While you can never predict when a PR crisis will occur, there’s no such thing as being too prepared to handle one. No matter the severity of the situation, a company’s public response is pivotal to how its brand will be perceived both internally and externally.
In 2023, there was no shortage of PR crises to serve as a crash course in how (and how not) to respond when your brand is facing scrutiny. Let’s look back at some of the most notable PR crises last year and the lessons learned for the future.
Bud Light's ill-fated influencer campaign
In an effort to reach new audience of Gen Z beer drinkers, Bud Light partnered with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman and influencer with over 12 million followers across TikTok and Instagram. After Mulvaney’s collaboration with Bud Light appeared on social media, backlash from Bud Light’s conservative-leaning audience, including from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and musician Kid Rock, immediately appeared.
In response, Bud Light distanced itself from Mulvaney while she was receiving transphobic comments from the brand’s community, while stating it, “Never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” As a result, sales plummeted due to both the LGBTQ+ community and Bud Light’s conservative fan base boycotting the brand.
Bud Light’s lack of research on how its audience might perceive this influencer partnership set up the brand for failure from the beginning. Instead of responding immediately and supporting Mulvaney, Bud Light abandoned her at the height of the crisis. Sales still haven’t recovered, demonstrating how a lack of strategic communications can lead to prolonged brand turmoil.
openai ousts its ceo ... then brings him back
In November, AI research firm OpenAI abruptly fired its CEO, Sam Altman, with the board citing Altman was “consistently candid in his communications.” Shortly after, OpenAI’s president resigned along with a number of senior researchers, and over 500 employees threatened to resign if the company's board of directors did not step down. Following the internal and external stakeholder backlash, OpenAI announced it would reinstate Altman as CEO and bring in three new board members.
This executive leadership fiasco showed how flawed the communications strategy was on all fronts. The board failed to clearly communicate the reasoning behind Altman’s firing, causing employees to lose trust and confidence in the company. The abrupt ousting signaled to external stakeholders that the company lacked direction, organization and morale. Now, OpenAI must work to rebuild trust with internal and external stakeholders.
Shein's failed public image rehab
Ahead of its IPO, fast-fashion giant Shein tried to squander criticism around allegations of child labor, unsuitable working conditions and stealing designs from other clothing designers. In an effort of transparency, the brand invited a group of influencers on a trip to tour a manufacturing facility in southeast China. The influencers posted videos on TikTok showing the working conditions of the facility, stating the workers were happy and the facility was clean and safe.
This sparked immediate backlash from the public, accusing the influencers of participating in a propaganda stunt during a brand trip curated to make the company look good. Shein’s attempt to rehab its image ultimately backfired, instead creating more controversy surrounding the unethical nature of its business practices and the fast-fashion industry as a whole.
Let this be a lesson that sometimes less is more, and pulling a big stunt to change public perception can be seen as inauthentic and lead to more negative sentiment toward a brand.
The overarching theme tying these brand crises together is the lack of planning and consideration of how their actions would be perceived by the public. Equally significant is the lack of accountability in their subsequent responses. Companies with a clear crisis communications strategy and plan in place are better equipped to not only respond to PR crises in the moment, but also anticipate when an incident may escalate into a crisis and act accordingly.
Business leaders must be prepared for any crisis that comes their way, and that’s where our experts can help. Do you need help refining your crisis communications strategy this year? Drop us a line.