5 Outrageous Public Relations Fails and What They Teach Us

Public relations can be a terrifying maze to navigate. You’re busy plugging away, delivering consistently outstanding customer service, when suddenly a misplaced tweet or candid video starts an avalanche of bad publicity that nobody can stop.

We live in a world that’s always watching, from social media conversations to the ubiquitous recording abilities of our smartphones. That means public relations require a real commitment constant oversight. Here are 5 public relation examples that show what happens when that goes wrong.

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Watsons – Blackface Raya

There’s a fundamental truth in advertising – if the concept for your advertisement relies on blackface, you’re in for a world of trouble. Just ask Watsons Pharmacy in Malaysia, after this uncomfortably ill-thought out advert dubbed the ‘Raya Blackface Advert’ ran into online condemnation for its stereotyped and frankly offensive portrayal of skin colour.

Not only did this hideous public relations fail cause much online outrage in itself, the company’s fairly weak non-apology caused further stir, implying that a failure in humour (rather than humanity) was the cause of the controversy. It made a great opportunity for rival brand Guardian Malaysia, which followed a similar storyline but with a far more inclusive theme.

What’s the moral of this story? If your advert is racist, be prepared for a public relations backlash. It’s almost ludicrous that we have to spell this out.

United Airlines – The Passenger Incident

The job of an airline is to get a passenger from A to B safely and on time. That’s a fairly simple concept in what is, admittedly, a rather complex industry. So one thing you should never do, no matter how tempted you might be, is beat up your passengers. Just try telling that to United Airlines though.

This infamous incident resulted from the airline’s policy to overbook flights to maximise revenue in the face of no-shows. When nobody volunteered to exit the overbooked aircraft, despite apparently being offered incentives (other than not-being-beaten-up), the forcible eviction began. It didn’t help that there was a perception they racially profiled their choice, or that they ended up picking a doctor, or that you know, everyone in the world has a portable camera and video recording device these days. The result for the company was huge reputational damage, a legal settlement for an undisclosed sum, and the firing of the officer said to be the major instigator of the incident.

What’s the lesson here? I mean don’t beat up your customers is a good first step. But it’s also important to remember that public relations exist in a world that includes an unparalleled level of public oversight. You need to operate at all times as if your actions, and reactions, are witnessed by the public. Because they might just be filming how your brand representatives act. Oh, and don’t beat up your customers.

Dolce and Gabbana – Offending the Chinese

Western brands are excited by China, and if there’s one thing you shouldn’t when you’re excited, it’s make culturally sensitive adverts. Well actually there are probably lots of things you shouldn’t do when you’re excited, but this is definitely on the list.

The controversial advert was intended to promote the fashion brand’s upcoming Chinese showcase, and featured a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks. Yet the delivery of the advert was widely seen as pandering to stereotypes and failing to properly represent Chinese culture. The public outcry was swift, and really rather damaging. Not only was Dolce and Gabanna’s flagship Shanghai show cancelled, the brand’s products began to disappear from Chinese e-commerce shops faster than you could say spiacente. To add some spice on top, a rather racist and insulting message appeared on D&G co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account. Apparently he was told to say he was ‘hacked’.

What’s the lesson here? One we could all do well to remember. Cultural sensitivity isn’t an afterthought in a globally connected marketplace. It needs to be something you consider in any brand communication you produce. That’s especially true if your communication is the spearhead of a huge campaign to enter an emerging fashion market of over a billion consumers.

Volkswagen – Cheating the Tests

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more widespread and high-profile public relations disaster than the monumental absurdity of Volkswagen’s emissions test scandal.

In 2015 details began to emerge of a discrepancy between reported emission tests on Volkswagen’s diesel cars and those demonstrated by regulatory bodies. As the saga unfolded it was revealed that Volkswagen had employed emission test cheating technologies on a (quite literally) industrial scale. As the crisis grew it became clear that as many as 11 million cars worldwide had been impacted by the falsified tests. The scandal resulted in a share price dive, huge loss of reputation, breakdown of investor relations, and a potential total financial cost of US$30 billion.

Is it over? You bet your bottom dollar it’s not. First of all there emerged further astonishing revelations that VW had been testing diesel fumes on live monkeys (and people, but think of the monkeys!). Then only this year, over 370,000 German Volkswagen owners joined a collective legal action seeking compensation from the firm as a result of the emissions cheating.

One of the most interesting elements of the scandal is just how extreme negative public reaction was to the concept of cheating emissions tests. It conveys a valuable lesson about the global public shift towards expecting responsible and sustainable corporate practice, and the stark penalties experienced by companies who fail to meet those standards.

Bell Potinger – Bad PR

You know how they say all publicity is good publicity? Well if the above examples aren’t example enough, just take the case of iconic ‘bad publicity’ company Bell Pottinger.

This is perhaps the crowning achievement of bad PR. PR that was indeed so bad, that it brought down an entire PR company that had built its reputation on bad PR. That surely makes it the most painfully meta PR fail we’ve ever witnessed?

The spectacular implosion of Bell Pottinger emerged on the back of a campaign undertaken in South Africa for client Oakbay Capital. The thrust of the campaign was to highlight the case of ‘economic apartheid’ in South Africa, essentially stoking up the raw memories of racial tensions for political ends. The result for Bell Pottinger? Global condemnation led to the loss of almost every major account from anything even passably resembling an ethical company, resulting in the ultimate collapse of the business.

What’s the moral of this one? Having no morals will eventually come back to bite you. And stoking racial tension isn’t a good look for public relations.

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