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Top 5 PR Fails of 2017

October 20, 2017
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As 2017 begins to wind down and we inevitably begin to reflect on the year as a whole, two categories from a public relations perspective tend to emerge: winners and losers. We can recall those brands on the receiving end of positive media attention, but can almost certainly more easily recall those on the negative end.

Countless companies made a habit of tripping over themselves for the world to see and making honest mistakes worse with tacky and clumsy responses in 2017.

While the fails of 2017 were plentiful, we’ve gone ahead and identified the worst of the worst from the year.


Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner “Live for Now Moments Anthem” commercial was a notable brand faux pas of 2017. So much so, that industry heavy-hitters noted that the ad was so bad that it achieved the unthinkable: It united the internet. Granted this coming together was in unanimous agreement about how atrociously tone-deaf the ad was, but it was unifying nonetheless.

Pepsi aimed to position itself as a contrarian brand that is the drink of choice for those looking to challenge the status quo and the brand also strived to represent itself as the olive branch that would heal racial, social and political tensions. Despite, perhaps genuine intent, the ad fell miserably flat and the internally produced campaign was pulled within a day accompanied by a direct apology from Pepsi.

To make matters worse, Pepsi didn’t do itself any favors on social media when commercial viewers ironically incorporated messaging from the ad into their comments. “Join the Conversation” – initially displayed on protester’s signs in the commercial – quickly became the hashtag of choice for social media users commenting on the brand’s misstep. Pepsi had the opportunity to tactfully right the ad’s wrong and engage with the conversation on social media, however the brand stumbled once again.

LESSON LEARNED: The importance of anticipating engagement resulting from your public relations and marketing efforts cannot be stressed enough.

PR professionals need to think through the pros, cons and potential backlash from all of their external campaigns.



Uber is no stranger to negative press, however 2017 seemed to be a banner year for the ride-sharing app. From tangles in the political arena, to legal disputes and instability among the executive board, Uber is the posterchild for PR blunders. Most notably, Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, found himself at the center of controversy when Bloomberg published a shocking video recorded by an Uber driver’s dashboard camera. The video shows Kalanick fighting with the driver over Uber’s business practices, resorting to profanity and demeaning phrases meant to belittle the driver.

Despite Kalanick’s publicly posted apology letter after the incident a #DeleteUber counter-movement had begun to gain momentum and the brand saw the public’s perception of them tank, as well as app installs and usage.

LESSON LEARNED: Today’s consumer is largely motivated and inclined to do business with brands that align with their personal values and ideals. Once information is made public that portrays companies in a negative light, it’s hard to overcome that perception in the mind of consumers. Uber is a great example of how your brand isn’t just a product anymore.

Your employees and how they represent your business – especially your CEO – have the potential to make or break your PR efforts.

United Airlines

After video footage was captured showing the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight, the business and its CEO found themselves in the middle of a full-blown PR crisis. With the video going viral seemingly overnight, customers and the general public alike found themselves wondering how the company would respond and justify their actions.

To the majorities great dismay, United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, did not immediately issue a formal apology to the passenger, but instead apologized to other customers on the flight that they had to “reaccommodate”. Ironically, Munoz had been named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year a week prior to the incident, however his callous response left a very poor taste in customers’ mouths.

LESSON LEARNED: Consumers value honesty and transparency, after all they are human! If and when your brand makes a mistake, it’s crucial that you fully own and publicly apologize for the incident, keeping in mind that time is of the utmost importance. The more time that passes and your brand remains silent, the more guilty you appear.

Tackle PR issues head-on and you’ll build trust and credibility with your customers.

Fyre Festival

Fyre Festival started out with a lot of promise and generated a great deal of buzz leading up to the “luxury music festival” in the Bahamas. With world-renowned supermodels and top Instagram influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoting the event it looked like a music lovers paradise. Right? WRONG!

Concertgoers – paying up to $12,000 per ticket – arrived to find their “paradise” as a ghost town campsite in disarray, learned that musical acts had all cancelled and then were unable to leave the remote island location. Being sold on the pretense and promise of a luxury getaway complete with yachts, VIP parties, music and sunshine, the reality that was delivered was a far cry from what customers payed for.

Social media was set abuzz with with concertgoers posting pictures and videos of the borderline-at-best festival conditions and quickly event organizers found themselves on the receiving end of a $100 million class action lawsuit. Despite issuing an apology letter and throwing copious amounts of alcohol at stranded guests, the severe damage had already been done and Fyre Festival will never be back.

LESSON LEARNED: Fyre Festival fell victim to the age-old trap of over promising and under delivering. They sold consumers on an experience that they simply could not deliver on. As a brand, especially a new or emerging one, remember that you typically only have one shot to make the right and intended impression on consumers.

If what you market falls short of what you deliver, you’ll have much more than a PR crisis on your hands.


adidas committed one of the worst communications crimes this year by sending an insensitive and poorly worded email to all participants of the Boston Marathon. The tasteless subject line read: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”.

Coming just four years after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, email recipients were quick to voice their displeasure with the note on social media. While adidas immediately issued an apology, the brand’s credibility and reputation still took a major hit.

LESSON LEARNED: Mistakes happen, even in PR. In the event that your brand misspeaks, act swiftly to right the wrong and move on from the unfortunate misstep. adidas also reminds PR pros to always play devil’s advocate with any and all external messaging.

Think through any and all worst-case scenarios so you’re able to prevent and preempt media fires before they occur.

Wrapping Up

2017 was a year filled with many PR wins, and, more notably, losses. But as the saying goes, “Average people learn from their mistakes. Smart people learn from other people’s mistakes.” So, as PR professionals and leading digital marketers, we can learn an awful lot from the brands highlighted above to ensure we don’t meet a similar fate and find ourselves in the middle of a major PR crisis.

Want to make 2018 your best year for PR yet? We’d love to hear from you!

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