It seems rarely a week goes by without some major corporation seizing the national headlines due to a PR scandal. From United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger to Volkswagen cheating on car emissions tests to Wells Fargo opening fraudulent accounts, there are plenty of bad examples to go around.
This has been exacerbated by social media and our 24-hour news cycle. Misfires that may have had a short shelf-life in past decades are now held under a microscope, lasting for as long as outraged commenters pile on with their grievances.
But in the cases cited above, and so many others of note, the errors that cause such outcry are so sizable in nature that controversy was essentially guaranteed. This article isn’t concerned with those cases.
We’re going to tackle times poor wording, lack of awareness, or poor oversight landed companies in major hot water—times when seemingly trivial things created an unforgettable fervor.
All of these instances were easily avoidable, which makes it all the more fascinating that they occurred in the first place. In the end, no one is perfect and accidents happen...but not without causing some drama in the process.
Let’s look at some minor mess-ups that required major damage control.
KFC’s Chicken Coupon Fiasco (2009)
We all know Oprah Winfrey has the power to make a crowd go wild ("You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!”). But nobody could have predicted the fallout when she promised her viewing audience free food.
In 2009, Winfrey told everyone watching they could get a free 2-piece grilled chicken meal (including sides and a biscuit) from KFC. And people became very excited for said free chicken. A little too excited, as it turned out.
To get the free meal, viewers had to download a coupon from Oprah.com. From there, a comedy of errors ensued.
KFC was completely unprepared for the throngs of customers, resulting in long lines, shortened supplies, and short fuses. Others complained that they couldn’t download the coupon because of high traffic. The end result: A lot of people didn’t get their free meal. And they weren’t happy about it.
Angry coupon holders and stressed-out restaurant workers got in shouting matches when the coupons weren’t honored, leading to reports of riots (which turned out to be false).
It was a perfect storm for disaster though: Oprah’s massive audience and an economy deep in recession created a (literal) appetite, and KFC vastly underestimated both factors.
In the aftermath, KFC President Roger Eaton offered a raincheck for customers who went home empty-handed, adding that for “for their inconvenience, we'll also be including a free Pepsi to go with their free Kentucky Grilled Chicken meal. ...We thank our customers for their understanding and patience."
Eaton soothed nerves by simply owning up to the mistake and offering a solution, rather than make excuses. Alicia Downard, a public relations specialist in the IT industry, says this is key when providing damage control.
“Never, ever lie," she says, "because the ramifications are generally greater, if uncovered, compared to being honest from the start. Apologize if warranted, explain the resolution, look ahead, and conclude with a positive statement.”
Domino’s YouTube Scandal (2009)
What seems funny to coworkers after a long day of work doesn’t necessarily translate to national hijinks. This was the lesson two Domino’s Pizza employees in North Carolina learned the hard way after their prank video became a viral hit for all the wrong reasons.
Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer’s video showed the pair violating health code hazards by, including stuffing cheese up their nose (that they later put on a sandwich), sneezing on a pizza, and passing gas on food.
The stunt didn’t go over well when they posted it online. In fact, it put them in jail for potentially distributing tainted foods.
The PR fallout grew even worse for Domino’s when it was revealed that Hammons has a checkered legal past, raising questions on the company’s hiring practices.
While both workers (who claimed the food in the video was never actually delivered to customers) were fired, it did little to quell the social media firestorm of customers who felt uneasy about continuing to give Domino’s their business.
“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre told The New York Times. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”
McIntyre admitted Domino’s did a poor job of communicating with their customers on social media in light of the controversy: “We realized that when many of the comments and questions in Twitter were, ‘What is Domino’s doing about it?’, well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter.”
Marketing and social media strategist Anthony Juliano says situations like these can be minimized if a company is more proactive: “The first thing people want to hear is that you recognize that what happened was wrong and that you're remorseful about it,” he said. “It's also important to provide some context as to what led to the mistake.”
The final step, Juliano says, is to “describe what you're going to do [to prevent] it from happening again. The audience needs to hear that you have a plan in place to avoid such mistakes moving forward.”
The Unfortunately Named “Krispy Kreme Klub”
In 2015, a Krispy Kreme franchise in Hull, England decided it would be fun to have a weekly event where customers could come into their store and decorate their own donuts. They designated such customers as belonging to the “Krispy Kreme Klub,” which would meet on Wednesdays. But when they promoted the event on social media, things went very, very, wrong.
That’s because they abbreviated “Krispy Kreme Klub” in their promotional materials. This resulted in a truly unfortunate acronym that was deemed offensive and culturally insensitive.
Company spokesperson Lafeea Watson apologized for the move. “We do believe this was a completely unintentional oversight on the part of our longtime franchise partners in the UK,” she said in a statement to USA Today.
That seems reasonable, given the average Britain citizen might not be aware of the acronym’s ugly place in American history. Needless to say, the promotion quickly vanished from social media, and the “Krispy Kreme Klub” was a very short-lived organization.
Downard says instances like these spread like wildfire: “There are exponentially more channels on which to share information than ever before, thus messages are amplified quickly and with great reach."
She says that other companies can avoid similar disasters by “having well-planned campaign plans in place with prepared messaging and an approval process evaluated by all internal stakeholders.”
Adidas’s Poorly Phrased Boston Marathon Promotion (2017)
Participants of the 2017 Boston Marathon received a congratulatory email from Adidas footwear, but any goodwill the company thought they would gain from this marketing exercise never made it across the finish line. And it was all because of the poorly phrased subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
Many runners were offended by the statement, seen as insensitive in light of the tragedy at the event in 2013, which led to Twitter comments like the following:
In a statement to Time Magazine, a company spokesperson wrote that “Clearly, there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. ...We deeply apologize for our mistake.” We’re guessing they’ll have someone else handling this year’s marathon campaign.
BP CEO’s Poor Choice of Words (2010)
The 2010 BP oil spill is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It decimated the Gulf of Mexico and was responsible for multiple tragedies, causing catastrophic damage to wildlife and affecting many coastal inhabitants’ livelihoods.
So, how does one apologize for the devastating aftereffects of more than 200 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the ocean? In the case of BP CEO Tony Hayward, the answer is poorly.
Hayward addressed the disaster in a series of interviews and used the phrase “I'd like my life back.”
Given the incredible amount of ire directed at the company, it’s clear Hayward didn’t read the room before making this statement.
Needless to say, his comment didn’t go over well with the public, and he later issued an apology, saying his comment was "hurtful and thoughtless."
"My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families—to restore their lives, not mine.”
Juliano says incidents like this usually occur “because the speaker doesn't consider the audience's needs” or “doesn't care and doesn't see it as wrong. The former is the reason for most communication problems, but the impact is amplified when there's a lot at stake—as there tends to be in situations like these.”
In this case, Hayward was guilty on both counts. In fact, it wasn’t his only awkward moment during the scandal. One of his first cringe-worthy comments during the oil spill was, “The environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” Unsurprisingly, Hayward left BP later that year.
No such thing as what?
Given these uncomfortable PR blunders, one could begin questioning the conventional wisdom behind the classic phrase, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Is there ever really a silver lining for companies when these unfortunate situations happen?
According to Aaron Kitchin, manager of branded content with Legacy Pictures, to distinguish between a true mess-up and a "no such thing as bad publicity" situation, you must consider the effects of the event.
"If it doesn't cause harm to anybody or to a group, but rather, it alienates a group that wouldn't be one's target consumer in the first place, one could frame that as ‘no publicity is bad publicity.’ Of course, that could also just be strategic PR manipulation.”
Juliano says there’s always an opportunity to come out on top, depending on the actions taken after the disaster: “Even when a company makes a serious mistake, a sincere apology and well-thought-out and well-executed remediation plan can can actually improve a brand's reputation.”