Are ‘PR disasters’ overhyped?

This is an article by Chris Mayhew.
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Chris Mayhew

Chris Mayhew

Every company knows that a PR or social media disaster is potentially a brand-damaging occurrence.

In the modern age the role of a PR department has become more of one focused on reputation management than anything else, but as disasters of all kinds still continue to occur, are the biggest companies really suffering because of these?

High profile disasters last year include American Apparel’s inappropriate newsjacking of hurricane Sandy, Starbucks’s tax ‘issues’ and Apple having to issue an apology regarding their maps app, and there has already been a few memorable ones in the first few months of this year.

Yet are these disasters having a long lasting effect or are these short-comings simply short-lived?

Fickle is (wo)mankind

All of the above PR disasters received a major public backlash when they were first discovered but does that mean that the effects are long lasting? Take Apple’s map mishap. Have Apple seen a downturn in their profits since the issue arose or are they still churning out iPads, iPods, iPhones, and just about anything else you can stick an ‘i’ in front of, like no tomorrow?

Granted there might not be many users with the maps app on their phone but that hasn’t stopped them buying the phone in the first place or planning to buy the latest one the moment it’s released. Could Apple’s apology really have been that good or are we just too enamoured with our favourite brands to worry about these sorts of PR disasters in the long term?

The truth is the public tends to quickly forget these events after a certain amount of time and move on regardless. This isn’t the only example either.

Further fickleness

This isn’t to say that the fickle nature of the public is a bad thing; more that it is just in our human nature to forgive and forget over time, especially when it comes to the biggest brands on our radars. Nor is it to say that PR and reputation management isn’t necessary because of this as it is obviously in every company’s best interest to steer clear from any problems in the first place. What we can say though is that Apple are not the only case in this point.

Comments made by Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries about how the company will never sell XL sizes because they are only aiming at “the cool kids” have resurfaced having been originally made around 7 years ago. Obviously this information has been met with a backlash, as it probably was in 2006 also, but it hasn’t affected their sales over the last 7 years and share prices even increased recently after the comments resurfaced.

Tesco And Tiger

Other examples include Tesco who were hit hard by the horse meat scandal a couple of months ago. While business big wigs estimate that their value has decreased by around £300 million are the public about to boycott one of the world’s largest supermarkets en masse? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Similarly, Disney recently received flack over their decision to give newly crowned princess Merida, from their smash hit animated film Brave, a makeover.  And while a petition generated by people wanting Disney to keep Merida’s real-world looks and feisty personality intact has led them to backtrack on the makeover, is anyone likely to break their child’s heart and deny them a visit to Disneyland off the back of it?

And what of Tiger Woods? The one time king of the golfing world, whose reputation was left in tatters when his infidelity was made public in 2009, has recently regained his seat on international golf’s throne after recovering his number one world ranking. Less than 4 years after becoming one of the most tarnished figures in sporting history he is back where he was before with the public seemingly forgetting his past exploits, the list of sponsors on his website including big names like EA and Nike and even a personal backing from Barack Obama himself by sharing 18 holes around a course in Florida.

The future of PR

PR and PR agencies will, without doubt, continue to be a big part of what makes a company successful and their role is likely to continue to focus on reputation management and reputation rebuilding when disaster strikes. While the public seemingly may not be deterred from the biggest brands in the long run, part of this could well be to do with the way brands and famous people react in order to set the record straight.

So there is no doubt that whether you are a PR agency for technology, music, or fashion, or working in the PR department at one of the biggest brands in the world, PR is vital to any business. Even if it is time that is the ultimate healer.


  1. I think it’s telling that you’ve chosen “disasters” that are by their very nature short term, or transitory. I’d be interested to get your opinion on whether there is a difference between a pure “PR disaster” and an operational crisis that is also a PR catastrophe?

    Think BP following Maccondo and Texas City or Dow following the acquisition of Union Carbide – both operational issues / crises that could have been manged better on the communications front at the time.

    I’m not sure either corporation has entirely recovered. They will always have to manage the reputational fall out for years (decades in Dow’s case), as whilst the public tends to forget business people being idiots, as in the examples you give above, they tend not to forget violent death.

    Sometimes as PR people we have to see the worst and manage it – especially if the worst is entirely unhyped and the situation involves dozens of fatalities.

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