PR Nightmares: Lessons Learned from Famous PR Fails

Tara Figg
 Posted on 25, Apr 2023

Public relations is an essential aspect of any business, helping to build and maintain a positive image and reputation. However, not all PR strategies work out as planned, and even the biggest and most successful companies can fall victim to a PR nightmare. 

Whether a crisis was handled incorrectly or a polarizing advertisement caused widespread offense, there are plenty of real-world PR nightmares whose infamous slips can be a valuable lesson for any company currently launching a marketing campaign of their own.

Pepsi's Kendall Jenner Ad

In 2017, Pepsi released an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, in which she joined a protest and seemingly ended the tensions between protesters and police by handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer. The ad was heavily criticized for trivializing and co-opting social justice movements and was accused of being tone-deaf and insensitive.

Lesson Learned: Companies should be careful when attempting to align themselves with social justice movements. It's important to understand the issues at hand and the potential impact of your message, and to avoid trivializing the struggle and pain of those affected by those issues.

United Airlines' Passenger Removal

Sometimes a passenger goes “Karen” and due to violent or dangerous behavior has to be forcibly removed from an airplane. But that should never happen due to an airline overbooking a flight.

In 2017, a United Airlines flight overbooked - and in order to make room for 4 deadheading employees, the airline forced 4 paying passengers to get off the plane. One of these was a doctor who refused to leave his seat, since he had to see patients the next morning. He was injured when he was forcibly removed from the flight by Chicago Department of Aviation security officers - and the incident was captured on video by fellow passengers and shared widely on social media, leading to a PR disaster for the airline.

Lesson Learned: Companies should have a crisis management plan in place to handle unexpected situations. It's important to respond quickly, take responsibility, and take steps to make things right. United Airlines' slow response and lack of empathy for the affected passenger exacerbated the situation.

H&M's "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" Ad

In 2018, H&M released an ad featuring a black child wearing a hoodie with the words "coolest monkey in the jungle." The ad was heavily criticized for being racially insensitive and perpetuating negative stereotypes.

Lesson Learned: Companies should be aware of the potential impact of their messages and ensure that they are inclusive and sensitive to all audiences. It's important to consider the cultural context of your message and avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes or stigmatizing groups of people.

Uber's Toxic Workplace Culture

In 2017, a former Uber employee published a blog post detailing the company's toxic workplace culture, including allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. The post went viral, leading to widespread condemnation of the company and the resignation of its CEO.

Lesson Learned: Companies should prioritize creating a positive and inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and respect. It's important to listen to employees and take their concerns seriously, and to take action to address any issues that arise.

BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

In 2010, an explosion on an oil rig operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico led to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The incident caused widespread environmental damage and loss of life and led to a significant PR crisis for the company.

Lesson Learned: Companies should prioritize safety and take all necessary precautions to prevent accidents and disasters. It's important to take responsibility and take steps to address the damage caused by any incidents that do occur.

Chick-fil-A's CEO's Anti-LGBTQ+ Comments

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO made comments opposing same-sex marriage, leading to widespread criticism and calls for a boycott of the company.

Lesson Learned: Companies should be careful when expressing their opinions on controversial issues. It's important to consider the potential impact of your message on all audiences and to avoid alienating or offending any groups of people.

Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol Scandal

In 1982, seven people died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been tampered with and laced with cyanide. The incident led to a nationwide panic and a significant PR crisis for Johnson & Johnson.

Lesson Learned: In times of crisis, it's important to prioritize the safety and well-being of customers above all else. Johnson & Johnson's quick and decisive action to recall all Tylenol products and establish tamper-proof packaging set the standard for crisis management in the years to come. The company also took responsibility for the situation and communicated transparently with the public, showing empathy and concern for those affected. This approach not only helped to restore trust in the brand, but also set a precedent for how companies should handle crisis situations in the future.

McDonald’s’ #McDStories Twitter campaign

In 2012, McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign called #McDStories, which encouraged customers to share their positive experiences with the fast food chain. However, the campaign quickly backfired when people began using the hashtag to share negative stories and complaints about the company. McDonald’s had to quickly shut down the campaign, but the damage was already done. The negative tweets continued to spread, and the company’s reputation was tarnished. 

Lesson learned: Social media campaigns can be unpredictable, and companies should be prepared for the possibility of negative feedback. It is important to monitor social media channels closely and have a plan in place for addressing negative feedback.

How to handle a PR crisis

It's important for businesses to realize that in today's digital age, news spreads quickly and reputation damage can occur rapidly. It's crucial to have a crisis management plan in place and to be prepared for any potential negative situations that may arise.

Transparency is key when dealing with a PR crisis. It's important for businesses to own up to their mistakes and provide an honest and transparent explanation of what happened, why it happened, and what steps are being taken to prevent it from happening again in the future. In the case of the Volkswagen scandal, the company's initial response was to deny any wrongdoing, which only made the situation worse. If they had taken responsibility from the outset and been transparent about the issue, the damage to their reputation may have been less severe.

Empathy is another important factor in handling a PR crisis. Companies need to show that they care about their customers and the impact their actions may have had on them. In the case of United Airlines, the company's initial response was to blame the passenger for the incident, which resulted in a massive backlash on social media. A more empathetic response would have been to acknowledge the situation and offer an apology to the affected passenger.

Inclusivity is also crucial in today's diverse world. Companies need to be aware of cultural differences and be sensitive to how their actions may be perceived by different groups of people. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad is a prime example of a cultural misstep. The ad was widely criticized for trivializing and exploiting serious social issues and for being tone-deaf to the current cultural climate. Companies need to make sure that their messaging is inclusive and respectful of all groups of people.

Turn a nightmare into a dream

PR nightmares can be costly and damaging to a company's reputation. However, by learning from these mistakes and prioritizing transparency, empathy, and inclusivity, companies can build trust with their customers and avoid damaging their reputation. It's important to have a crisis management plan in place and to be prepared for any potential negative situations that may arise. By taking responsibility, showing empathy, and being inclusive, companies can turn a PR crisis into an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their customers.

Imperium Group is an American public relations and marketing consultancy firm. Founded in 2016, it specializes in guaranteed placements, creating utmost transparency for its clients. Imperium Group generates over 15M impressions a month for its clients. Its team is based out of New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles. 

For more information about Imperium Group, please see


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