PR crisis playbook: Lessons learned from recent crises

by | Nov 3, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

Public relations crises can happen anytime. Professional marketers should stay alert for them to learn key lessons and strategies adopted to manage such crises. With different brands responding to PR crises uniquely, their replies and approaches in the event of a PR crisis have a wealth of insight that PR pros can borrow.

Looking at recent public relations crises, how they affected their respective brands, and lessons drawn from these crises is an eye-opener. Here are some crises that have faced major brands and lessons PR pros can draw from them.

#1. Burger King’s PR crisis

In January 2020, the vegan trend was at its all-time high, prompting the fast-food chain to do something for vegans. Burger King wasn’t left behind, either. Launching a plant-based burger for the UK market was phenomenal. However, the joy was short-lived: Burger King found out that plant-based burgers were not meant for vegans.

Burger King

Burger King’s response was swift and on point. The brand confirmed that plant-based burgers were meant for meat-lovers that were conscious of reducing meat consumption. Despite having a disclaimer that stated: “The Rebel Whopper is plant-based; however, it is cooked on the same broiler as our original Whopper to deliver the same unique flame-grilled taste. Emphasizing further, Burger King explained that due to shared cooking equipment, the Rebel Whopper wasn’t suitable for vegetarians.

Despite the disclaimer, Burger King faced a backlash. To worsen the situation, burger patties that were 100 percent meat-free were served topped with mayonnaise, which contains egg products, making it vegan unfriendly.

Lesson learned

The first lesson learned from Burger King’s PR crisis is that being the first to raise an issue goes a long way in solving a PR crisis. Had burger king failed to make the announcement, and their website did not include a disclaimer, a vegan customer would’ve found out and started a storm. Raising customer safety concerns and accusing the brand of lying bluntly, vegan customers would have caused a damaging public relations scandal. That would have adversely affected the brand’s customer acquisition, loyalty and affect the brand’s bottom-line.

Brands should be the first to point out issues that may cause a PR crisis. What’s more, hiding crisis-related issues is a well-created recipe for chaos.

The second lesson is that: regardless of a brand’s preparation for a corporate crisis, threatening crises are bound to happen. Being prepared is important; however, brands should note that cutting short a crisis doesn’t mean absolute safety. Negative sentiments will always erode a brand’s equity. Avoiding a crisis altogether can be a gamechanger.

#2. Aer Lingus PR crisis

With COVID-19 affecting communication strategies for different organizations, content marketing strategies had to be modified to suit the needs of these organizations. What’s notable, most organizations had to adopt probationary measures.

Aer Lingus

Aer Lingus wasn’t left behind. The company made the right promises, reassuring customers that they’ll respect COVID-19 safety protocols, including social distancing guidelines. That wasn’t the case.

On the 4th of May 2020, a passenger posted a picture of their overcrowded flight, clearly showing the company’s disregard for social distancing guidelines and, by extension, customer safety. The resultant crisis painted the company as a profit-oriented brand that would disregard client safety for higher profits.

Lesson learned

Taking COVID-19 precautions on flights may have been difficult. That’s because many parties were involved, and controls were limited. However, Aer Lingus had made promises in the middle of a pandemic. Keeping these promises was paramount. The lesson: brands should make promises they can keep or avoid making promises they cannot avoid a PR crisis.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR, a leading PR agency..


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