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Lessons Learned: Reflecting on the Biggest PR Crises of 2022

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2022 was a year filled with public apologies. It appears we’ve entered an era where no brand or celebrity (no matter their size or popularity) is safe from public scrutiny. What many people fail to see is a good crisis PR strategy could be the key element to overcoming that scrutiny, and for many brands is their only road to redemption. As the saying goes, “hindsight is always 2020,” so I decided to look back at some of the biggest PR crises of the year and reflect on the PR lessons learned.


Balenciaga’s BDSM Blunder

It probably comes as no shock that I’ve rated Balenciaga’s recent children-focused advertising campaign as 2022’s biggest PR crisis, given it drastically changed the way we view and talk about high fashion. When the company launched its latest advertising campaign showing children holding bears in bondage-style attire, the general public was shocked. Having big-name celebrities like Dua Lipa, Hailey Bieber, Julia Fox and most notably, the Kardashians acting as “pseudo-influencers” for the brand simply upped the ante, with consumers demanding a statement on whether these stars would continue to back the brand. In the end, many of the celebrities affiliated with Balenciaga condemned the ad and terminated their partnerships, with Balenciaga releasing numerous apology statements in an effort to save face. While the future of the fashion brand remains to be seen, there’s much we can take away from the fashion faux pas.


Kanye West & The Adidas Aftermath

Following in the theme of fashion comes the Adidas/Yeezy partnership, which was ultimately terminated after months of Kanye West spewing racist remarks and antisemitic hate speech in the media. While it may sound like Adidas did the right thing, some would beg to differ. Not only did it take Adidas spokespeople weeks to respond to the ongoing situation, but once West’s contract was terminated, Adidas announced it would continue to sell the remaining Yeezy inventory under the Adidas brand name. With many people already condemning Adidas for its delay in responsiveness, continuing to sell Yeezy merchandise came off as callous and self-serving – a reputation the brand is continuing to refute to this day.


The Slap Felt Around The World

Last but not least in my top PR crisis nightmares of the year is the 2022 Oscars, where actor Will Smith slapped host and comedian Chris Rock on national television for an insensitive joke made toward Smith’s wife. I won’t go into the many crises that surround both the Smiths and Chris Rock, but instead, I am focusing on the Academy and its handling of the situation. The biggest misstep of the night was failing to immediately remove Smith from the audience and thus demonstrating a zero-tolerance for violence of any kind. The next mistake was the timing of its statement, which didn’t come out until the early hours of the following morning. In crisis management, lesson number one is “timing is everything,” and releasing a statement hours after the nation watched it happen demonstrated the Academy was unprepared and undecided on its position. In the weeks following, the Academy worked to make things right by stating Smith was banned from returning to the Oscars or attending any other Academy events for the next 10 years. Whether the punishment fits the crime is still a topic of conversation.


Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of other mismanaged crises that took place in 2022 (remember Ulta’s tone-deaf marketing email with Kate Spade, or Tyson Food’s nepotism with a side of drunk and disorderly)? But the main theme in all these scenarios is they lacked proper crisis management. Key elements of a crisis PR strategy include strategy, thoughtfulness and accountability, and without them, your brand risks losing all credibility. A major theme that hindered the aforementioned scenarios was the initial lack of accountability in all of their statements. While they may have apologized or acknowledged the issues in the following days/weeks, it was in their initial statements where they bore no responsibility. Another common denominator within these circumstances is they all involved large organizations with hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in the day-to-day operations, yet critical and simple mistakes were still made. It goes to show you too many cooks in the kitchen can ultimately ruin the meal.  

One thing we know for sure is 2023 will bring its own set of PR crises, both large and small, and it’s up to every business leader to ensure they have a crisis team in place and a playbook ready. Does your company need a better crisis strategy in 2023? Let us help you.

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