The worst handled crises of 2018 (and the responses we liked)

The past 12 months have seen some pretty spectacularly mismanaged reputational crises.

From bosses going into hiding, to ill-judged interviews and CEOs turning rogue, there is plenty to look back and learn from as we prepare to say goodbye to 2018.

Having already brought you our round-up of the worst media interviews of the year, here are the crisis media management incidents that stuck in our minds for the wrong reasons.

But it is not all doom and gloom as we have also included some examples of crises we believe were managed well.



Where else would you start but with a crisis which has been described by commentators as the ‘worst handled crisis in the history of modern business’?

And it is hard to disagree with that analysis.

When the data scandal story first broke, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow leaders seemed to break one of the first rules of crisis media management.

Instead of responding to the allegations, they appeared to go into hiding, creating a sideshow to the rapidly evolving story.

As the headlines asked ‘Where’s Zuckerberg’, the leadership team maintained their silence until the crisis entered its fifth day – more than 15 minutes is typically considered too long to respond.

When the response did come – in a Facebook post of course – there was no hint of an apology. That did eventually come later still when Mr Zuckerberg appeared on CNN.



The rest of the year didn’t really get much better for the network. Mr Zuckerberg managed to find himself at the centre of a Holocaust denial row after making a point about how Facebook deals with ‘fake news’ in an interview with a technology news website.

Meanwhile, regulators in the US and Europe continue to investigate Facebook’s conduct with Cambridge Analytica. It was recently reported that a cache of documents have been seized by MPs investigating the scandal.


Papa John’s

The term ‘PR nightmare’ is perhaps overused. But it feels like a pretty accurate summary of the past 12 months endured by Pizza chain Papa John’s.

Founder and chairman John Schnatter resigned after using a racial slur during a conference call in the summer (He had already resigned as CEO after comments he had made about American Football players kneeling in protest during the national anthem caused a backlash).

This of course created a tricky PR issue - how do you rebrand the Papa John brand when the problem seems to be Papa John?

One approach the beleaguered pizza giant opted for was the apology ad – a tactic which has become increasingly popular during crisis media management incidents in the past 12 months.



The only problem with this was that the video didn’t actually apologise, or show any action the company was proposing to take to stop anything like this from happening again.

And this caused another backlash.



Amid the controversy and plunging sales, there remains another complexity – Mr Schnatter refuses to go quietly.

In fact, he has gone rogue, creating a Save Papa John’s website over the board’s attempts to ‘silence’ him.

It remains pretty messy, and it is hard to see how the company can fully recover while his name remains on the box.


Elon Musk

The winner of the biggest self-inflicted crisis of the year surely has to be Elon Musk.

The Tesla boss managed to wipe $2 billion off his company’s shares after launching a terribly misguided Twitter rant at a diver who took part in the Thai Cave rescue earlier this year.

Mr Musk took offence after one of the divers, Vern Unsworth, had described his attempt to get involved in the Thailand rescue as a ‘publicity stunt’ and told him to stick the mini-submarine he had designed ‘where it hurts’.

Displaying an incredibly thin skin and lack of judgement, Mr Musk appeared to label the diver a ‘pedo’ seemingly on the basis that he lives in Thailand and, when challenged, doubled down on the comment by telling his 22m followers, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”



Not only did his actions cost his shareholders dearly but the offensive posts also created a huge amount of negative media and social media coverage.

When an apology eventually came it took the form of a tweet to someone who had shared an article claiming to give the 'full story' behind Mr Musk's involvement in the cave rescue.

And even then it still attempted to blame Mr Unsworth for ‘several untruths’.



Mr Unsworth later reportedly filed a defamation suit against the tech mogul.

Mr Musk’s controversial social media behaviour continued until in November he eventually posted ‘signing off Twitter for a few days’ – a move he surely should have made much sooner.



Airlines have a less than impressive record when it comes to dealing with the fallout of damning passenger footage.

Who can forget, for example, the way United Airlines responded when footage emerged of a bloodied passenger being dragged from one of its planes?

This year Ryanair found itself in the firing line after a video was published of a man launching a racist tirade against another passenger on one of its flights.

The footage sparked outrage after the airline responded by telling the man to ‘calm down’ and moved the victim, an elderly woman, to a different seat.

It has been viewed more than 7.6m times and created a stream of disastrous headlines and calls for a boycott on social media.

Not only was Ryanair slow to respond to the incident, but when it did, it produced one of the shortest crisis responses ever. It simply said: “Statement: We are aware of this video and reported this matter to Essex police.”  All very weak, and lacklustre.



In some newspaper reports, it went on to say that ‘it cannot comment further’ because it was a police matter – something anyone with the tiniest knowledge of media law knows is simply untrue.

To prove that point, and after a week of negative coverage, Ryanair did eventually produce a more detailed response.



But once again it failed to hit the mark, issuing a response which seemed focused on blaming the media for ‘inaccurate’ reports and completely lacking in any human warmth. In fact, it seemed to be written almost entirely the wrong way round, with the apology to the passenger and its ‘long record of not tolerating disruptive or abusive passenger behaviour’, buried at the bottom.



When we think about reputational crises, we naturally tend to think of large corporate organisations.

But as Oxfam found out at the start of the year, no organisation is immune from a crisis.

And unfortunately for the charity its response was somewhat bungled.

When The Times first broke the story about serious allegations concerning the conduct of senior aid workers in Haiti during relief efforts, the charity’s initial response was mixed. It spoke at length about the action it had taken but there was little in the way of empathy or compassion. In fact, in a 289 word statement, there was no mention of the victims.

But it got much worse when CEO Mark Goldring gave a disastrous interview in which he seemed to attempt to portray the charity as the victim.

He told The Guardian that he had not slept for six nights, saying: “The last six days have been the most intense and challenging of my life.”

He then went on to say: “The intensity and the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do?

“We murdered babies in their cots? Certainly, the scale and the intensity of the attacks feels out of proportion to the level of culpability.

“I struggle to understand it. You think: ‘My God, there’s something going on there.’”




A media interview during a crisis is no place to express sorrow for yourself or your organisation.

When an organisation finds itself in a crisis, its leaders need to show that they understand and appreciate the seriousness of the incident and any wrongdoing and are able to demonstrate compassion, authority and honesty.



And the crisis responses we liked

It wasn’t all bleak on the crisis media management response front. Some brands handled their time in the spotlight with great skill.

Take KFC for example. The fast food brand found itself in the humiliating position of running out of chicken earlier this year, resulting in it having to close more than half of its 900 UK restaurants.

The brand’s response was bold with humour, which showed a human side to the organisation - a key ingredient to its success. This was cleverly mixed with praise for staff who worked to keep the restaurants up and running, reassurance, and commitments to quality. There was also a dedicated webpage and some very clever full-page newspaper adverts.



Another brand which impressed, albeit after a slow start, was Starbucks. It found itself in a media storm after an incident in one of its stores in Philadelphia saw it facing allegations of racial bias.

Its initial statement was slow and packed with vague language. But from that point on the incident was gripped by CEO Kevin Johnson, who put himself at the centre of the brand’s response.

As well as taking full responsibility for the issues, he announced plans to try to prevent something similar happening in future. This included closing more than 8,000 stories for part of a day so employees could attend ‘racial bias education’ – a move it was reported would cost the chain around $16.7 million in lost sales.

Another boss who led from the front was British Airways CEO Alex Cruz. Mr Cruz appeared across the broadcast networks apologising profusely after the airline lost personal and financial data belonging to its customers. He sounded genuinely concerned, showed humility and appeared to understand the difficulties the issue would cause customers.



There was also an apology ad published across the nation’s newspapers, while the BA social media team appeared to work tirelessly to individually answer questions posted by affected customers.

In short, it had all the hallmarks of crisis scenario which the airline had prepared for and rehearsed thoroughly.



Find out more about preparing for a crisis by downloading our free crisis media management eBook. It includes a guide to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities. And speak to one of our account managers about our crisis plan testing days which put delegates through realistic and challenging scenarios.



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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