The worst PR disasters of 2021

As with 2020, our award for worst PR of the year goes to government comms. However, at home and abroad, there are plenty of brands and celebrities which have also been busy putting their feet firmly in their mouths. 

As far as Andy Barr, owner of agency 10 Yetis Digital and writer of PRmoment column Good and Bad PR, is concerned, it has been a particularly bad year for FMCG brands: “Many japesters would point at the roller-coaster year that the PR community itself has had, but I think overall, the FMCG world has fared far worse, especially in the world of food and drink. Coke vs Ronaldo, Pepsi vs the BLM movement, KFC vs Chickens (or lack thereof) and Walkers and Weetabix vs IT glitches, have led to all the wrong kinds of headlines for these usually PR-savvy global brands. Lots of learning points for us comms folk in terms of crisis communications, but also a nasty bruise in the sales figures and share prices for these household names.”

Below is PRmoment’s calendar of the worst PR disasters of the year.

February

BetterHelp


Raquel Pinto, digital PR executive at agency Limelight Digital: “BetterHelp, the online portal that offers mental health services online has been incredibly controversial for all the wrong reasons:

“When a therapist on TikTok (@therapyden) raised awareness on the fact that BetterHelp was selling user data to third parties, the decision on BetterHelp's part was to update its terms of service and privacy policy to claim it does not sell users information on any advertising platform or third party, that is, of course, excluding the data that will indeed be shared with affiliates in BetterHelp’s corporate group or for various business purposes and other activity data that will be sent to advertising partners to optimise marketing. See the irony?

@therapyjeff

Why do therapists hate BetterHelp? #betterhelp #therapy #therapytiktok #therapist #mentalhealthmatters #trauma #siliconvalley

♬ original sound - TherapyJeff

“As if that wasn't bad enough, BetterHelp concurrently aligned with Travis Scott after the horrific Astroworld concert to offer a measly one-month free trial of therapy sessions to the victims, announcing it as a 'partnership' that quite frankly read like an influencer-brand deal.”

March

Volkswagen becomes Voltswagen

Mimi Brown, associate director at PR agency The PHA Group: One of the PR fails that sticks in my mind this year is Voltswagen. Yes, Voltswagen - the automaker temporarily rebranded as an early April Fools’ Day prank this March to demonstrate its commitment to ‘future-forward investment in e-mobility’ and establish itself as the leader in the EV space.

“It was an unusual marketing approach for a business that has spent five years trying to shed a reputation for corporate dishonesty by the Dieselgate scandal, where the automaker not only sold millions of cars that cheated emissions tests, but also actively tried to cover up its wrongdoing when questioned by regulators. Whilst the name change may have sounded like a good idea at Volkswagen HQ, for many consumers, it was the worst April Fools’ Day prank they’ve heard since VW told the world its diesel was clean.”

April

European Super League

Lottie West, associate director - UK consumer lead at PR agency Hotwire Global: “The announcement and subsequent unravelling of the European Super League has to be up there with the worst PR fails of recent times. In attempting to break away from their home leagues, the 12 football clubs involved demonstrated the fundamental error of ignoring the needs and wants of their most important consumer audience; the supporters. Friction between supporters and the corporate elite is nothing new - you only have to go to the Emirates on a Saturday afternoon to understand exactly how popular Stan Kroenke is for example - but it’s easy to close your ears to the fans when the multi-million pound deals keep rolling in.

“Less easy though when you don’t even have the buy-in of your own players, and stakeholders from the FA to Boris Johnson are stepping in to put a stop to proceedings. Within 48 hours the league lay in tatters, with clubs issuing grovelling apologies to their fans. By then the damage was done however, and this PR disaster only served to reinforce the disconnect between football’s boardroom and its grassroots. Time will tell whether this debacle will cause a much needed reassessment of the importance of fans to the game.”

M&S - Colin the Caterpillar

Jacquelyn Whyte, senior account director at agency Muckle Media: “My PR villain for this year has to be Colin the Caterpillar for trying to take poor Cuthbert to the high court. 2021 didn’t deliver the post-Covid return to normal we all hoped for this time last year, so the timing of the legal action just seemed a bit off. After the past two years we’ve all had, shouldn’t we just be allowed to have our (caterpillar) cake and eat it regardless of where we bought it?


While M&S came under fire for not extending the legal action to Cecil, Wiggles, Curly and Clyde, I did love how Aldi managed to turn the situation around with hilarious social media content and then the inclusion of Cuthbert in its Christmas ad seven months later - ensuring a second wave of positive coverage. Well played Aldi.“

June

Coke vs Ronaldo

The disaster for Coca-Cola was when Christiano Ronaldo decided to remove two Coke bottles at a Euro 2-2- new conference. The results? A $4 billion drop in the market value for the American drink brand.

Brewdog

Oliver Bradley, client director at startup agency for startups Words + Pixels: "Brewdog has built a reputation for being brash and breaking the rules. Whilst this attitude might not win it any fans at the ASA, it's a reputation that has been carefully curated over the years and built a loyal fanbase of customers. However, taking this approach to accusations of an internal ‘culture of fear’ and ‘toxic attitude’ was gravely misjudged. The brand’s immediate response to an open letter from 'Punks with Purpose'. It allegedly encouraged existing staff to sign a response letter (which was subsequently leaked) and mocked up an image of a non-existent brew, aptly named ‘Damage Control’. This naturally prompted social uproar which forced the brand to review its approach and the CEO apologised, promising an internal review and that lessons had been learnt... but this didn’t really ring true. No matter how good your external comms might be, alignment with internal teams has never been more important, because even though every brand will have a personality and tone of voice, issues like this require a much more human and empathetic approach."

August

KFC vs chickens

KFC had the nightmare of dealing with a chicken shortage with the chain admitting that some menu items were not available to order in its restaurants. Kentucky Fried Chicken warned customers to be prepared for “weeks of disruption” to its menu after running out of chicken supplies.

October

Facebook

Discussing Facebook’s crash this autumn, Andy Barr wrote on 7 October in PRmoment’s Good and Bad PR column: “The outage seemed to affect all its social platforms and despite the conspiracy theorists trying to pin the blame on people working from home, I doubt we will ever know the real reason. It capped off a torrid week for the anti-social giant thanks to several leaked reports coming out about the company knowing that its channels can negatively affect mental health.

“Quite often in this column, a bad company decision, rather than a bad decision made by that company’s comms team wins it the title of Bad PR, but in Facebook’s case, its actual PR team had a shocker.

“When the Wall Street Journal approached the social-giant comms team with details of the leaked documents and a heads-up that it was going to run the story in approximately an hour, the company then broke its agreement to not say anything before the story ran by pushing out two documents about this issue.

“In crisis comms terms the goal is to get ahead of the story, but Facebook has committed a cardinal PR sin and you can guarantee it will never again get a heads-up about a hatchet job story by a media outlet. Double Bad PR for Zuck’s gang.”

November

Travis Scott

Linnea, PR executive at digital growth agency Pearl Lemon Group  says “Travis Scott is just a PR mess. From start to finish you're dealing with multiple deaths, an irresponsible party, and a massive lawsuit. I won't say that the entire situation is Travis Scott's fault because it's not, but he did have a role in the PR disaster that followed.

“Travis Scott has a history of inciting the crowd and encouraging dangerous behaviour from his audience. He has been seen egging the crowd to fight other people, to do dangerous stunts, and overall wreak havoc.

“As I mentioned previously, anytime there is a death, it's going to be bad PR no matter what, but what is even worse than being involved with something that resulted in a death, is something that resulted in multiple deaths: 10 as of today have been counted as a result of the Astroworld incident which then followed with a rumoured 2 billion dollar lawsuit to Travis Scott, LiveNation, Apple Music, Drake, and NRG Stadium.

“Some may say that's a lot of money, but I would say how can you even put a value to all the injuries and deaths that occurred at the event? These aren't adults either. These are kids. Kids who won't ever get the chance to grow up and live their lives as they would have.

“There is no apology that will ever justify all those deaths or make them better. And Travis Scott's ‘apology’ was the absolute worst thing he could have done to respond to the event. It felt like he was apologising for peeking at the presents too early, not being responsible for 10 deaths and multiple injuries.

“A better example of how to handle a situation is with Ariana Grande at Manchester. She was not responsible at all for the bombing that occurred, but she took responsibility anyway. She showed empathy, she showed courtesy, she showed grace, she showed that she cares about her fans. That's the best thing a celebrity can do.

“Sometimes deaths will happen. And it's always tragic when it happens, but most people just want to know that there is a human being behind the celebrity mask.”

Walkers and Weetabix

In PRmoment’s Good and Bad PR column published on 10 November, Andy Barr said: “Two food brands who got wrapped up in negative headlines surrounding supply shortages this week were Walkers and Weetabix. On both counts, sadly for the comms teams, operational issues have led to the Bad PR. Walkers has a mysterious ‘IT System’ issue that has meant that the production lines for the nation’s favourite crisps have moved to a go-slow and Weetabix is embroiled in a set of HR issues that could end up in a strike

“There is little that the PR teams can do to prevent the bad press, but it once again supports the general UK economic feeling that everything currently balances on a knife-edge.”

Yorkshire Cricket Club

Chris Norton, founder of agency Prohibition PR: “The Yorkshire Cricket Club’s handling of racism allegations has to be the biggest PR disaster of 2021 for me - the perfect example of how not to handle a crisis.

Not only did it fail to publish an investigation report and communicated very little, far too late, its positioning on the matter appeared worrying - which it may not have been, but unfortunately its comms suggested so. Sometimes silence really is louder than words and by not even acknowledging the matter until recently, it raised a lot of questions which led to weeks of national coverage.

“The club should have been much more open and honest from the start and identified a spokesperson to offer up its side of the story immediately. It also failed to explain what it was doing to investigate the allegations, how fast and what would happen as a result, which should have been the first thing it did.”

The gift that gave all year… The winner of worst PR of the year goes to…

Downing Street

Natalie Trice, senior PR director at marketing agency Fox Agency: “In a year that chewed up and spat out the likes of Colin the Caterpillar (see April), BrewDog (see June), Facebook (see October) and so many more, trying to find the worst PR is a tricky one. However, it must be Downing Street which needs to seriously get its press office game up to scratch. From Boris talking about Peppa Pig as he lost his way during a CBI speech, to Matt Hancock and that very private affair, back to Boris not wearing a mask whilst the rest of us have had them in every pocket, then there is the debacle of Dominic Cummings, and let’s not forget the unforgivable fiasco when it came to free school meals for the most vulnerable children in society, only saved by Marcus Rashford. Yes, we might be operating in unprecedented times, and trying to get to grips with a global pandemic isn’t an easy task, but time and time and time again the government’s PR, or lack of PR, has left people feeling angry and confused, and made us look like an incompetent nation. Let’s hope 2022 sees things change and if nothing else, when mistakes are made, make the apology and not only pledge to do better, but actually do better.”

Those may be the top PR lowlights of the year, but 2021 hasn’t ended yet, so there could be more to come. Which only leaves us to say, have a fabulous end of year, and may 2022 be a good one!

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.

Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector and will be automatically entered into a monthly prize draw to win a PRmoment t-shirt!


PRmoment Awards 2022 PRmoment Patreon