Navigating the media minefield: Lessons from famous communication blunders

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Reputation is everything. Yeah, yeah, we hear you say. We got this. Our brand is unblemished. People love us. Yeah, yeah, we will reply. Until they don’t. Here our Managing Director Ellen Widdup explores the dangers of miscommunication, mishap and mismanagement with a host of cautionary tales for businesses without crisis PR provision in place.

Let’s start with some abysmal communications that’s still relatively fresh in our minds – the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can we forget the constantly changing lockdown rules, confusing quarantine measures, conflicting guidance on mask-wearing, and discrepancies in messaging between different government departments? How can we forget Dominic Cummings’ lockdown breach, PPE procurement issues, the technical glitches for test and trace and that Downing Street party?

This was a communications catastrophe on an unprecedented scale but boy, does it catalogue every possible mistake you can make when the sh*t hits the fan.

Yes, you could argue that the pandemic itself was unprecedented (that word was probably one of the most overused of 2020) and that nobody could really have properly prepared for what transpired.

But I would disagree. Because quite honestly, it doesn’t matter how large or small the predicament, the same rules apply. When communicating through a crisis, you must demonstrate transparency, accountability, empathy and proactivity. Consistently.

Let’s take a look at some more classic failures.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill response

BP faced one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. BP’s communication strategy during the crisis was heavily criticised for minimising the severity of the spill and shifting blame onto others. The company’s failure to effectively manage the crisis and promptly address environmental concerns led to significant financial and legal repercussions.

Thomas Cook’s collapse

When Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s oldest and largest travel companies, collapsed in September 2019, it left hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded and sparked chaos across the travel industry. Thomas Cook’s communication throughout the crisis was widely criticised for its lack of clarity and empathy towards affected customers. Many travellers reported receiving conflicting information and experienced difficulties obtaining refunds or assistance. The company’s failure to adequately address customer concerns exacerbated the crisis and tarnished its reputation.

Tesco’s accounting scandal

Tesco, one of the UK’s leading supermarket chains, faced a major crisis in 2014 when it was revealed that the company had overstated its profits by £263 million due to accounting irregularities. Tesco’s initial response, which downplayed the seriousness of the issue and blamed it on a few rogue employees, failed to reassure investors and stakeholders. The lack of transparency and accountability eroded trust in the company’s leadership and corporate governance practices.

Grenfell Tower response

The Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 72 people, was a tragedy of immense proportions. The response from authorities and government agencies was widely criticised for its lack of empathy, coordination, and transparency. Survivors and victims’ families felt neglected and abandoned by officials, leading to widespread anger and distrust. The crisis highlighted systemic issues in communication, emergency response, and accountability within the UK government.

TalkTalk’s cyber attack

TalkTalk, a telecommunications company based in the UK, experienced a cyberattack in October 2015 that compromised the personal data of millions of customers. The company’s communication in the aftermath of the attack was heavily criticised for its slow response and inadequate handling of the situation. TalkTalk’s CEO faced backlash for downplaying the severity of the breach and failing to provide clear guidance to affected customers. The incident damaged TalkTalk’s reputation and raised concerns about cybersecurity practices in the telecommunications industry.

United Airlines’ fiasco

In April 2017, United Airlines faced a PR catastrophe when a video of a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight went viral. The company’s initial response, which seemed indifferent and defensive, only fuelled public outrage. United’s failure to empathise with the passenger and its clumsy handling of the crisis tarnished its reputation and led to a significant loss of customer trust.

Volkswagen’s emissions scandal

Volkswagen’s reputation took a severe blow in 2015 when it was revealed that the company had installed illegal software in millions of diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests. Initially denying the allegations, Volkswagen later admitted to wrongdoing but faced widespread condemnation for its lack of integrity and ethical lapses. The scandal not only damaged Volkswagen’s reputation but also led to hefty fines and legal consequences.

On another note

While many communications and PR blunders can have serious consequences, there have been examples of crisis comms carried out so well it’s laughable.

The KFC chicken shortage

In 2018, KFC faced a nationwide chicken shortage in the UK due to logistical issues with a new delivery provider. It was certainly a crisis, but KFC rose to the communications challenge, taking out a full-page advertisement in several newspapers featuring an empty bucket of chicken with the letters “FCK”.

It included the apology: “We’re sorry. A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” The bold and humorous apology garnered widespread attention and praise for its authenticity and creativity.

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