The 6 Best PR Crisis Management & Communication Examples
Last Updated June 19, 2024
13 minutes read

The 6 Best PR Crisis Management & Communication Examples

And 1 very, very bad one.

We all like a good rubber-necking at businesses in a PR pickle, but sometimes a company recovers so gracefully that it makes you go, "Bravo!" That's what we're celebrating in this post. There's a lot to be learned from these PR crisis management case studies and growing from other peoples' mistakes is the best way to avoid having them ourselves.

So, let's have a look at some of the best-managed PR crises of the past decade.


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KFC's FCK Bucket

KFC is a loveable brand. Following them on Twitter is a treat in and of itself. So when they were faced with a truly embarrassing situation, the PR world got a crash course through this PR crisis management case study.

The Situation

They ran out of chicken in the majority of their 870 UK & Ireland restaurants after an unfortunate series of events led to delivery delays from their warehouses.

The Recovery

Their PR and marketing team got to work immediately.

They rolled out brilliant ads in newspapers with the KFC letters rearranged on the bucket to own their FCK up. They maintained a page on their website where customers could check the chicken status of their local restaurants. And they kept on top of the news by answering questions via social media almost daily.

This is a great example of crisis comms because the way that KFC reacted completely reflected their brand values. They did everything transparently, swiftly, and true to their brand voice, which made everyone put away their torches and celebrate their favorite fast food giant's humility. ​

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Starbucks vs. Racism

The coffee chain giant has had its own share of crises from the controversies around the Christmas cup designs it rolls out each year to their failed Race Together campaign. This time the topic of racism reared its ugly head yet again.

The Situation

Two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested after a Starbucks staff member called the cops on them while they were waiting for a friend.

The Recovery

A clear-cut case of racial discrimination could have been brushed off by Starbucks as a problem with the one employee, an "isolated incident", but instead, Starbucks chose to do something different. In an interview, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson didn't mince words regarding his position on the matter:

The fact that what happened in our store last Thursday and the outcome from that incident was reprehensible. That should not have happened, it was wrong, and my role and responsibility as CEO is to learn, to understand it and fix it. ​ ​ – Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in an interview for The Inquirer

But what really made the difference is that Johnson wasn't just talking the talk.

What happened next was that Starbucks closed down 8,000 stores across the United States for Racial Bias Training. While not all the employees who participated thought it was executed to the best of its ability (especially people of color who felt it was, at times, weak), it still made a statement that Starbucks was willing to make a cultural change within their staff to combat the biases that led to the incident.

It is estimated that Starbucks lost around $12 million in profit during the time the stores were shut down, but taking the hit was an important step towards mending its relationship with the public.

Starbucks still has a long way to go when it comes to talking about race and if they keep supporting initiatives within the company to chip away at prejudice, then this will be a long-term success. If they don't, we might look back and say, "What an expensive band-aid." ​

Southwest Airlines' First In-Flight Fatality

Southwest Airlines is one of those brands that people love. Their service is good, their staff are friendly, and their flights are cheap. On top of that, they were rated the safest airline in the world – that is, until April 2018.

The Situation

On April 17, 2018, Flight 1380 took off from LaGuardia airport in New York, but ended up having to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia after an engine exploded and ripped open the fuselage, killing one person. Other passengers were able to record footage of their experience, bringing the raw fear of being in trouble in the air to those on the ground.

The Recovery

First and foremost, further crisis was averted thanks to the crew on the airplane, which in the end landed safely without any other fatalities or serious injuries. While that was happening, CEO Gary Kelly and his team got to work.

They made sure that passengers in Philadelphia had everything they needed, including travel and accommodation arrangements, trauma counseling, and other actual support to make sure that an investigation into the incident could get started immediately.

Southwest staff had clear guidelines and checklists that allowed them to carry out the crisis response without anything slipping through the cracks. In the two days following the fatality, Southwest did some amazing work:

  • Kelly made a heartfelt, but concise, statement to the passengers and their families
  • They pulled advertising from social media
  • Passengers who stayed in Philadelphia were reminded with notes slipped under their doors that support was available 24/7
  • All passengers received personal phone calls and emails offering support and counseling resources
  • Passengers were also sent $5,000 with no strings attached to help "ease the burden" of the situation
  • They were also sent a $1,000 Southwest travel voucher
  • Southwest's social media team kept extra tabs online for real-time information to find out exactly what people were saying, posting, and expressing following the incident

All in all, they did an excellent job of focusing their efforts on the affected passengers, while at the same time managing the media and the investigation.

As PR Daily put it so perfectly:

When The New York Times follows a disaster with the headline “Southwest pilot of Flight 1380 is Navy veteran hailed for her ‘nerves of steel'", you know you got your messaging right.
What is crisis comms? A practical guide for beginners [2024]
What is crisis comms? A practical guide for beginners [2024]

Or, what to do with all those lemons.

Colin Kaepernick & Nike's Crisis That Never Was

If you didn't know anything about what was going on in the United States, or don't necessarily care about American football, you would watch this ad and think it was inspiring and motivating.

But that's not what happened.

But let's be clear, this isn't an unintended PR crisis, this is a planned controversy. I still believe it does well to be on this list because the reactions were so strong, yet Kaepernick and Nike both pulled through, and it's a great example of starting a conversation around your brand values.

The Situation

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, sat on the bench during the National Anthem (during a pre-season game) to protest police brutality. From there, other players joined in and sparked a country-wide debate about race and politics in sports. Kaepernick ended up unemployed and embroiled in controversy, holding fast to his beliefs.

Two years later, in 2018, Nike, one of the main clothing sponsors of the NFL, has him star in the powerful ad campaign you saw above. It was the 30th anniversary of their "Just Do It" campaign. The slogan of the new campaign? "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

And then the shit hit the intentionally placed fan.

Nike's stock fell by 3%. People apparently started cutting out the Nike logo from their clothes or burning them. People boycotted. News outlets had a field day reporting on it, and doing opinion pieces. Here are just a few of the headlines from the launch of the campaign:

The Recovery

Kaepernick and Nike did not apologize and were steadfast in their execution of the campaign. In this case the best course of action was to ignore the haters and keep their heads high – something I'm sure they anticipated well in the planning stages of the campaign.

And after the dust cleared? It turned out that sales had increased by 31% with stocks closing at an all time high. And while there were a lot of people up in arms about the ad, it did really well with people aged 18 to 34.

In this case, it was as simple as staying strong with undoubtedly a solid crisis communication strategy that allowed Nike to weigh up the options and anticipate the drama. Solid preparation and then sticking to the plan meant that in the end, Nike came out on top.


Tide Pods. Yep. That Happened.

As Forbes so eloquently put it:

The Tide Pod Challenge was about as unexpected as it gets, as no one in their right mind could have predicted that teens would suddenly decide eating Tide Pods was a fun way to pass the time.

Yet, here we are.

The Situation

Teenagers started eating Tide Pods and filming it as part of the Tide Pod Challenge. Because that's the world we live in.

The Recovery

Planning for the unexpected, like the real black-sheep unexpected, is next to impossible. However, Tide's parent company, Procter & Gamble, had a crisis plan and was able to deal with this situation as gracefully as one can expect when your initial reaction is, invariably, "Of course it's dangerous, you dumbass."

In fact, they recruited Rob Gronkowski to do that bit for them:

In fact, they didn't beat it over the head on social media. The above tweet and this one here are the only ones about the challenge on their official Twitter account:

I guess they realized quickly that telling teenagers not to do something is an exercise is futility.

They already had warnings and locks on the boxes. There wasn't much else they could do about the product itself. So they focused on getting those warnings out via earned media, just to drive the point home. They also invested in getting the challenge videos removed. In an official statement they said:

Nothing is more important to us than the safety of people who use our products. We are deeply concerned about conversations related to intentional and improper use of liquid laundry pacs and have been working with leading social media networks to remove harmful content that is not consistent with their policies.

YouTube eventually started to pull the videos from the platform. And Procter & Gamble did all they could really do. Now they just have to weather the memes and the jokes for the rest of eternity.


Crockpot Burns The House Down

Good old Crockpot. How did they get themselves in a PR pickle? Well...[SPOILER ALERT]

The Situation

The TV show "This is Us" happened. The NBC series had a mysterious death captivating the audience for the first season, when it was revealed that the death was caused by a house fire sparked by a slow-cooker, Crockpot had to deal with a sudden fear of their product.

The Recovery

First step? They made a Twitter account. In 2018. And then got to work comforting fans of the show. The Twitter handle is even @CrockPotCares just to sidestep the image of their brand being murderous or cold-hearted.

Their official statement included a reference to their safety record:

For nearly 50 years with over 100 million Crock-Pots sold, we have never received any consumer complaints similar to the fictional events portrayed in last night’s episode. In fact, the safety and design of our product renders this type of event nearly impossible.

Then NBC stepped in with the assist, making an ad clearing the Crockpots name before the Super Bowl, in which fans were claiming they were going to have Crockpot-free parties.

The reactions from both Crockpot and NBC proved to work, as people did not end up throwing out their Crockpots or storming Crockpot HQ.

Bravo!


And a cautionary tale: United Airlines non-apology

And because we all love to rubberneck, let's end on a cautionary example of how not to do crisis comms. Strong parallels here with "how not to apologize to your spouse".

The situation

For United Airlines, 2017 was not off to a very good start. One of their staff had prevented two teenage girls from boarding their flight because they were wearing (gasp) leggings.

Of course, because we live in a social media dystopia, another passenger filmed the incident and the story quickly went viral.

The story started doing the rounds on social media and media-media, with conversations sparking about sexism and the freedom over our own bodies. Even Hollywood darling and my personal hero LeVar Burton piped up.

The company responded by digging in its heels and explaining to strangers on the internet why it was in fact not wrong to police passengers' clothing, while simultaneously trying to reassure prospective future customers that they wouldn't be accosted for wearing leggings.

Needless to say, it was not a great time for the poor folks in United's PR department.

Little did they know that the shit had not yet hit the fan.

Just a few weeks following the incident, a second blow would throw the company into true crisis mode.

A video appeared clearly showing a passenger being brutally beaten and dragged off a flight. Although initial rumours suggested that the flight had been overbooked and the passenger had been refusing to give up his seat (which somehow would have excused this treatment), it soon became apparent that seats were being reallocated to accommodate United's own employees.

The passenger, Dr Dao, had to be taken to hospital to treat injuries including a broken nose, a concussion and broken teeth. 

I know, yikes.

The response

Fortunately, United's CEO Oscar Munoz had some clear and heartfelt words to share on the incident.

This situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. ​ ​ – Letter from CEO Oscar Munoz to United employees, reported by CNN

Within 24 hours, United had haemorrhaged $800 million in value.

Naturally and, I'm sure, entirely coincidentally, this is where Munoz expressed a change of heart. But as they say, it was too little, too late.


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When the proverbial hits the fan, speed is everything. With Prezly, you can set up your emergency contact lists, crisis newsroom and email campaigns well in advance, so you'll be ready for the truly unexpected.

 

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