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The top PR crises of 2023

In what has become a PR Christmas classic, here is PRmoment’s calendar of the worst PR crises of the year.


Energy company charges rise 

In the first Good and Bad PR column of 2023, Andy Barr, owner of agency 10 Yetis Digital, points out the unfairness of rising costs of energy: “Energy companies are going to have some explaining to do and hopefully this will be probed publicly by the regulator Ofgem or the Competition and Markets Authority as the cost of wholesale gas prices fell to lower than they were before the Russians invaded Ukraine.

“In my own case, I had a delightful letter from EON over Christmas saying that my electricity bill had gone up, but to my huge relief, my gas bill was going down by 0.01pence. Cheers to that.”


SVB collapse

Zach Cutler, CEO of PR agency Propel: “The biggest PR disaster of 2023 was the collapse of SVB, the second largest bank failure in US history. As interest rates rose, the US bonds it was holding lost some of their value. However, they were still worth billions of dollars. And yet, SVB released a statement which only spoke about losses, leading to a run on the bank. Had the bank explained that it was still cash positive despite the losses on the bonds, there wouldn’t have been a bank run as depositors rushed to withdraw cash, and SVB would have likely survived.”

Companies highlighting failings by newsjacking IWD

Cheryl Morris at agency Creative Word PR: “There are lots of reasons companies fall foul of PR fails. However, one of the most preventable must be the ‘own goal’ where companies get caught out making claims they can’t substantiate. They throw your brand into the limelight for all the wrong reasons and erode trust which takes years to build. This kind of PR disaster can stick long after the dust has settled.

“It is something that many companies have fallen foul of this year. To mark International Women’s Day (IWD) in March, businesses were caught out by @paygapapp for claiming to celebrate IWD while still seeing huge disparity in pay for female employees. The coverage not only took over Twitter but hit national headlines as well.

“Emirates led a campaign celebrating female-led films you can watch on its in-flight entertainment systems to show its support for IWD. However, Gender Pay Gap Bot was quick to retweet, revealing the company’s pay gap of 34.2%, which was 27.5% higher than the previous year.

“Heathrow Airport also shared stories from women at Heathrow to mark IWD only to have it revealed that women’s median hourly pay is 14% lower than men’s.

“If you are going to align yourself with a campaign, make sure your business fits that ethos. There is nothing worse than getting caught out for sending your approval ratings falling.”


This Morning – Holly and Phil fall out

A spat between TV icons Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield led to Philip Schofield leaving This Morning. At the time Andy Barr, owner of agency 10 Yetis Digital, described here how ITV was locked in crisis talks over the drama. “It was such a severe situation that your own, very brave, columnist was invited to speak on local BBC radio about this very topic.”


The BBC and Huw Edwards

Ben Girdlestone., joint managing director at PR firm Byfield Consultancy: "A respected figure, admired for his recent reports on the Queen's passing, found his reputation damaged and the BBC once again under fire.

“The decision to not name the individual, although understandable, led to a media frenzy which arguably made the situation worse. The unfortunately timed release of the BBC’s highest-paid earners, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, did nothing to quell public anger.

“From a reputational perspective, the incident not only brought into question the ethical standards and internal controls at the BBC, but also exposed it to even more public scrutiny and criticism at a time when public trust in the BBC was already waning. The controversy underscored the importance of transparency and accountability in the BBC's operations, emphasising the need for rigorous enforcement of ethical standards and proactive management of crisis situations. Ultimately, the scandal served as a stark reminder of the delicate balance between protecting individual privacy and upholding the public's right to information, especially in cases involving public figures and institutions entrusted with public funds.”


Water companies 

Water companies got plenty of bad PR over the year, but we have picked this story from Andy Barr’s column in August as this has to be one of the worst. He describes how triathletes became ill after an event that involved a sea swim: “The suspected cause? The amount of human waste being pumped into the sea near where the swim element of the triathlon took place. The Environment Agency tested the water before the race and found 39 times the normal amount of E.coli in the readings. Sadly, it didn’t report its findings until after the race had took place.

“Chief suspect in all of this is Northumbrian Water, but it has said it has nothing to do with it. It certainly had zero record of discharging anything it should not have anywhere near the stretch of the beach where it happened.

“Anyway, global elite athletes are now ridiculing the UK water quality across social media and we in the UK now look like a right bunch of dirty wallies.”


EasyJet vs EasyLife

Jessica Pardoe, account manager at agency Source PR: “Something that caught my eye earlier this year was the case of EasyJet forcing a small indie band named EasyLife to rebrand, following a claim they copied EasyJet’s name. When you look into it a little more, the band *were*using EasyJet branding (including posters with a plane – bit obvious!) in their designs so some might think they had it coming, but still, many saw it as a case of a big brand pushing around a smaller one just because it can. Obviously, EasyJet had better financial and legal support than the small indie-alt group from Leicester. So it won. The story ended with the band seemingly disbanding, but many think this is a PR stunt of their own and they’re actually just undergoing an extensive rebrand. Either way, the whole thing made EasyJet look like a bit of a bully and these sorts of publicised court cases never seem to do well for the attacking business (think: Colin vs Cuthbert!).”


Nigel Farage in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here

Guy Clapperton, founder and lead trainer of media training agency Clapperton: “This is still unfolding, but Nigel Farage going onto I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here meant ratings dropped two million compared to last year’s run, but worse (for him) so many of his supporters are still claiming this as a success. That’s a hell of a chunk of the audience to lose and the figures will speak for themselves.”

PRmoment founder Ben Smith adds: "Whatever your politics, it's difficult to argue that Farage has not been the most effective orator in UK politics in the last 20 years. But his appearances on I'm a Celeb suggest that this is limited to to one-to-one media appearances, or speeches in The European Parliament. In the social environment of the jungle he seems disappointingly awkward, past his prime and perhaps lacks confidence. It's as if it's suddenly dawned on him that he was wrong all along!"

AI fake speaker

Guy Clapperton: “Basically a tech developer is running a conference and decided it needed to look diverse - so it used AI to create a female speaker of Asian heritage.

“No doubt because of the world shortage of actual women who can actually speak. I despair…”


Continuing train strikes

Travelling by train in 2023 has been made difficult by constant disruption, with strikes planned for every day of the first week of December. Aslef and the RMT union have taken a great deal of industrial action over the past 18 months, which has caused misery to train travellers such as ourselves, so we are awarding the end-of-the-year worst PR gong to them.

It is still only early December, therefore we expect even more PR disasters to come! Check out our Good and Bad PR column for the latest brands, celebrities and politicians who are putting their feet firmly in their mouths.

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