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The biggest PR disasters of 2018

Here is a month-by-month guide of the worst PR disasters of 2018, as highlighted in our Good and Bad column. PR pundits vote for what they believe to be the worst PR crises of the year, with TSB being the winner (or should that be loser?), despite Facebook getting the most mentions throughout the year.



The first bad PR story highlighted on these pages in 2018 was about a poorly thought-out ad from fashion retailer H&M. The fashion giant apologised for its ad featuring a black boy wearing a hoodie with the slogan: ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle” after many people took to Twitter to complain, claiming the ad as inappropriate and offensive.



Shannon Peerless, head of PR at agency 10 Yetis, describes the scandal that blackened the charity’s name: “Oxfam had an absolute shocker of a week, which isn’t something you normally expect to hear about such a seemingly noble charity. It all came to light that aid workers at Oxfam had allegedly paid for sex during a mission in Haiti to help the victims of the 2010 earthquake that killed 220,000 people, injured 300,000 and left 1.5 million people there homeless.”


Facebook/Cambridge Analytica

This month saw the start of many, many bad headlines following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, when it was revealed that many people on Facebook had had their personal data harvested without their consent. At the time, we wrote: “Facebook is in the bad books this week, with many vowing to delete their accounts from the social network and never look back. This is all to do with a data breach that has come to light and users are, understandably, less than impressed.”

Worst PR crisis of 2018


TSB’s online banking crisis

Sandra Hobson, director at Limelight PR and Acceleris, describes how the disaster unfolded: Whilst service outages can be expected (for a very short time), TSB decided to launch the proverbial at the fan when announcing there would be no access to its online banking app from Friday 20 April to Sunday 22 April. This might have been acceptable had it not turned into Tuesday, then Wednesday and many more days besides.

“Step forward CEO Paul Pester who quickly apologised via Twitter. Initially, TSB was praised for this but as the crisis unravelled, it became apparent Twitter was hardly the best platform to communicate directly with its customers.

“It’s important to be first, frank and fast when responding to a crisis, but reputation management 101 will tell you to never shift the blame. This is what Pester attempted to do when demonising Sabadell (parent company and IT provider) as the antagonist.

“Fast forward a month and many TSB customers were still complaining about technological issues. The negative outpouring in national print and broadcast media along with the baying Twitter mob inevitably led to Pester’s resignation.

“There are two lessons here. First, make sure you are using the right channels to communicate directly with your customers and second, you should never publicly name and shame a supplier from the outset. Businesses need to be held accountable for their own mistakes and taking responsibility helps to rebuild relationships of trust in the long-run.”

Ed Coke, founder of agency Repute Associates, explains why he believes this to be the largest PR disaster of 2018. “Corporate reputations are founded on competencies, behaviours and values. Most crises tend to fall into just one of those areas, but what made the TSB IT debacle so profound was it transcended all three. 

“As a customer, even if you disagree with your bank's behaviours, you certainly expect them to be competent at enabling you to do the fundamentals of everyday banking. 

“The bank’s response was described as ‘complacent and misleading’ by the Treasury Select Committee. It’s the kind of disaster that will live long in the memory for customers, investors and employees alike.”


Stagecoach and Virgin

Virgin and Stagecoach got terrible press in May when the government terminated Virgin Trains East Coast franchise.



A strange case of this cosmetic brand doing a #SpyCops campaign that got it accused of being anti-police.



Sharon Peerless discussed how Facebook was up against it again, with further news updates around the breach of data use as it failed to ensure other companies had deleted users’ data.  “As people become increasingly wary about data and privacy, Facebook has now been served with a £500,000 fine – pretty small fry really for a company the size of Facebook, but it makes for a reminder and a few bad headlines nonetheless.”


Elon Musk

In August, we described how Tesla got dragged down by its CEO Elon Musk: “After the company had to quietly admit that the Muskonator was not actually going to take it private, and whilst being knuckle deep into government-led investigations into his tweets claiming he was taking it private, he started up his crusade against the cave-diving hero. He committed PR fuckery 101 by sending an email with a subject line “off the record” to a journalist that make a load of claims about the British diver involved in the Thailand cave rescue being married to a 12-year-old girl.”


Pret a Manger

Jonathan Hemus, founder of crisis management agency Insignia, reports on this sad incident:Pret a Manger’s response to the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse as a result of an allergic reaction, showed that when the heat is on, even highly respected businesses can inflict unnecessary self-harm. Pret’s decision not to communicate until the tragic story hit the headlines meant that it failed to set the narrative. This was exacerbated by the somewhat cool tone of voice. Finally, its attempt to pin the blame on a much smaller supplier showed that when your reputation is on the line, passing the buck is doomed to fail.“



Rebecca Donnelly, partner and head of corporate at agency Tyto PR, describes the full horror of an incident that got everyone talking about Ryanair, for all the wrong reasons: “The Ryanair racist rant row was without doubt one of the most vicious PR fallouts we’ve witnessed in the last twelve months.

“Ryanair is not known for its diplomatic PR skills, however, even by its standards, the handling of this incident was careless and sloppy.

“After the video footage, which was captured by another passenger, was circulated online, Ryanair was slow to respond when it finally tweeted “We are aware of this video and have reported this matter to Essex Police”. The response was totally inadequate, completely lacked empathy for the victim and only fanned the flames of controversy around the issue.

“When a crisis hits it’s tempting to try and limit communications in an attempt to minimise the impact of the situation, but this incident shows it can quite often have the opposite effect. Poor preparation and an absence of communication are two of the biggest pitfalls when things go wrong.

“In order to stay one step ahead, communicating transparently and pre-empting the likely public and media response is fundamental to minimising reputational damage. Ryanair should take note of KFC’s response to its chicken shortage earlier this year to see a masterful crisis response in action.”


Facebook (again!)

Andy Barr, head of 10 Yetis, describes why Facebook got more bad headlines in November:Facebook, of ‘we are not the bad guys’ fame once again proved that they are actually the bad guys. In a double whammy blow to the public relations community, it did something dodgy (in my opinion) and then threw its own comms guy under the bus. Let me explain…

“Everyone’s favourite ex-stalking-platform hired a public relations company to help throw shade at its high-profile detractors. At first, Facebook denied this but then, it admitted it did happen and blamed its departing head of comms. Ouch.”


Brexit comms strategy

Well, the ‘Brexit’ word has to be said eventually. Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR, is one man brave enough to tackle the issue: “The biggest PR disaster of 2018 has been – and still is – Theresa May’s communications strategy for Brexit, which has all the integrity of a slowly collapsing soufflé.

“For most of the year we saw very little of our PM, except for some toe-curling dancing that she clearly felt impelled to perform (desperate for some street cred, no doubt) on a number of overseas visits.

“When she should have been leading from the front, she seemed to prefer back-seat driving, but this simply allowed the likes of the Johnsons (actually, all of them) and the Rees-Moggs to control the agenda. Other than the occasional statement on the steps of No 10, Theresa May has relied on the members of the Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues to conduct the media interviews and take the flak. 

“She might be uncomfortable in front of the camera and she may even hate the limelight, but my advice would have been to remain visible – in person and on the media – and to ensure that, as PM, she did all she could to control and lead the agenda.

“The PM’s PR advisors may have hoped to protect her from the rough-and-tumble of political life, but all they did was to weaken her position.

“Now, she is left with a week to seal the Brexit deal in parliament and is now scrabbling for support. Her last-ditch attempt to get her deal over the line looks every bit as desperate as it is and I can't think of any political leaders – past or present, in this country or abroad – that would have allowed such a strategy to unfold.”

And finally…

As well as Brexit, we cannot end the year without mentioning the bad PR that certain heads of retail have been getting. Insignia’s Jonathan Hemus explains: “Allegations of sexual misconduct against Arcadia’s Philip Green and Ted Baker’s founder Ray Kelvin, showed that today’s crises are as likely to be about corporate behaviour as fires, floods or explosions. Moreover, they demonstrated that in a totally transparent world, the injunction is increasingly ineffective as a reputation protection tactic. It also served as a warning that for many businesses, the reputation of its leader is inextricably linked to that of their company.”

And on that note, all that is left to say is thank heavens 2018 is nearly over! Let’s hope 2019 fills our pages with more good PR stories than bad – although this is very unlikely, and anyway, we all love a good scandal.

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