Worst PR disasters of 2022

Well what a year 2022 has been, the good news is… well what is the good news? There has certainly been plenty of bad news. Here we take a stroll through the worst PR disasters of 2022. It is hard to pick an absolute winner, but when it comes to being an absolute loser, Liz Truss has to be up there, with plenty of competition from Boris Johnson.

January

Boris Johnson

Andy Barr owner of agency 10 Yetis Digital: “We have to start with Boris and we have to talk about that party.” Yes ‘partygate’ was the beginning of the end for Boris. At the time Barr wrote in his PRmoment Good and Bad column: ”It is a mistake because millions of people were adhering correctly to the rules that his team had come up with and possibly doing so because they felt everyone was in the same boat. A mistake because thousands of people were dying and their relatives were not able to attend either the funerals or even more heart-breaking in many cases, be with their loved ones on the run up to their passing. It was a mistake because, and this could be the most upsetting and frustrating aspect for many out there, many of us had put our lives on hold, with severe consequences, whilst those in power felt they did not need to hold themselves to the same rules.”

February

Prince Andrew

In the week the Duke of York settled the sexual assault case filed against him by Virginia Giuffre for an undisclosed sum, Andy Barr wrote: “Prince Andrew wins the highest grade of Bad PR possible this week. Not only has he had to buy his way out of trouble, but it’s emerging that his mum is potentially having to bail him out financially too.”

March

Harry and Meghan

Laura Perkes, founder of agency PR with Perkes: “The biggest PR disaster of 2022 has to be Harry and Meghan and their 'win back the public' campaign.

“When they decided to step away from Royal duties, the public felt it was a bold move, but could understand why they wanted privacy and to do their own thing. Yet all they've done ever since is attempt to tarnish the family name, bring down an institution and cash in on family secrets.

“Every attempt to win back the public involves them airing their dirty laundry or coincides with something that William and Kate are doing as part of their Royal duties.

“Everything they say is contradictory to what they said they wanted. Harry plays the victim, then titles his autobiography 'Spare'. If that isn't feeding into a victim mentality I don't know what is. Every time they try to do good it comes off in poor taste and doesn't yield the results they're looking for.”

P&O Ferries sacks 800 members of staff

Andy Barr: “No one will have missed the Titanic approach to PR that P&O Ferries took. It was a disaster from the start. The comms was nonsensical, and the resulting tidal wave of coverage dragged in negativity for the Government over its handling of the situation and the vagueness of whether MPs knew it was happening before it actually got announced (some of them did). It was not just a failure in communication it was a failure of being human.”

July

Wagatha Christie

Pam Lyddon, founder of agency Bright Star Digital: “The Wagatha Christie court case, what an absolute waste of money. WAG vs WAG and I don’t think these two will ever recover even though Rooney won. This was a clear display of one upwomanship. Both had the chance to resolve this privately, but instead they did it in public. This was about having a lot of money and wasting it on a court case where no one really won. I just wish they would have resolved this amicably and given the money to charity.“

Boris Johnson resignation

Andy Barr: “Boris at last, resigned. One thing he does still head, and that is the top of the leader board for Bad PR. And all because of the lies and misinformation spread by him and his inner circle.

The Chris Pincher scandal was the final straw for the two senior cabinet ministers who initially quit, heading a landslide of resignations that led to Boris having to step down.”

September

Center Parcs

Ellie St George-Yorke, director at PR agency Definition: “For me it has to be Center Parcs and its closing then opening then closing announcements around the Queen’s funeral. As a Center Parcs regular (can’t get enough of those flumes), it was alarming to see how badly organised the communications around plans for the day were. Obviously it was a once-in-a-generation event, but an event all businesses should have had a crisis plan in place for. Seeing official messages stating guests would be evicted from their holiday homes was a long way from the brand values of this usually well-oiled machine.”

October

The mini budget

Ian Williams, director, financial Services at PR firm FleishmanHillard: If you are looking for the worst piece of comms in 2022, then look no further than the ‘mini-budget’. You won’t find any more ill-judged, expensive or destructive 25 minutes of communication this year.

“Let’s remind ourselves of the cost: millions of people are paying more for their mortgages and both mortgage lending and house prices have slumped.

“Many of the UK’s occupational pension funds came close to calamity as the Gilt market spiked. And it took several £bn of emergency intervention by the Bank of England to prevent that from happening.

“The Chancellor and the PM both left their jobs, and the new Chancellor not only had to reverse almost every single measure in the mini-budget, but had to (arguably) raise taxes and cut spending more than would have otherwise been required - in order to restore faith in the UK’s monetary stability.

“Every single person in the UK is now poorer as a result of that one 25-minute speech. Comms doesn’t get worse than that.”

Liz Truss resignation

Lorraine Emmett, managing director of B2B tech PR agency EC-PR: “One of the stand out PR disasters of 2022 was Liz Truss single-handedly destroying the Tory party’s reputation for fiscal prudence whilst making the UK a global laughingstock.

“Inevitably this led to her resignation. No matter your political views, the whole budget debacle was a huge PR fail.”

David Beckham

Pam Lyddon, founder of agency Bright Star Digital.: “It was a PR disaster for David Beckham being paid £150 million to sell his soul to FIFA and Qatar government, and not using this platform in any way to highlight human rights abuses in the country. I just find it so sad to be honest… ”

November

Elon Musk fires Twitter staff

Lorraine Emmett: “Another stand out PR disaster of 2022 was Elon Musk’s firing his staff at Twitter over email.

“Perhaps it was a blueprint for how not to handle redundancies and employee wellbeing? And with that came all the other shenanigans relating to Twitter employees such as telling them they could no longer work from home and then on a different day blocking their entry to the office. How you treat your staff is integral to reputation management, and so from a PR perspective this was a complete PR disaster of 2022.”

FIFA World Cup

Jake Setterfield, senior account director at PR consultancy MPC: “2022 was undoubtedly the year of sports-washing PR disasters, and if Qatar is anything to go by, the country threw in a red footie sock with their white load.

“They've gone to great lengths to legitimise their regime and reputation, whilst distracting attention from their human rights abuses. The world's scrutiny was well and truly fixed on IBM and the Saudi royal family - unlike their tiny neighbour, Qatar. Despite this, not to be outdone, the oil-rich country decided to stick its head above the parapet and scored an own goal in the process.

“Since FIFA chose Qatar to host the world cup, the media's attention has focused on a whole host of PR disasters from the country, ranging from Infantino's Beyond Football speech and accusations of corruption in the bidding process, to the loss of life amongst migrant workers and the persecution of the country's LGBTQ+ community.

“But once the football's finished, I'm sure there'll be a fair bit of head scratching, and questions raised about 'why did we bother?'. From a country which has the highest GDP in the world, they spent £200 billion to host the games and have been vilified over their draconian policies, not to mention being crap at footie.

“A bitter lesson learned in adopting an 'any PR is good PR' stance.”

Catherine, MD at family attraction website daysout.com: “There are too many different terrible PR moments to cover them all in the World Cup, but the main one was the change of stance around the One Love armbands at such short notice.

“To me that says there’s a total lack of integrity in leadership, a really narrow mindset and short-sightedness. Sadly a lot of these decisions and hugely political but if a body as big and wide reaching as FIFA can’t help to move some of the cultural mountains that we need to move closer towards inclusivity, who can - who will?

“I hope this paves the ways for other sporting bodies and big global brands to stand up and lead by example.”

Ben Ormsby, senior consultant at agency Aberfield Communications: "The FIFA World Cup is the PR disaster that keeps on giving, and we're only halfway through the tournament. Not because of a single issue, but multiple; from armband-gate, to the reported human rights violations which have received plenty of column inches. However, whilst these issues are sure to endure beyond the life of the tournament, the predominant failure from a comms perspective is how state intervention jeopardised one of the tournament’s major sponsors.

“Just days before the first ball was kicked, Qatar demanded that beer be banned from stadiums. Budweiser, which has been a major sponsor of the tournament since 1986, overnight saw millions of bottles which had been planned for fans relegated to shipping containers, never to be drunk. You may say this isn’t a major issue but for Qatar, a country which is trying to compete with Dubai as a key international destination and a venue of sport, decisions which disregard major event sponsors, may make its future untenable."

December

Balenciaga

Jasmin Martin, media relations executive at PR agency Definition: “I would say that the biggest PR disaster of 2022 is Balenciaga’s recent Christmas campaigns. One campaign featured children holding teddy bear bags, with the bears dressed in S&M-style harnesses, and another displayed copies of the Supreme Court’s 2008 child pornography decision. The luxury fashion house has rightfully faced backlash due to its glamorisation of child abuse in these photos.

“Influencers are burning their Balenciaga items, and protestors have graffitied Balenciaga stores. Kim Kardashian, who has been a brand ambassador for Balenciaga for a while now, even walking in its fashion show, has also spoken out against the brand. Still, it is undecided if she will step away just yet. Who knows how the brand will bounce back if she does decide to walk away? All in all, it's a disaster.”

As for the absolute worst event of 2022 in PR terms, many of our pundits voted FIFA World Cup as the biggest disaster by far. However, if England actually win, the sentiment might become more positive - well let’s be honest the country will go completely overboard and we’ll never hear the end of it!

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