Five Lessons From 2017’s Biggest PR Fails

2017 debunked the myth “all press is good press” as we experienced some of the most gut-wrenching PR disasters that created major setbacks for a handful global corporations. While these major mishaps were difficult to watch, each crisis provided amazing real-life teaching moments for public relations professionals everywhere. As we celebrate the New Year, let’s take a look at some of the companies that are still recuperating from their self-inflicted PR mistakes.



The Crisis: 2017 unleashed a never-ending cycle of PR disasters for United Airlines. Most notably, the airline took the worst hit in the company’s 90-year history when a passenger was dragged off an overbooked plane, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth in the process. The incident was recorded by onlookers’ camera phones and immediately circulated on social media.

Once notified of the situation, United CEO Oscar Munoz made it even worse by apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers” and then later said in a leaked employee email about the incident that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” This came just one month after he was named 2017 U.S. Communicator of the Year by PR Week.

The company’s poor response to a customer incident caused its stock to drop $1 billion in value and has placed the entire airline industry under the microscope.

The Lesson: If you’d be ashamed for millions of people to see something your company does, don’t do it. Instead, if you need to inconvenience a customer, be willing to negotiate with them and never force it. Furthermore, if a problem does arise, remember that “the customer is always right.” This customer-centric mindset also needs to be evident in your crisis communications plan both internally and externally. In statements, never blame the victim but acknowledge the mistake and offer a heartfelt apology.



The Crisis: As one of the biggest sponsors of the National Football League (NFL), Papa John’s came under fire as CEO John Schnatter attempted to link its declining pizza sales to NFL players’ national anthem protests and that it might cease its sponsorship if the protests continued. Schnatter’s stance earned the support from The Daily Storm, a neo-Nazi newspaper, who even adopted the company as the “official pizza chain for the alt-right.” Schnatter was forced to issue a statement asking the group to stop eating his pizza, hoping to halt the PR disaster, and resigned as CEO.

The Lesson: Any business issues being addressed in a public-facing statement, such as social media, need to be approved by the chain of command listed in a communications plan. Even with the relaxed demeanor of social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, these posts need to be vetted out to determine any repercussions that may arise.



The Crisis: Equifax experienced one of the largest data breaches ever that affected more than 143 million customers. Not only was it being investigated by the SEC and multiple states along with hundreds of lawsuits, but Equifax also sat on the news for six weeks. To make matters worse, four well-informed company executives sold $1.8 million in stock well before the news became public.

Once the breach was disclosed, Equifax tried to charge comprised customers a fee for the privilege of protecting themselves and freezing their credit. Although it later waived the fee after public outrage, the damage was done. To this day, Equifax has still yet to tell anyone how hackers infiltrated the system or how the company is preventing it from happening again.

The Lesson: Transparency is key. When a problem arises, it needs to be disclosed sooner rather than later or else the perception will be deceiving rather than proactive. A company also needs to focus on promising corrective action and then effectively following through.



The Crisis: Dove has always been a huge advocate for inclusivity and diversity. For instance, it’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has celebrated the natural physical variation of women and invoked a new level of self-confidence in females of all ages worldwide. However, the brand experienced major backlash when the company produced a Facebook GIF showing an African American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a Caucasian woman. Social media users called it “racist” and “insensitive,” interpreting it as a message implying the dark skin was dirty and would be cleaned after using Dove soap. Realizing the error, Dove removed the post and issued an apology.

The Lesson: Given how many brands fumble in getting respectful messaging across about race and diversity, it’s vital for all communicators to ensure their brands have an internal review process for all creative content. This helps companies nix off-mark messaging long before it reaches the public. Although it may delay creative processes, gathering multiple viewpoints through audits of inclusion and diversity practices will help brands from “missing the mark” in the future.



The Crisis: It’s no secret that there is an issue with the world’s declining bee population. Naturally, Cheerios seem like the perfect brand to raise awareness of the honeybee’s critical role as a pollinator of many of the world’s most important crops. So, Cheerios’ parent company General Mills partnered with Canadian company Vesays Seeds Ltd. and distributed 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to customers to help with bee habitat restoration.

However, the promotion turned controversial when it was discovered that the packets sent out included seeds for plants that were invasive in some states and banned in others. In addition, ecologists revealed some of the seeds could pose a significant threat if introduced outside their native range. Cheerios pushed back on the accusations by sharing reactionary statements via social media, but the damage was done.

The Lesson: The public back-and-forth between experts and General Mills caused major confusion among consumers on the authenticity of the campaign. Even if the seeds may not have been invasive, the lack of consumer awareness and education on the ecology industry larger construed whether the campaign was truly good-hearted or just a PR ploy. Instead of shipping a basic mix of seeds that included some that were not native to America, General Mills should have used native flower specific to specific locations and made that evident in campaign content. It may have been more expensive and time-consuming, but the overall message would have been better accepted.

Don’t Panic! Here Are The Top Crisis Communications Strategies

From large corporations to schools, government entities and even your friendly, neighborhood ice cream shop, every organization – large and small – will undoubtedly experience a crisis at one time or another.


And while every situation is different, one thing remains the same – the decisions you make regarding crisis communications will either help your company ride out the chaotic roller coaster or, if you’re not careful, cause lasting damage to your brand.


Following the crisis communications strategies listed below could help you protect your organization during a difficult time.


Preparation is Key

While it’s impossible to know exactly when a crisis will strike, it’s important to anticipate and plan for potential crises.


The best way to prepare is to create a detailed plan outlining every possible crisis – everything from running out of ice cream on a hot, summer day to the building burning down – and the best possible response for each situation.


One of the biggest challenges companies face during a crisis is having too many cooks in the kitchen. The crisis communications plan should specify who will make final decisions on messaging, who will be the media spokesperson and who needs to be looped into all crisis communications discussions.


Accuracy and Speed

At Dittoe PR, we consider accuracy and speed to be two of the main ingredients in crisis preparedness – and while both are important, the two can sometimes create a confusing balancing act.


In the case of a major crisis, it is incredibly important to act quickly to stay ahead of the media and response from target audiences. However, that does not mean you should hastily share information or whip up a media statement too quickly.


Our recommendation? Face the crisis head on, only sharing accurate and factual information. If you are unsure of how the fire started, avoid speculation at all costs. Instead, share what you DO know. Avoiding the media during a crisis is often the biggest mistake a company can make, as it creates unnecessary rumors and spreads confusing messages.


Company transparency

During a crisis, it’s sometimes easy to forget about your employees while trying to communicate with the media, law enforcement, investors and everyone else on your list. However, neglecting employees could be harmful to your company’s internal well-being.


Oftentimes, employees catch on to crisis situations even if the company has not shared information and updates. Company morale can quickly diminish if employees think something is wrong, but are not receiving informational updates. Instead, the organization should always make sure to share the most up-to-date information with all employees to keep everyone in the know.


In the event of a crisis, the CEO and the executive team must consider the company’s employees as another constituency to respect and inform. This is particularly helpful should an employee want to discuss the company’s situation with others, on social media or even with the media. You should prep employees on what’s appropriate to share with their own networks (and also what’s not).


In short, managing crisis communications is no easy task. However, it doesn’t have to be detrimental to your brand if you prepare, act quickly, share accurate information with the media and your employees, and most importantly, avoid panic!


Additionally, working with an experienced PR firm can ensure success before, during, and after a crisis occurs, as well as strongly increase the chances of making it through unscathed.


Think your company or brand could benefit from expert crisis communications? We’re happy to help!

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Addressing Crises via Social Media

It’s 2012 and most businesses are now active on social media (if you’re part of a company that isn’t, contact Dittoe PR, we’ll help ya out). While it’s great that so many companies are seeing the extensive benefits of socializing with their customers and fans via the world wide web, there are some businesses that still don’t have a plan in place in case of public relations crises. Negative messages can often spread faster than positive ones, so PR pros need to be prepared to act in a meaningful way at the drop of a hat. But how you respond is certainly important. Here are six Do’s and Don’ts for handling Crises on Social Media:

Do – Have a Plan in Place
An effective social media policy will help save a business’ reputation in a crisis situation. These policies are meant to outline rules and regulations of day-to-day social media use as well as in crisis situations. Remember to outline steps that the crisis team should take, as well as determine who is in charge of handling the crisis via social media. The smaller the team, the better because there will be less room for confusion and mixed messages. PR firms make for great social media managers! Check out Mashable’s tips to a good social media policy. You can also read an example of a social media policy by IBM.

Don’t – Respond in Anger
With a social media plan already in place, it should be easier to follow protocol when it comes to responding to a crisis. However, whoever is in charge of social media should take time to calm down and really think through a response before taking action. An angry response will only blow the problem out of proportion and cause more trouble. Similarly, deleting a comment made out of anger will also be more problematic than responding in a diplomatic way. One cringe-worthy example occurred in 2009 when Irish airline Ryanair responded to a blogger’s post about a booking fluke with insults. They even issued an official press release backing up their claims about the “idiot blogger.” Not a good idea.

Do – Stay on the Same Channel
Say an employee accidentally sends an inappropriate tweet out on the company’s account – you shouldn’t respond on your Facebook wall. It is vital to stick with a consistent social media channel during a crisis situation. If you’re addressing an issue that has nothing to do with social media, you can still respond via social media, but your message might be slightly different depending on which social media channel you’re working with. When Domino’s experienced a viral YouTube video crisis showing an employee serving food that had been shoved up someone’s nose (just one example), the company responded with an apology video also on YouTube. This is an example of a well thought-out, sincere and impactful response.

Don’t – Ignore the Problem
If one customer has a problem and vents about it on social media, it most likely will not turn into a crisis situation. However, as part of your social media policy, you must monitor social media channels for issues that are substantial enough to affect your brand in a negative way. If negative comments start going viral, or anti-your-company Facebook pages are formed, don’t ignore the problem and hope that it will go away. Nestlé experienced this problem when they saw comments from upset Greenpeace activists regarding key ingredients in KitKat bars on their Facebook fan page. At first, Nestlé ignored the problem and deleted the unwelcome comments. Things soon got out of hand when they openly posted that they were deleting comments. Nestlé’s official apology on the matter was widely thought to be too little too late.

Do – Respond Quickly
I used to work in a newsroom on the overnight shift where the motto is, “news never sleeps so neither do we.” Because of this 24/7 model of news, a quick response is needed to show that your company is listening and prepared. The problem needs to be addressed in a timely manner, and should consistently communicate the same message. Again, a small crisis communication team will ensure that everyone is communicating the same, clear message in a timely manner

Don’t – Dwell on the Negative
Once a crisis is resolved, it is important to use it as a learning experience and more forward. Don’t dwell on what could have happened; instead turn it into something positive for your company. For example, Frontier used a severe weather crisis as a way to show customer support on Twitter. When multiple flights were delayed in Denver, Frontier’s Senior Manager of Social Media decided to tweet relevant information and flight re-accommodations to quickly spread messages. Customers were pleasantly surprised with the speed and ease of re-booking flights. These PR pros managed to show how valuable quick responses are and generated positive feelings out of a crisis situation.

A good PR firm will be able to help their clients create a successful crisis communication strategy before any issues come up. This strategy needs to have a specific section to focus on social media issues, including action plans and preparedness in case of a crisis.