Last updated on 9th August 2023
For brands, it’s hard to think of a worse place to be than in the middle of a PR disaster!
Sure, mistakes happen. There can’t be a business anywhere in the world that’s never dropped the ball. And sometimes brands get embarrassed for reasons completely that aren’t even within their control.
But when those dropped balls and embarrassments are public – and particularly when they capture the attention of the global online community – it can become hugely uncomfortable and difficult for brands to navigate.
even at these dark moments. Because negatives can be turned into positives, and you don’t necessarily need an expensive PR agency to put out a public relations fire!
Check out 7 great examples of businesses that turned big mistakes, into good PR….
1. Coca-Cola – “Drink water”
Turning PR disasters into PR wins has been a hallmark of the Coke brand for decades, dating way back to 1985 and the ‘New Coke’ debacle. So it’s little surprise that they head up our list of bad PR examples.
…and 2021 saw the latest instalment. Apparent disaster struck on June 14th 2021 when Cristiano Ronaldo – footballing megastar and marketing juggernaut – faced a EURO 2020 press conference.
Before speaking, he removed the Coca-Cola bottles positioned on the press conference table (as part of a huge sponsorship agreement,) and told the world through the assembled media to ‘drink water.’
News reports soon surfaced suggesting that this simple act had wiped billions of Coke’s market value. And clearly, it looked like a pretty bad news story all round. It reminded people – if a reminder were needed – that soda consumption might not be the healthiest habit.
But it also got people talking about the brand.
And it comes back to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad PR.
The Ronaldo incident was followed by a glut of free publicity, with various players and personalities expressing their own opinions – including this golden moment in which Russian manager Stanislav Cherchesov made his feelings clear by chugging a whole bottle before starting a press conference!
Whatever your thoughts on Coke’s actual product, there’s no doubt that this whole affair got people talking about the brand.
For their part, they responded professionally and calmly – noting that everyone is entitled to their own choices and preferences when it comes to soft drinks. By simply riding out the storm, and taking it in stride, they were able to turn a negative into a positive.
Because, assessing the company’s stock value over time – while it’s clear the Ronaldo incident did instigate a slight dip – it’s also clear that, in the long-term, it certainly did the company no lasting harm!
2. Aldi – #FreeCuthbert
The caterpillar cake has become something of a UK institution. Visit any UK supermarket and you’re likely to find some variation of this…
This didn’t sit well with M&S – the retailer who claimed to have started the trend with the O.G. (should that be O.C.?) – Colin the Caterpillar.
In April 2021 they initiated legal proceedings against Aldi, whose ‘Cuthbert’ cake character was seen to be an unacceptably close infringement.
Being sued for stealing intellectual property is not a good look, but instead of backing down, Aldi went on the offensive.
And – crucially – instead of focusing on winning the day in court, they focused on winning in the court of public opinion.
Bolstering their reputation as a loveable disrupter, they used social media to poke fun at the issue and turn the tables on M&S.
It started as a bit of fun but #FreeCuthbert turned into one of the most popular marketing campaigns, leading to protests outside M&S, plus publicity for the story on news, social, comedy panel shows and more.
And crucially – it worked.
As Marketing Week wrote, “According to the supermarket’s data, while M&S’s news sentiment and purchase consideration scores declined by 134% and 2.72% respectively, Aldi’s increased by 8.5% and 6.8% respectively. The German discounter also grew its Twitter following by 30%, reached over 35 million people on Facebook and achieved a 15% engagement rate on social. Organic reach equated to over £5m worth of media spend – despite never spending a penny. Aldi went on to launch a limited edition Cuthbert cake with all profits going to Teenage Cancer Trust, encouraging other supermarkets to join its #CaterpillarsForCancer campaign.”
Cuthbert even made an appearance in the first seconds of Aldi’s Christmas Ad – being led away by policemen, of course!
The whole thing worked so well that, when M&S came back for more having taken offence at Aldi’s Christmas gin, the playbook was already established.
It remains to be seen whether the approach could lead to financial penalties in future, and to what extent they might outweigh the benefits of this kind of campaign.
But, for the time being at least, this stands out as a perfect example of a PR ‘fail’ being turned nicely into a PR ‘win!’ – and how the worst PR can sometimes become the best!
3. Susan Boyle – #susanalbumparty
It was way back in 2012 and Susan Boyle was getting ready to release her album, Standing Ovation.
The PR team for Susan were clearly eager to get this trending on Twitter, and boy did they succeed – but perhaps not in the way they intended.
They decided to promote an album launch party by getting fans to retweet the hashtag – #susanalbumparty.
This may have left Susan red-faced, but it turned into one of the most retweeted posts that year, and she soon became a trending topic worldwide! The sales of the album even went Platinum in several countries. PR fail, or PR genius? We’ll let you decide!
4. KFC – “FCK”
What do you do when you’re a chicken restaurant, but you run out of chicken?
The answer is, essentially, you close a bunch of restaurants and – PR wise – you own it! You say sorry and you explain, as honestly as you can, what led to such a disaster.
And that’s exactly what KFC did in February 2018 when this hypothetical scenario became not-so-hypothetical-anymore.
Their full page apology, led by an image of a KFC bucket with the letters arranged to the very apt ‘FCK’ – appeared in two national newspapers but reached a combined audience of over a billion through social media and editorial coverage.
It was honest, and humble, and struck just the right tone, ensuring no lasting damage to the brand and avoiding a situation whereby they went on to receive even more online backlash. In fact, people were really happy when the restaurants started to reopen and sales rebounded strongly as people enjoyed a treat they might have been taking for granted!
5. Tide – “For Laundry, Not Dinner”
We’ve touched on it already but, often, your brand can end up in the dock of public opinion even when you’ve done literally nothing wrong.
Take Tide for example.
In much the same way that the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ swept the web, we later saw the ‘Tide Pod Challenge’ go viral.
But whereas the Ice Bucket Challenge was both relatively safe, and had a noble charitable link – the Tide Pod Challenge was neither. It was just really, really stupid. It was essentially young people filming themselves eating Tide laundry pods.
Forced into a response, they partnered with Patriots tight-end and influencer Rob Gronkowski to create the below video, which earned them props from media outlet after media outlet, and created plenty of additional media buzz.
6. Uber – “Surge Pricing”
Back in 2014, Uber responded to a rapid growth in demand by introducing ‘surge pricing.’ This essentially meant that, during periods of high demand in certain areas, a premium would be added to the prices users would pay for their rides.
Users initially hated this: they’d been so used to certainty around pricing, and – of course – nobody likes paying a higher price for the same service!
So the introduction of surge pricing brought on a pretty significant PR crisis. Not only did many users take umbrage – many media outlets also criticised the practice as being unfair and exploitative.
Uber’s response demonstrates that brands don’t need to be clever or quirky in their response – sometimes education and transparency can be the answer.
To quell the firestorm, the company began providing more information to customers about how surge pricing worked, and allowing them to see the current pricing multiplier before requesting a ride.
This helped to alleviate some of the confusion and frustration that customers were feeling.
Uber also tried to be more proactive in communicating with its customers and addressing their concerns.
The company started sending out in-app notifications during periods of high demand, warning customers that prices would be higher and encouraging them to wait until demand subsided. They also sent out emails and social media messages to educate customers on how surge pricing works and why it was necessary.
Additionally, Uber worked to improve its reputation by building relationships with key stakeholders, such as city officials and public transportation agencies, and participating in community events. This helped to improve its reputation as a responsible and community-minded company.
Overall, Uber’s management of the PR crisis was a combination of increasing transparency, proactively communicating with customers, and building relationships with key stakeholders.
7. Pepsi – BLM
In April 2017, Pepsi released a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner participating in a protest and offering one of the police officers a can of Pepsi. The ad was clearly tone deaf and was fiercely criticised for trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against racial inequality that were happening at the time.
The commercial was quickly pulled, and Pepsi issued an apology, stating that they “missed the mark” with the ad.
The controversy caused significant backlash against Pepsi, with many calling for a boycott of the brand. However this was calmed by Pepsi’s quick and thorough response to the controversy, a position which was further reinforced in 2020 when the company donated more than $400m to initiatives to ‘lift up Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo.’
What do you think?
Bad PR can feel like the end of the world: it takes its toll on your reputation, your bottom line sales – not to mention your mental health. But by taking a lead from some of the examples in this post – and responding in your own way – you can undo much of the damage and actually turn the narrative in your favour.