Crisis communications training: The PR blunders of 2017

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The PR blunders of 2017

The past twelve months have seen some pretty spectacular PR blunders.

From mismanaged crises, to ill-judged tweets and poorly conceived apologies, there’s plenty to look back and reflect upon as we prepared to say goodbye to 2017.

Having already brought you a round-up of the worst media interviews of the year, we’ve now complied a look back at the PR fails which stuck in our minds for all the wrong reasons.


United Airlines

The United Airlines response to video footage of a bloodied passenger being forcibly removed from one of its planes was a classic example of how a poor response could make a crisis media management situation worse.

And the multiple mistakes came from the top.

The initial statement from chief executive Oscar Munoz lacked empathy, didn’t apologise, put the company first and included some horrendous jargon.

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



If that was not bad enough, worse was to follow was when he emailed his employees. His message described the passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ and praised staff for going ‘above and beyond’.

The email quickly found its way into the public domain, leading to a second wave of negative headlines and more online savagery.




Hope and Glory Festival

Cancelling the second day of a festival and leaving thousands of music fans out of pocket was always going to be something of a crisis communications challenge.

But at the very least you would expect to see an apology, some form of explanation, and information about how refunds could be obtained.

Instead, the bizarre way organisers of Liverpool’s Hope & Glory Festival managed the decision to abandon the event – and the subsequent fallout – ensured it became a crisis media management case study.



Unbelievably, they used just three words to announce the cancellation of the event on Twitter. The tweet simply read ‘no festival today’ and contained no links to further information. There was not even any information about the cancellation on its official website.

Furious festival goers wanting further information were simply told a statement would be available by midday the following day, while those who dared to voice their frustration were met with a range of sarcastic, agitated and bizarre responses, which only added a further impression of farce to the situation.

Eventually, 24 hours after the cancellation, a long rambling statement was released on Facebook – but by that point the damage had been well and truly done.


New Zealand Police

The title of worst self-inflicted crisis of the year has to go to New Zealand Police.

Its decision to tweet about how hard it is to tell someone their family member has died in a car crash – and illustrate it with a gif of actor Steve Carell saying ‘this is the worst’ – saw it trend on Twitter and make headlines around the world.



The tweet was actually only live for a short while, but in that time the force still managed to try to justify the tweet before taking it down.

To its credit it did subsequently apologise, saying the tweet had been ‘wrong and insensitive’ but by that point the damage had been done.



Uber seemed to spend much of 2017 stumbling from one crisis to another and developed an unhealthy habit of having to regularly apologise. 

But perhaps the most avoidable incident was the extraordinary case of the board member who felt an internal meeting to address sexism was the perfect platform to deliver a sexist joke.

The disparaging remark was made, without any sense of irony, as employees were informed of the recommendations of an independent report into the company’s heavily criticised culture.

As Uber board member Arianna Huffington announced the appointment of another woman to the company’s board of directors, her colleague David Bonderman felt this was the perfect opportunity to deliver his ‘joke’.

Here is a transcript of the embarrassing exchange which led to the foot-in-mouth moment:

Ms Huffington: “There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board.”

Mr Bonderman: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”

Ms Huffington: “Ohhh. Come on, David.”

The comment was leaked by a disgruntled employee and Mr Bonderman resigned soon after, saying he did not want his ‘careless, inappropriate and inexcusable’ comments to ‘create a distraction’.



This debacle came at a time when CEO Travis Kalanick had announced he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence and triggered another wave of negative publicity. 


The London Dungeon

When the London Dungeon found itself at the centre of a social media storm, its misguided attempt at saying sorry showed how a poor apology can make a crisis much worse.

The attraction found itself at the centre of a furious Twitter and Facebook backlash when its ‘Dark Valentine’ campaign backfired amid allegations of sexism and misogyny.

Although it consequently deleted the posts – something we would always recommend on our social media and crisis communications training courses – its response faltered when it issued an apology in the same campaign branding.

This ensured that not only did it not appear genuine, but it also looked like an extension of the campaign, which did not suggest the complaints were being taken all that seriously.

The wording below the image also failed to convey genuine remorse. Including the phrase ‘some people’ felt like an attempt to play down the numbers who found the posts offensive and suggested a lack of understanding of the severity of the situation.

And Twitter users were far from impressed:



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