16 PR Crisis Management Examples: What (Not) to Do

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For every brand under the sun, it’s inevitable that problems arise every now and then. It could be a simple typo in a marketing campaign all the way to a full-blown international scandal. Crisis management examples show that some brands handle these crises well, while others… Not so much.

Today we’ll make sure you fall into the first group.

Let’s take a look at some company crisis examples – both good and bad ones, to help you with your PR crisis management and help you get inspired.

Luckily you can do a lot to protect yourself from future brand crises. Start from using Prowly’s media monitoring while you figure out your plan B.

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is a type of communication brands undertake in critical situations. The primary aim of crisis communication is to mitigate the impact on a company’s reputation, operations and stakeholders.

7 PR crisis examples: don’t do it that way

When things get tough in the world of PR, not even having a big brand or a powerful PR team can help in some cases. And frankly, you don’t need one to come up with a good crisis strategy if you’re a small brand.

As we’ll learn from the crisis communication examples below, disaster can strike quickly and spares no one.

#1 OpenAI and Sam Altman

The news of Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, being fired from his position in 2023 shook the world of tech. It’s one of the prime examples of crisis management done poorly.

1️⃣ Background

Sam Altman was the CEO of OpenAI, the world’s leading artificial intelligence platform. In a short time frame, he made a name for himself and the company. On November 17, 2023, the board and the company fired him, blasting the news of the event on a Friday afternoon.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Let’s say they didn’t handle it well.

The flash point was created way before the crisis happened – with no complex new CEO replacing the previous one announced to the public. As it turned out, not even the major stakeholders or investors, like Microsoft, knew about Sam Altman being fired.

Fridays are sometimes chosen for news dumps to soften the blow as news gets less attention during the weekend. However, they also say “crises blow out on the weekends.” And it’s way safer to monitor what’s going on especially after dropping news like that. But – during the weekend following this climactic Friday, they did nothing.

Only after getting backlash from investors and notable tech figures did the new CEO step up and say that the process was not handled smoothly.

3️⃣ Evaluation

There are many reasons why this is a classic example of poor social media crisis management.

There was no preparation beforehand, there was inconsistency in communication, and the news was dumped on a Friday afternoon.

Lessons learned: Prepare a plan ahead of time, especially if you’re promoting news about someone both well-known and liked in the company. Do not dump news on Fridays expecting things to settle down and blow over during the weekend. Ensure your communication is consistent.

💡 TIP: Here you can find an example of a press release announcing the resignation of an old CEO and the hire of a new leader.

#2 Musk Twitter rebranding

The names of Twitter and Elon Musk will be studied decades from now as textbook crisis communications examples of how things should not be done. But is it really that obvious?

1️⃣ Background

Ever since Elon Musk purchased Twitter to the tune of $44 billion, he has been introducing a series of changes to the brand.

Many were unexpected but coherent with Musk’s character and beliefs: from firing people, banning journalists, unbanning users, charging for verification badges, and more. And in 2023, he decided to rebrand Twitter to X.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Musk went about with business as usual. He stayed active, as always, on X (Twitter) in his own characteristic, nonchalant way.

The rebranding wasn’t announced, it just happened. The rebranding scared some advertisers and accounts away, but ultimately, as the dust settled, people started using the brand X instead of Twitter. Just as Musk said.

3️⃣ Evaluation

One could say – different rules apply when you’re Elon Musk and have a general tendency not to care about what the public thinks.

From the PR perspective, it was misguided and many things could have been done better. This controversy surely got X many media placements – although today’s PR doesn’t live by the “all publicity is good publicity” approach. 

Lessons learned: Rebranding should be purposeful and not just create change for the sake of change.

💡 TIP: If you’re planning on rebranding, make sure to plan the communication and use this press release guide as inspiration to prepare your statement.

#3 Barcelona female team and their coach

This is one of the best examples of a crisis situation gone wrong – in August 2023, former football chief Luis Rubiales forcibly kissed a female football player during a game.

1️⃣ Background

Luis Rubiales is a football coach who grabbed the head of Jennifer Hermoso during a live airing of a football game, causing a proper crisis for the Royal Spanish Football Association (RFEF).

Not long after the incident, there was outrage by journalists and the public.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Initially, in the days after the event, Rubiales and the members of RFEF showed no regret and he was even praised for standing up against “false feminism.”

Then everything took a turn as they realized the public was not letting the situation go. The new president apologized for the action, while Rubiales was fired and banned from football. But the change didn’t happen quickly.

3️⃣ Evaluation

The crisis could have been prevented if the individual and company acted in a timely manner and admitted their wrongdoing. The scandal was covered globally and spread like wildfire, causing irreparable damage to everyone involved.

Lessons learned:
👉🏼 Act quickly and apologize if you are in the wrong.
👉🏼 Recognize the mistake that happened and own it before the event scales to a more serious level.
👉🏼 And in situations like this – call a special board meeting to address the scandal and evaluate the options of making a real change – because a simple apology might not be enough.

#4 Wells Fargo account fraud scandal

1️⃣ Background

Wells Fargo employees created bogus accounts in their bank in order for their employees to reach their sales targets.

The end result was that Wells Fargo had operational issues initially, and when the scandal was found, the company’s reputation was on thin ice.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

The initial response was to blame low-level employees and not accept full accountability as a company.

As the crisis unfolded and it was revealed how many accounts were affected, leadership took responsibility. The CEO stepped down and the top management was replaced.

3️⃣ Evaluation

For the scale of the crisis, the leadership of Wells Fargo was too slow to take responsibility. Besides the reputational damage, the company had to pay out over $3 billion to regulatory bodies.

Lessons learned: When a crisis happens at a large scale, the leadership should step up and be accountable. Many brand crisis examples follow this pattern – the damage could have been mitigated if the right people took a stand from the start.

#5 United Airlines’ passenger removal incident

In April 2017, Dr David Dao was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight that was accidentally overbooked.

1️⃣ Background

Flight 3411 was overbooked and United Airlines had to remove someone from the flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

They chose Dr. David Dao and removed him by force, injuring him in the process. The problem couldn’t be buried under the carpet because someone recorded everything.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Initially, the CEO of the company put blame on the passenger for reacting in the way that he did. Even though the mistake wasn’t made by the victim, but the tech.

Then internal emails were leaked, blaming the passenger for his actions rather than the company taking the blame for the situation. Eventually, the United Airlines CEO apologized to Dr. David Dao and the rest of the passengers.

3️⃣ Evaluation

Like many other social media crisis examples, this one came about because of a bad initial reaction from company leadership.

Also a refund should have taken place in this situation, combined with the right messaging and taking adult responsibility as a brand for what happened. Couple that with a lack of transparency and you have the recipe for a PR disaster.

Lessons learned:
👉🏼 React quickly and honestly and apologize for the errors you’ve made.
👉🏼 While apologizing eventually can mitigate some damage, it’s the initial reaction that has the biggest impact.
👉🏼 Give something in return, like a specific refund, and take real action to show you take the blame and promise to do better by giving real life examples. Owning your mistakes can save you face and money.

#6 Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Scandal

In the 2010s, the consulting company of Cambridge Analytica collected the personal data of millions of Facebook users, resulting in one of the biggest PR crises of the past decade.

1️⃣ Background

Facebook allowed the consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, to collect data from millions of users through a third-party app – to the tally of 87 million users. This data was then used in the 2016 presidential election.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

The initial reaction was very slow and leadership showed a lack of transparency for the crisis at hand.

It took a while for Mark Zuckerberg to explain what happened, why it happened, and who was affected. By the time they came out with an explanation and apology, the damage had already been done.

3️⃣ Evaluation

The crisis affected a large number of people at an international scale and, given the force that Facebook is, a prompt reaction was lacking.

Lessons learned: Explain what had gone wrong and who was affected. The more time passes by, the more room you leave for misinterpretation.

#7 The Silicon Valley Bank run

In early 2023, the Silicon Valley Bank boasted profits of more than $200 billion. Soon after, the company collapsed because of low investment values as well as startups withdrawing their cash.

1️⃣ Background

A mix of various factors caused a massive bank run at SVB. In plain English, it means that everyone with an account went to withdraw their money in a short time frame.

2️⃣ How the company reacted

They failed to acknowledge their lack of control over their finances and they did not communicate early and properly about what happened. There was no real initial risk except for the poor financial management by the SVB leadership board.

3️⃣ Evaluation

SVB initially reacted very poorly with a series of finger-pointing, hoping that it would resolve the ongoing crisis. The biggest culprit was probably social media, which added fuel to the fire, as SVB depositors encouraged each other to withdraw their funds.

Lessons learned: SVB failed to take ownership and, had the Federal Reserve not gotten involved, a massive crisis would have happened. Besides not keeping up with social media, the biggest fault of SVB was not living up to their own values.

Crisis management part 1: how to prevent a PR crisis

As you’ll see from the successful crisis management examples below, disasters can be prevented by acting early and noticing the signs of trouble ahead of time.

The ideal tool for preventing crises? Media monitoring.

social media monitoring flow for PR social listening flow

👉🏼 With media monitoring you can find issues before they escalate and intervene early.

👉🏼 You’ll get to track the public sentiment of your target audience and the wider public, which helps you create unique communications plans.

👉🏼 You also get informed about the competition: their trends and perception in the public, helping you determine the right course of action.

👉🏼 Last but not least, you can perform reputation management and protect your brand by responding to negative comments early.

Some key media monitoring features that help with crisis management include:

  • sentiment analysis
  • the ability to spot patterns and trends
  • quick engagement and response to burning fires
  • providing a feedback loop to your business or your client
  • helps you create a crisis plan

Media monitoring can help guide your crisis communication plan by giving you the necessary information before a crisis even happens.

6 PR crisis management examples: Well handled

There are brands big and small that have had major crises hit them but managed to evade the damage with style and grace. Here are some examples you can learn from:

#1 Lego and Shell partnership

In 2014, Lego got in trouble for being associated with the oil company, Shell. Greenpeace condemned Lego for working with Shell, stating they indirectly supported their cause. Most specifically, the drilling of the Arctic.

1️⃣ Background

Greenpeace launched a full-blown campaign, depicting the Arctic being made of Lego and covered in oil. Even though Lego themselves had done nothing wrong (besides selling blocks made entirely from plastic), their association with Shell was enough to start a backlash.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Lego explained that they advocate for sustainability and that their partnership with Shell had a different focus. It was purely based on selling Lego sets at selected Shell stations and Lego did not support or endorse any activities related to drilling in the Arctic. However, words were not enough.

3️⃣ Evaluation

Lego decided to terminate their cooperation and partnership with Shell because their values simply did not align. They stressed that the decision was in the best interest of everyone: both Lego and the environment.

Lessons learned: By prioritizing sustainability as a cause rather than profits or partnerships, Lego mended their public image and came out of the crisis as a winner.
👉🏼 The biggest lesson to learn here is to ensure that your partnerships align with your values as a brand and to be prepared to sever ties that harm your reputation. Actions speak louder than words.

#2 Airbnb – COVID-19 pandemic response

COVID-19 shook the entire world, and hospitality was one of the industries that was almost killed.

1️⃣ Background

Airbnb was caught in between a rock and a hard place – having to support hosts but, at the same time, allow guests to cancel their bookings.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Initially, Airbnb changed their cancellation policy, allowing anyone who booked before March 14, 2020 a full refund. The guests were relieved but the hosts felt unsupported.

The second step came when they extended their policies to cover more bookings, allowing guests to rebook at a later date.

Even further, Airbnb started a support fund of $250 million to compensate hosts for bookings they lost. Then they introduced health and safety guidelines to keep everyone safe. Last but not least, the CEO of the company spoke to everyone involved, ensuring they could come out of the situation unharmed.

3️⃣ Evaluation

Transparency and rapid action saved the public perception of Airbnb.

While the initial backlash was hard, it was largely mitigated by the financial aid. The company swiftly got back on its feet, despite COVID-19 lasting for months on end.

Lessons learned: To be like Airbnb, stay flexible, communicate clearly, and support your entire community, even if it means putting your own money at risk. As always, acting quickly helps quite a lot. And often investing money to prevent a bigger crisis can paradoxically save you more in the end.

#3 M&M’s 2023 crisis turns fine thanks to media monitoring & responses

In 2022, the famous candy brand M&M decided to change the shoes of their green candy to sneakers. They also introduced a new character that was a representation of inclusivity. The reaction from the online community was unexpected.

1️⃣ Background

M&M decided to play with their branding and change up some of their mascots.

The first step was to remove the shoes from the green M&M and replace them with sneakers. Many saw this as a move to make the character less appealing and “spread the woke agenda.” In general the changes were minor and weren’t meant to offend anyone – but more to connect and break the stereotypes.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Initially, they did not do anything, because a  minor change in some fictional characters’ outfits doesn’t seem to be the world’s biggest problem. But over time, especially after introducing a purple, peanut-flavored M&M, people reacted even more extremely.

They then announced their intent to revoke it and replace it with Maya Rudolph, the actress, in a social media statement (above). Ultimately, they showed the M&Ms and Maya Rudolph in some Superbowl ads, gaining massive media attention.

3️⃣ Evaluation

The campaign worked out really well because M&M accepted the criticism, no matter if it was right or wrong from their perspective, and thanks to media monitoring, worked out the right move for their public perception.

Lessons learned: When a crisis is unfolding, tap into media monitoring to discover what journalists and media outlets are saying. Use that information to create new PR campaigns and get the maximum out of the attention you’re getting. Monitoring public sentiment and reacting swiftly is key.

#4 Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery explosions

In 2016, Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices started randomly exploding due to their batteries. As you can imagine, customers were not pleased – to put it mildly. ;)

1️⃣ Background

The Note 7 had a battery issue that caused the devices to catch on fire and explode. Not only did it harm the company’s image, but also had significant chances of harming their customers too.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

Initially, it was a mixed bag. They acknowledged the problem and recalled over 2.5 million devices. But the problem was in the communication – which was inconsistent across different markets and lacked transparency.

To make things worse, the replacement phones caught on fire too.

Then Samsung decided to investigate what happened, publicly disclosing why and how the batteries caught on fire. Additionally, they added a new 8-point check for their devices.

All this on top of refunding and replacing the problematic devices.

Lessons learned: Even at the cost of financial damage, keep transparent and disclose what caused a crisis. And act! Give refunds, replace faulty items. In the long run, it will be worth the investment.

#5 Tesla’s PR crisis

To continue in the same fashion, Tesla had issues with their Model S catching on fire.

1️⃣ Background

The problem with Tesla cars burning up meant a bigger issue was looming: the reputation of all EV cars was at stake. The public wanted to know more about how (un)safe the average EV is and the scandal came about at a very bad moment in Tesla’s development.

2️⃣ How did the company react?

The initial response was led by Elon Musk, appearing now for the second time in this article. He published a statement on the Tesla blog, analyzing the incidents in-depth and providing statistical data about the safety of their cars. This time, the timing and messaging was perfect – especially since it was delivered by an authority – the head of the company.

3️⃣ Evaluation

This approach worked for two reasons. First, it was timely and led by the CEO of the company. Two, he did not appeal to emotion. He instead presented facts and argued that statistically, EVs are safer than internal combustion cars.

Lessons learned: As always, be quick and have a reputable individual represent the company publicly. State the facts and be transparent about what happened and why. And if you’re a CEO consider “stepping down” from the pedestal and communicate your messaging to the customers yourself to create the illusion of shortening the distance.

#6 J&J Tylenol’s cyanide crisis in 1982

In 1982, a tragic crisis happened – seven people died in the Chicago area because of taking Tylenol made by Johnson and Johnson.

1️⃣ Background

The Tylenol in question was laced with cyanide. The bigger problem? It was not just the reputation of J&J that was at stake, it was the reputation of all over-the-counter medicine.

2️⃣ How the company responded

Very well for PR standards – they recalled all the Tylenol across the USA, costing them a whopping $100 million. They then created hotlines where customers could dial in to get an explanation on what happened. They then created new packages that could not be tampered with.

3️⃣ Evaluation

The campaign was highly effective as it prioritized the well-being of customers instead of profit. With the relaunch of the drug, they bounced back and restored public trust.

Lesson learned: Prioritize your customers and address their concerns quickly, despite the costs.

Crisis management part 2: during a crisis, monitor people’s reactions

As a crisis is taking place, you need to listen to what the public is saying.

Prowly's Media Monitoring Feed Example

Here’s a media monitoring checklist to make sure you’re tracking how the public sentiment around the implemented crisis countermeasures evolves:

✔️ By expanding your keywords: besides your branded keywords, you can include additional ones related to the crisis, such as hashtags, slogans or phrases.

✔️ Increase frequency: scan the web more frequently to get instant updates.

✔️ Prioritize platforms: see where the fire is burning the brightest and primarily focus on that platform.

✔️ Monitor influencers and detractors: keep a close watch on those who can sway public opinion.

✔️ Monitor the volume of mentions: see if mentions are growing or plummeting.

✔️ Track false information: find where misinformation is and address it quickly.

✔️ Adjust in real time: adjust your responses based on the information you get from media monitoring tools.

3 PR crisis management examples: That could’ve been better

These examples show brands that handled their crisis decently, but there was room for improvement.

#1 T-Mobile data breach in 2023

In 2023, T-Mobile suffered a data breach, causing the data of 836 users to be exposed and shared, leading to potential identity theft.

1️⃣ Background

Given its user base, 836 does not seem like a vast number. However, this attack came after they had a previous incident, leaking the data of more than 37 million users in that same year. By comparison, the number was not that great, but the fact it was a repeat occurrence is a problem.

It doesn’t really matter if the leak applies to one or one million users – behind every number there’s a real human being.

2️⃣ How the company reacted

They sent out announcements to their customers that a small portion of the user base was affected by another attack and that it did not affect their financial or call records. At the moment this happened, this was the ninth time a cybersecurity risk hit T-Mobile.

3️⃣ Evaluation

T-Mobile’s efforts were seen as too little and too late. Despite having the second attack happen within months, they simply reset the PINs for the affected customers, said they were sorry and compensated them with free services.

Lessons learned: Admit your mistakes and do so early, especially if this is a repeat case. The compensation was a great move though.

#2 iPhone 6 “bendgate”

Just after the release of the iPhone 6 Plus, some users expressed concerns that the phone was too easy to bend and that, with just a little bit of effort, you could change its shape.

1️⃣ Background

The issue arose because customers stated that even mild stress (such as wearing the phone in your pocket) could bend the device. Overnight, Apple’s reputation was put at stake.

2️⃣ How the company reacted

They released public statements and invited journalists to their facilities to see how the phones were tested and manufactured.

3️⃣ Evaluation

Perhaps it was because of their strong brand presence or something else, but Apple initially showed little concern about the phones or their users. There were no apologies or statements about the cause of the problem.

Lessons learned: No matter how big or popular the brand, always step up and admit when something goes awry.
👉 Be quick and responsive and try to show genuine care for your customers.
👉 Bonus points for Apple for their quick reaction, minus points for their lack of compensation.

#3 Toyota’s acceleration and safety concerns

In 2009 and 2010, some Toyotas decided to accelerate on their own, causing concern to their owners and a PR crisis for the brand.

1️⃣ Background

Some Toyota cars started accelerating without the driver pressing on the gas pedal, causing concerns about the safety of the vehicles. This led to accidents, recalls by Toyota, and an investigation into the safety and the quality of their cars.

2️⃣ How the company reacted

Defensively, blaming floor mats and sticky gas pedals for the issue and recalling these car parts. The problem was that after some investigations, it turned out there were more causes for concern. They ended up recalling millions of vehicles globally.

3️⃣ Evaluation

The company had a lukewarm reaction and took too long to show the underlying cause of the issue. But the public apologies, recalls and campaigns helped regain some trust and reputation in the end. This is especially important because Toyota as a brand is known for reliability and safety.

Lessons learned: Toyota should have reacted more promptly and shown more transparency in the issues surrounding their vehicles. Their crisis management PR could have been better at the start, saving them precious resources down the road.

Crisis management part 3: post-crisis analysis

Once a crisis is over, take a step back to analyze what happened and why:

#1 Analyze your coverage

Review who talked about you and where – how many mentions you earned across channels to see what the full impact of the crisis is.

#2 Understand the sentiment trends

Look at the sentiment of the mentions you’ve gathered to assess how the public perceives you now versus in the past.

#3 Feedback analysis

Collect feedback from all the stakeholders in the crisis and analyze it. The customers, employees, investors, partners, and everyone impacted.

#4 Pay attention to recovery metrics

Once the dust has settled, look at where your brand sentiment is headed and how your customers perceive you post-crisis.

#5 Stakeholder sentiment

Measure how everyone relevant feels, from your customers to your employees, and how these feelings have changed after the crisis.

Stay on top of things with media monitoring

If you run a business, it doesn’t matter if you have social media presence – you are exposed to people and some unfortunate events can lead to a crisis.

That’s the bad news, but the good news is that crises can be prevented – not just by learning from others’ examples, but also by using the right tools.

With media monitoring tools, you can be prepared for crises ahead of time and react before the snowball becomes an avalanche. Prowly helps you look into the future and monitor your brand mentions with precision, giving you the power to prevent trouble at its start.