Having a bad day?  At least you didn’t do what these professionals did with their PR.

Wardrobe malfunctions, holier-than-thou celebrities and lack of customer service insight are some of the breath-taking PR blunders of all time.


The BP oil tragedy is often cited on PR courses as the best example of how not to handle a crisis.

The biggest offshore oil spill in US history was a terrible environmental disaster and arguably, exacerbated by the way the catastrophe was handled.

The apparent lack of empathy and compassion shown publicly by the company stuck in the throat of many of those involved.

BP offered potential plaintiffs $5000 not to issue lawsuits showing a serious lack of public understanding.

Their website had scant information on the situation with only minimal links to Social Media.

Following the media coverage, the former BP CEO Tony Haywood said in an interview ‘I’d like my life back’, which prompted a further backlash of public resentment and anger.

A disaster from beginning to end.


On devising a children’s event, having a snappy title seemed like a great idea.

However, the doughnut chain quickly dropped its promotion of Krispy Kreme Klub Wednesdays after a series of complaints.

‘KKK Wednesdays’ was to be part of the doughnut shop’s half-term activities – a series of planned events for children during a week-long break from school.

But switching a C for the K spelt disaster for Krispy Kreme doughnut as it suddenly carried the title of white supremacists from America’s deep south.


Regardless of who is to blame, when a brand experiences a PR crisis of this magnitude, management needs to take responsibility.

Volkswagen claimed its vehicles were environmentally friendly but had actually installed software that detected when cars were being tested and changed the performance temporarily to reduce emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered this and it led to an embarrassing confession and a substantial product recall.

Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn told a House subcommittee while under oath, that only a few rogue engineers were to blame. Not only did the subcommittee find this highly implausible, a did German publication issued a report saying that at least 30 managers were involved.

In this instance, the CEO of the company gave a dubious explanation – under oath – meaning it was just simply dishonest PR.


Two Domino’s Pizza employees filmed themselves spitting in a customer’s pizza and posted it on YouTube.

The video went viral, and there was a customer backlash.  I mean, who would want an extra side of gob with their Mighty Meaty?!

The company fired the employees and the CEO had to make a public apology in a video.  This film was put up on a Times Square NYC billboard displaying customer comments, regardless of whether they were good or bad.

Fortunately for Domino’s, despite the initial issue, they handled the situation well and bought back customer loyalty.


The fashion designers made ill-advised comments about IVF and gay adoption to Italian magazine Panorama.

They said: ‘We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one… I am not convinced by those I call children of chemicals, synthetic.’

Their comments were picked up by international media and celebrities were quick to join the protest, including Sir Elton John, who created the hashtag #BoycottDolceGabbana, which was retweeted by Victoria Beckham.


Celebrities are often embroiled in controversy, but the publicity it elicits rarely affects careers, unlike in this case.

A domestic between Tiger Woods and his wife resulted in him crashing his car into a tree, which made the news. Rumours of infidelity swiftly followed, effectively unravelling the wholesome image the golfer had purported.

Rather than addressing the issue, Woods and his PR team stayed silent, prompting further rumours.

Two days after the incident, a short statement was issued but it failed to address the issue. Instead, into the media limelight stepped several women claiming to be his mistresses.

In the end, Woods lost his wife, several of his largest sponsorships and his position as the country’s top-paid athlete.


Understanding what your customers want is the simplest way to avoid PR disasters in the first place.  This is not what Coca-Cola did.

When it announced in the 1980s that it was changing the drink’s formula, Coca-Cola demonstrated a massive lack of understanding of just how emotionally tied its customers were to its long-running brand.

The announcement saw loyal customers clear store shelves and hoard the drink while a black market sprung up selling cases of the old Coke for $30 or more per case.

It took the company two months to realise its mistake and bring back the old formula.


In 2011, the company changed its classic red cans to white in another apparent lack of consumer understanding.

The backlash was immediate, and Coca-Cola returned to the classic packaging.

In both cases, however, a quick response by the company averted what could have become a financial disaster.


The sports and nutrition retailer massively misjudged the message sent out via its ‘Beach Body’ campaign.

The company’s weight-loss advert, featuring a bikini-clad model with the tagline ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ appeared throughout London Underground.

The ads were slammed on Social Media for being sexist and women began vandalising the posters on the Tube.

A petition was set up to have the posters removed and it received more than 44,000 signatures.  A protest also took take place in London’s Hyde Park.


BIC caused offence on National Women’s Day in South Africa after it created a poster to advertise its pens with the line ‘Think Like a Man’.

The pen company then compounded the issue when it tried to explain how the advert was ‘empowering women’.

BIC made a similar blunder in 2012 when it released ‘pink pens for her’ that were designed to fit ‘comfortably in a woman’s hand’.


Philip Morris tried to put a positive spin on deaths from smoking when they released the results of a study conducted in the Czech Republic.

They claimed smoking resulted in a net gain of around $147 million, including saving ‘between 943 million and 1.2 billion korunas (about $24 million-to-$30 million) in health-care, pension and public-housing costs due to the early deaths of smokers.’

The company faced a huge public backlash as a result of the press release, which was intended to create positive PR for an already-struggling industry.


The takeaway chicken chain KFC teamed up with Oprah Winfrey to launch a new line of grilled chicken.

After Oprah plugged the product on her show and promoted a coupon for free chicken on her site, KFC restaurants in the USA were swamped with customers demanding their goods.

Many restaurants weren’t prepared to meet the demand, and hundreds of people walked away chicken-less and angry.

KFC later responded to disgruntled customers, but the fiasco still earned it the number one spot on Adweek’s list of the most memorable product launches of the year.


The Super Bowl is a classic, all-American, family-friendly tradition.

In 2004 Janet Jackson’s breast wasn’t aware of this and was broadcast, unclothed into millions of homes across the country.

The infamous incident sometimes referred to as “Nipplegate,” caused networks to institute tape delays in live broadcasts and impose stricter regulation on subsequent halftime shows.

Later Jackon’s team apologised for what they termed a halftime ‘wardrobe malfunction’.

CBS was slapped with a record fine of$550,000 after the FCC received 540,000 complaints from irate viewers.

So you may think you’ve made a few PR mistakes this week but hopefully, this will remind you that even when we make gaffes, someone, somewhere will always have made much bigger ones.

Categories: PR tips


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.