1. Odwalla E.coli outbreak
In October 1996, American health drinks producer Odwalla released a batch of apple juice which had become infected with E. coli. The tainted juice affected 67 people – one of whom, a 16-month old girl, died.
The company was speedy to take responsibility and address the problem, immediately recalling 13 product lines from over 4,600 stores. Along with subsequent recalls in the next few days, the process cost $6.5m and took 2 days.
Odwalla accepted criminal responsibility for the tainted drinks, paying out over $13 million in fees and settlements. In addition, Odwalla spared no expense in addressing its deficits, making improvements to its processes and taking out full-page newspaper adverts to keep consumers informed of its progress.
Odwalla’s stock price rapidly dropped by 40% and sales decreased by 90%, resulting in 60 layoffs and a loss of $11.3m at the end of the year. However, thanks to its efforts to maintain reputation, the company was back in profit by the end of 1997.
2. Pepsi syringe can hoax
In 1994, drinks giant Pepsi was threatened by the worrying news that a syringe had been found in one of its drinks cans. Within a week, 50 more reports of syringes being found in Pepsi cans had been made.
The company was fast out of the blocks with its response. Working alongside the FDA, Pepsi quickly and confidently denied that there was any chance it was to blame. It published videos showing its canning processes and demonstrating measures taken to prevent tampering.
President and CEO of PepsiCo North America Craig Weatherup made multiple TV appearances during which he revealed surveillance footage from a store in Colorado, showing a woman placing a syringe in a can while the shopkeeper’s back was turned. Weatherup also appeared on Nightline with FDA Commissioner David Kessler. The two jointly assured the public that Diet Pepsi was safe, easing many people’s fears.
The rumours died out within two weeks after the FDA arrested several suspects for filing false reports. Sales of Diet Pepsi dropped by 2%, but recovered within a month. Pepsi’s fast response, and the transparency with which it showed its operations helped ensure consumer trust remained high.
3. Tylenol’s cyanide scare
Tylenol is the best-known US household brand name for paracetamol, or acetaminophen. In 1982 the brand was hit by the chilling discovery that potassium cyanide had been found inside its bottles. The incident led to seven deaths, shocking the nation. Police quickly realised that there was a murderer at large in Chicago.
Parent company Johnson & Johnson immediately made an announcement warning people not to use the product, and recalled its entire stock. Replacement capsules were offered to anyone that had bought Tylenol, costing over $100 million, and the company worked closely with the Chicago PD, FBI and FDA to solve the crime.
The moves drew praise from news critics, with the Washington Post commenting that “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster”.
Tylenol also worked to improve the security of its bottles, introducing a tamper-resistant sealing method.
Following the prosecution of a man named James William Lewis, who had sent a letter demanding $1 million from J&J to stop the murders, the tide of public opinion turned back in Tylenol’s favour. The brand’s market share had dropped off from 35% to 8%, but recovered within the year. Lewis was strongly suspected of being the killer, however police never found sufficient evidence to charge him.
4. American Red Cross’ #gettngslizzerd tweet
The American Red Cross is not an organisation you’d normally associate with decadence and partying, but that’s exactly what it seemed to tweet in February 2011.
As you might have guessed, this didn’t come straight from the top brass. The tweet came from a social media executive who had mixed up personal and professional twitter accounts. An easy mistake to make!
ARC understood that they didn’t need to make a stuffy apology, or otherwise blow the whole thing out of proportion. Instead, they used humour to gently defuse the situation – which could easily have turned into a PR disaster had it been mishandled.
5. Steve Smith’s post ball-tampering press conference
Ball tampering is an act of cheating, heavily frowned upon in cricket. In 2018, the Australian team were caught on camera using sandpaper to roughen up one side of the ball. Scandal erupted within the cricket world, with blame and scathing criticism directed at captain Steven Smith and players David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, as well as the team’s coach, Darren Lehmann.
Four days later, Cricket Australia, in full crisis management mode, handed all three players unprecedented bans from international cricket. Bancroft was banned for nine months and both Smith and Warner were sentenced to a year out of the game.
When news of Cricket Australia’s sanctions broke, Steve Smith resisted the temptation to hide away and respond on social media, instead giving an emotional press conference at Sydney Airport.
A tearful Smith took full responsibility as captain, saying that he was sorry and admitting that he had made a serious error in judgement. “It was a failure of leadership, my leadership.”
Despite beginning from a script, there was no doubt that the words he used were his own. He took questions from journalists, and cried as he spoke about the impact of the incident upon his family.
The press conference helped Smith display his remorse, regret and sorrow in a very public, genuine manner. In addition, it helped show a more positive, courageous side of his character. Smith came across as a broken man, someone who was only human, and public opinion towards him softened following the briefing.
6. Contently’s apology for introducing a freelancer fee
Freelancer platform Contently recently found itself in hot water over the introduction of a mandatory 4.75% fee. Furious users took to social media to complain.
The company tweeted the following apology, holding its hands up and accepting that it had made a mistake. CEO Joe Colman’s statement introduced a freelancer contract and promised that no mandatory fee would ever be imposed.
Colman began by saying sorry. By the end of the statement he was thanking users for giving him the opportunity to introspect and learn from the error.
7. KFC’s Chicken Crisis
In early 2018, adoring KFC-lovers suffered days of bargain-bucketless agony when the chain ran out of chicken and was forced to close restaurants all around the UK. KFC handled things with a well-judged, lighthearted twitter campaign which apologised, explained the issue and expressed how seriously the company treated quality control.
KFC’s tone was ideal for the situation, staying frank and forthright with its customers and thanking its staff. Although it explained that supplier issues were at the heart of the matter, it didn’t try to shift responsibility or point fingers. After several initial tweets, KFC published a set of Q&As with the same confident, lighthearted tone.
Some not-so-great PR
When the Valdez ran aground off the shore of Alaska in 1989, its parent company, the Exxon Shipping Company, handled the situation in the worst way possible. The firm had no crisis management media training or strategy, and didn’t seek external help or advice. Exxon failed to respond, communicate or take responsibility. By the time the company began to clean up, 2 weeks after the disaster, it was too late.
Over 10.8 million US gallons of oil oozed into the Pacific Ocean. The effects upon the local ecosystem were devastating. Scientists still find traces of oil in Prince William Sound to the present day. Sombre images of dead and dying wildlife, black with oil, filled the news.
Exxon mishandled its communications, both internal and external. It refused to accept facts and tried to underplay the significance of the spill. The company’s ill-considered, ad hoc strategy backfired, causing damage to its reputation which has been felt ever since.
TSB announced a 3-day online service outage from Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd April 2018 – nothing unusual for a bank. When Monday rolled around and normal service still hadn’t been resumed, customers were understandably frustrated. Some were unable to log in, some found their balances to be incorrect and others saw other customers’ account details.
CEO Paul Pester quickly apologised via Twitter, initially seeming to calm fears. But the situation took a turn for the worse as Pester tried to shift the blame onto Sabadell (TSB’s parent company and IT provider). TSB and Pester also tried to downplay the significance of the issue, stoking anger on social media. Meanwhile, the IT problems continued unchecked.
Nicky Morgan, chair of the Treasury Committee, accused Pester of being “extraordinarily complacent” after he had stated that the IT upgrade had gone ahead smoothly. Many TSB customers were still experiencing technological problems a month later.
FCA Chief Executive Andrew Bailey said that TSB failed to be “open and transparent” about the scale of the problems. The outpouring of negativity, both online and in print, led to Pester’s resignation in September 2018.
Preparation is better than cure
One thing which well-handled PR crises have in common is the high level of organisational preparedness going into such incidents. Companies which put a predefined strategy in place stand a much better chance of coming out of any crisis with both their reputations and their profit margins in the best possible shape.
Conversely, businesses which aren’t prepared tend to respond badly and put people off side, then suffer financial consequences down the line.
The key to organisational survival is a suitable crisis management strategy, with well-thought-out crisis management media training & incident response planning. Additionally, a human side and a touch of genuine humility go a long long way.