and the PR team, we’re sure), the Oscar-winning actress said: “I’m an eternal optimist, [but] I know that when I put my moisturiser on it probably does f*** all.”

We doubt the comment was anything close to brand guidelines… take a look at the full story.

These examples are certainly frightening, but good PR doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Here at The Tonic, we have years of experience in crisis communications, including handling an international data breach, a BBC Watchdog exposé, criminal trials and Government investigations.

The best approach to any PR or marketing campaign is to have a robust issues management strategy in place in advance. If you’d like to find out more about crisis and issues management, get in touch with us.