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PR Nightmares and How to Avoid Them


With Halloween just around the corner, there is no better time for us to revisit every communications professional’s worst fear: PR nightmares. Whether it be cringe-worthy performative activism (think Kendall Jenner’s 2017 Pepsi ad) or failure to be transparent with consumers, PR nightmares can take many forms and require communications professionals to quickly shift gears into crisis mode to protect their client’s image. Despite increasing corporate social responsibility among companies and brands, this year had no shortage of PR nightmares.

  • Tropicana
    • Back in December 2020, Tropicana launched its #TakeAMimoment social media campaign which encouraged parents to share how they take breaks amid the struggles of pandemic parenting. The company insinuated that one way parents can relax during their downtime is by enjoying a Tropicana mimosa. While intended to be a light-hearted nod to how having children at home 24/7 drove many parents up the wall during school closures, the campaign offended many consumers who found it extremely insensitive given the dramatic increase in alcoholism during the pandemic. For example, Klen&Sobr, a recovery pod organization, tweeted: “FWIW, the campaign didn’t “imply” alcohol was the answer… it was *explicit* in demonstrating that hiding from one’s family —including leaving young children unsupervised— to drink alone was the answer. I’m gonna need to #TakeAMimoment to process your weak apology.” The company apologized shortly after the backlash stating that it had not meant to “imply that alcohol is the answer.
  • McKinsey & Company
    • Renowned global consultancy McKinsey faced widespread backlash after it was revealed that the group had aided Purdue Pharma in driving sales of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription pain killer and a key driver of the opioid epidemic, which has contributed to the deaths of more than 450,000 people over the last two decades. When it later came out that top consultants at the firm had discussed destroying documents related to their work with Purdue, the outrage only intensified. McKinsey received public criticism from top politicians such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as well as from former employees. The company issued a brief apology statement on its website, something it has rarely done in the past. Despite McKinsey’s half-hearted attempt to escape accountability for its actions, the company ultimately settled out of court for nearly $600 million for its involvement in the marketing of OxyContin. Given that McKinsey’s annual revenue is estimated at a whopping $10 billion by Fortune, one might argue that the settlement is not true accountability.
  • Governor Cuomo’s Resignation
    • Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation in August 2021 after 10 years in office amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and a sexual harassment report from the attorney general’s office which found most, if not all, of these allegations to be true. In his last press conference, the former governor failed to take responsibility for his actions by insisting that he never intended to do any harm and suggesting that the allegations were “politically motivated.” Similar to the case of McKinsey, Cuomo’s attempt to evade accountability for his actions was received very negatively by the public, costing him his career and reputation. Cuomo’s fall from grace was especially jarring to the public due to his leadership during the pandemic - he won the country over by portraying himself as a man of integrity and transparency only for it to be revealed that the image he had carefully cultivated for himself was an illusion designed to conceal an abusive work culture and predatory behavior. A large part of the backlash Cuomo received from the public stemmed in part from a feeling of betrayal that he was not the upstanding leader he had convinced the country he was.

These three crises are all very different in nature. McKinsey and Andrew Cuomo’s crisis situations resulted in very real harm to those involved. Tropicana's poorly worded advertisement was distasteful at best and offensive at worst. Interestingly enough, Tropicana’s crisis held the least consequences for the public, yet it was the only actor in all three cases to issue a genuine apology. This is largely due to the fact that admitting wrongdoing in both McKinsey and Cuomo’s cases would result in legal and financial consequences in addition to reputational consequences. It is also in part due to the fact that the bigger the mistake is the more difficult the apology. So how can companies and individuals avoid making these dire mistakes that harm so many?

  • Clear Communication
    • Leaders and organizations should always be sure to communicate openly and honestly with the public. This means using intentional language in advertisements and on social media and being thoughtful about the repercussions of the messaging being communicated to the public.
  • Transparency
    • Companies and public figures should never hide pertinent information about their product or platform from the company. However, in the event that something was hidden comes to light, it is essential that the involved individuals and brands come clean as soon as possible rather than attempting to further cover up past mistakes. Lying to the public will only cause more damage to the brand or individuals’ reputation and its victims.
  • Accountability
    • When caught in a crisis, it’s imperative that organizations and individuals respond swiftly, taking accountability for their actions and apologizing accordingly.

At the end of the day, the best way to avoid PR nightmares is for brands and individuals to prioritize the wellbeing of the consumers and audiences they serve.

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