6 crisis communications disasters - and what you can learn from them

Crises come in all shapes and sizes.

Some may be caused by loss of life or significant injuries, while others may be less dramatic such as a large data loss.

But they all have the potential to cause media storms (both traditional and social); severely test customer loyalty; and see share prices tumble.

And all organisations are vulnerable, no matter how large or small.

Often one of the best ways to prepare for a crisis is to learn from the mistakes of others.

Here are six crisis comms disasters which stick in our minds and the lessons that can be taken from them:


BP oil spill

Not only was the BP oil spill the biggest in US history, killing 11 people, but it was also a crisis exasperated by woeful reputation management and a series of gaffes.

The most infamous was made by chief executive Tony Hayward who told reporters: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back’.



The comment was ill-judged and clearly tone deaf.


Although he later apologised for his ‘hurtful and thoughtless comment’ and said ‘those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy’ his off-the-cuff remark became part of crisis communications folklore.

If the damage from that comment was not bad enough, chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg compounded a desperate situation by telling journalists ‘we care about the small people’.

The company’s disastrous handling of the situation highlighted that the most senior person in an organisation is not always the best person to put in front of the media when crisis strikes.


Thomas Cook

The deaths of children Robert and Christi Shepherd from carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Corfu was a desperately sad story.

Clearly nothing the company could have done would have brought the children back, but its handling of the case was a lesson in how not to handle a tragic issue.

Under advice from lawyers, the company refused to apologise for the deaths until it was forced to do so by the weight of public anger. Radio presenter Jeremy Vine described it at the time as ‘the worst PR in the world’.

The company showed a complete lack of empathy, alienating itself from the people on the street who buy it's holidays.

The result was a tarnished reputation and a damaged business - £75 million was wiped off the company’s share value in the weeks following the start of the crisis.

Clearly this particular example was complicated by legal proceedings, but the company could and should have expressed sympathy and human compassion during such a tragic time and also shown what action was being taken to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future.


United Airlines

On our crisis communications media management training courses we sometimes discuss how the rise of social media and the technology contained in smartphones has given everyone the power to become a reporter.

Citizen journalism has brought attention to stories which may have previously gone unreported and damaging footage can now be shared almost instantly, meaning a reputational crisis can happen quicker than ever before.

United Airlines found itself in this situation earlier in the year and it did not handle it well.

The crisis was triggered when video footage emerged of a bloodied customer being dragged from one of its overbooked flights.

And it was made worse by a clumsy, tone-deaf response from chief executive Oscar Munoz.

He wrote: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address the situation.”



So, in summary, he put the company before the victim, didn’t say sorry, didn’t show remorse and used jargon to describe what had happened.

The problem was compounded by his use of words in a leaked email to staff, where he described the victim as ‘disruptive and belligerent’, which created a further round of damaging headlines.

The key lesson here is that it is vital in any crisis that the response does not become part of the problem.



Unlike its Galaxy Note 7 phone, Samsung’s reputation did not go up in flames as a result of the crisis which struck at the end of last year.

But its actions and desire for a quick fix tested customer loyalty, saw share prices take a battering and caused widespread embarrassment.

The South Korean electronics giant’s initial handling of the incident was good as it quickly announced a recall of the smartphone following reports of the devices catching fire.

But things began to unravel after it hastily announced the problem had been solved, only to see replacement devices combust.

In a crisis media management situation customers do look to organisations to act quickly and decisively, but they certainly don’t want those actions to come at the cost of being exposed to the same problem again – particularly when it includes fire.

If you are going to announce that an issue has been resolved, you need to be absolutely certain that really is the case.

Being rash with messaging during a crisis can be just as damaging as moving too slowly or saying nothing at all and in this case it appeared Samsung’s actions were driven by panic rather than a well thought out strategy.


Tim Hortons

This is not one of the more well-known crisis media management incidents, but it is one which created one of the most infamous responses.

The Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons found itself the focus of some unwanted media attention when it turned out it had been freezing its doughnuts rather than serving them fresh, as it had originally done. 

This approach, which seemed to contradict the company’s ‘always fresh’ tagline, was front page news.

The company’s vice president of corporate communications Patti Jameson seemingly believed a refusal to comment on the story would stop the unflattering headlines.

She told a reporter: “I am the official spokesperson and until I confirm or deny anything it simply doesn’t exist. If someone else says something, that’s up to them. We don’t want to discuss this through the media.”

Sure, no one likes to see their organisation go through a crisis, but a refusal to engage with the media will only make the situation worse and allow others to control the narrative.    


Water crisis

Holding a press conference is often a good tactic in crisis media management situations, enabling an organisation to quickly get its message across to as many people as possible.

However, if you do hold one you need to make sure it is nothing like the one held by Freedom Industries when it found itself at the centre of a water contamination crisis.

Clearly, company president Gary Southern faced a difficult task in addressing the media after his company had contaminated water for 300,000 residents in West Virginia.

But he broke a number of crisis comms playbook rules, including looking for sympathy, speculating on the cause of the crisis and bringing the conference to an end only to carry on answering questions.

And then there was the constant water drinking at a press conference about people being left without any water.

The conference has become a media training case study in what not to do during a crisis press conference.



And it highlights the importance of organisations having spokespeople who are not just experienced interviewees but who also have experience and understanding of how to conduct themselves at a press conference. It also shows the value of ensuring a press officer is always present to manage the event, pay attention to details (like swigging water) and bring it to a tidy end.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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