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How to handle a PR crisis: the best examples from brands

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Whether we’re speaking about our economy or the reputation of a brand, there’s no denying that 2020 has been a year littered with crises here and there. We've seen different kinds of responses here and there, and if you are a brand, you can be certain that a PR crisis will hit you too at some point. It is inevitable, and part of the beauty of growing a brand with an online community.

And yet it is precisely when shit hits the fan that the true voice, messaging and identity of a brand is allowed to shine through – to the point that many brands can be defined by the way they handle a PR crisis.

We’ve seen dozens of examples of brand crises in the past 20 years, but there are some that stick out for being exceptionally, well-handled, as well as able to teach something with their unique approaches.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at PR crises and how to manage them: here are the best examples of brands managing a reputation crisis that you can learn from today.

How to handle a PR crisis: best examples

It is undeniable that one can learn something from good choices as well as from awful mistakes. Which is why today I’m not going to focus only on the most positive examples of crisis management. We all know what a brand should ideally do when faced with a sudden, unintentional public issue.

A bit more challenging is understanding what a brand shouldn’t do in any case or scenario. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of examples for that too.

Starbucks

Last month, I included the incredibly amazing What’s Your Name campaign from Starbucks in one of our LGBT campaigns roundups. Do not think, however, that Starbucks hasn’t had its fair share of missteps before getting to that point. There was that one time when a Starbucks staff member called the cops on two black customers while they were waiting for a friend. You can imagine how this event sparked enormous backlash for Starbucks.

The CEO Kevin Johnson, however, handled it with perfect grace and delicacy. He admitted his own faults as the leader of the company, shut nearly 8,000 stores across the United States (leading to around $12m in profit losses) and trained most of his employees on racial bias during that time. This kind of crisis management truly speaks for itself.

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Uber

2017 wasn’t exactly a great year for Uber, but it goes to show the underlying issues in the company’s messaging, transparency and leadership too. The CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was serving on an advisory council to Trump at the time, which sparked some backlash in and of itself.

But then, shortly after Kalanick stepped down from the council, the company was accused of gross HR misconduct and an ex employee, Susan Fowler Rigetti, made claims of sexual harassment. A few days later, Kalanick was seen and filmed while arguing with a Uber driver about driver pay.

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The company did release a few statements to apologise for all this, promising to take action, and Kalanick himself admitted that he needs to change and grow up as a leader. Unfortunately the damage was already done (repeatedly) and people were outraged all over the Internet, with reputation issues still haunting Uber today. To give you some more perspective, let’s just say the #DeleteUber hashtag was born exactly in those days.

KFC

It happened that in 2018 KFC ran out of chicken almost completely in the majority of its UK & Ireland restaurants. KFC’s response to that unexpected crisis is still regarded as one of the best in the history of contemporary advertising.

Newspapers all over the UK saw the “FCK” ad, an attempt from the brand to own its mistake and apologise for the embarrassing situation. The response team turned to social media to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the chicken crisis, reassuring customers and showing unparalleled transparency in the way the brand was handling the situation. Most certainly one of the best crisis management campaigns of the past decade.

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United

It all started with two teenagers being refused to board a flight because of the leggings they wore. The issue started right there, with United defending the gate agent’s choice and refusing to acknowledge the backlash on social media. A few weeks later, a United customer was filmed while the staff was violently dragging him off a flight, to make room on a few seats reserved to United employees.

This time too, the CEO defended the actions taken by the company’s employees. The Internet was furious. United lost all those hundreds of millions in total value, resulting in several apologies from the CEO trying to patch up the situation, but which only made things worse. United is still suffering the consequences of that story today, in one of the worst cases of crisis management in the history of public relations.

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Reese’s

I have to thank Mention.com for referencing this case, because it is just so incredibly hilarious. Around Christmas time in 2015, Reese’s released a series of chocolate and peanut butter Christmas trees which… really looked nothing like Christmas trees. They didn’t even look like trees in general.

The brand responded by kicking off the #AllTreesAreBeautiful campaign, a brilliant response to an embarrassing situation which made fun of the brand itself and turned a negative crisis into a massive marketing success.

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Cracker Barrel

Clearly 2017 was a bad year for brands. For this one I have to thank Brand Folder instead, as I would have never imagined there was such a story about Cracker Barrel. The story goes like this: a caring husband asks on Cracker Barrel’s Facebook page why his wife was fired as a store manager after 11 years on the job. It turned into an unexpected crisis in the blink of an eye.

Brad’s Wife became a meme on the Internet, but also a reason for an angered community to ask for answers about the poor woman. Cracker Barrel’s response?

Absolutely nothing.

There is only one thing that is worse than bad crisis management, and it is the complete lack of attempts to handle a crisis in the first place. Cracker Barrel ignored the issue, which turned into somewhat of an Internet legend over time. Admittedly the company hasn’t suffered much from this crisis, but still, this is not the way to treat your customers and certainly not the way to treat your brand community. So when the moment comes in which you have to choose between being KFC and Cracker Barrel, please, for the love of all that is holy, choose to be KFC.

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Tide

I can’t believe I even have to write about this. But yes, there was a challenge going on social media back in 2018, and it was about eating Tide pods in front of a camera. Tide itself and its products were absolutely fine, with all the necessary security requirements to packaging and all – it was just another case of people being completely mental.

So the brand did something quite simple: it explained people that Tide pods are only good for washing, not eating. Tide recruited Rob Gronkowski to spread the word for the brand, and then focused on removing all the harmful video material from any platform involved in the challenge, YouTube especially, alongside a number of statements to clarify the situation. Perfect response indeed.

PepsiCo

Another round, another PR crisis from 2017/2018. This one made so much noise that it’s still greatly remembered as one of PepsiCo’s most impressive own goals ever. It all began with Kendall Jenner starring in the ad below, which – for quite obvious reasons – was accused of trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pepsi’s response wasn’t bad per se, but it was certainly lukewarm and a standard PR-rulebook one. The brand first defended the ad, advocating for its message of peace, connection and fairness, but then took a step back and recognised missing the mark. The campaign was paused, the ad was pulled, and Pepsi lost just a little value at the time. The problem is that this failure is still remembered as a huge failure on Pepsi’s part; meaning that the brand could have possibly done more to make up for the misstep. Look at Starbucks; there is always something else you can do to leave a lasting impression.

Gillette

Lastly, one story that can be of inspiration to any brand out there. In 2019, Gillette jumped on the brand purpose bandwagon and joined the #MeToo conversation with The Best a Man Can Be, introducing a twist on their historical slogan to condemn toxic masculinity.

Though the ad certainly generalises to a dangerous extent in some places, Gillette stood its ground and did not yield to the requests of pulling the ad or stopping the campaign, not even after receiving boycott threats. It is an excellent example of a brand standing for its beliefs and ideals, even when most of its target audience believes otherwise, and something to commend for sure. The ad did leave many consumers wondering whether a razor manufacturer had the authority to talk about toxic masculinity – but that’s perhaps a story for another time, and in the domain of brand purpose.

The best examples of brands handling a PR crisis - Key Takeouts

What do all these stories of crisis management teach us?

For one, that being defensive about your brand and your choices can be a bad idea. We all feel personally attacked when someone points out our mistakes, but as the makers of the creative industry and now points of reference for consumers, brands have the power to influence and change the world. As such, they also have the power to be pioneers of change, by showing transparency and authenticity at all times.

We all remember Wetherspoon and Sports Direct’s crises from 2020, when both brands were accused of terrible employee practices in the middle of the pandemic. Consumers will not let these things slide anymore, and with the power of the Internet, a small issue can become a huge reputation crisis in mere hours, if not minutes.

When handling a crisis, brands should always aim for quick, transparent and genuine communication. KFC is an excellent example of that. It is only by showing your most human side, by being transparent and authentic, that consumers are going to remember you for how you handled a crisis, rather than for what caused it in the first place.

Your response team should be appointed early on and well structured, as publications and the public are likely to demand answers and you will need someone there making comments for you. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. Don’t wait too long, but don’t be too quick to judge either – lest you bring upon yourself a crisis with the magnitude of United’s.

If anything, PR and reputation crises are a chance to review your own policies, understand your mistakes, and learn from them. That is the one most important thing you can do when handling a PR crisis. Pause to reflect, understand the issue, then move forward.

If you do it right, people will stand by your side forever.

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