26 April 2021

When Public Relations goes wrong

Public relations, even in the hands of a skilled practitioner, can still hit the skids and go terribly wrong. There have been some absolute howlers over the years, from Ratner’s Jewellery fall-down to the corporate PR storm of United Airlines following a passenger assault and being dragged from an aircraft by UA staff.

Here’s three notable examples of recent PR and communications disasters:

Veganuary by Burger King

During the annual vegan challenge of Veganuary, Burger King launched their brand-new vegan ‘Rebel Whopper’ burger that very quickly became non-vegan, with it transpiring that the ‘plant-based’ burger was actually cooked on the very same equipment as the meat-based burgers, making it unsuitable for vegetarians, let alone vegans. There was also the addition of the non-vegan mayonnaise, which customers may not have been aware of.

More of a Huge Whopper than a Rebel Whopper, which resulted in a massive PR fail. Along with an advertising ban from the watchdog, the Advertising Standards Association (ASA). They stated that the accompanying small print on the burger advertisement “was not sufficiently prominent to override the overall impression that the burger was suitable for vegetarians and vegans.”

Dominic Cummings and his Barnard Castle Eye Test

Along with the 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, came the government PR arm swinging into action, bringing with it the famed ‘Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives’ slogan that was splashed across all media and every messaging opportunity possible, so that the general public had the message embedded into their consciousness. One disastrous communications fail which had huge public consequences for this message, was the then-advisor to the PM, Dominic Cummings and his famed eye-testing drive to Barnard Castle.

Cummings fled from London to Durham, with suspected COVID-19, and then drove to Barnard Castle with his family to ‘test his eyesight’. The Guardian described the evolving story as “evasion to evisceration”, with the PR fall-out of the scandal turning the heat up for Number 10’s comms team. Calls for Cummings to quit swiftly followed, along with a ministerial resignation and public condemnation. The resulting dip in confidence of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was later coined as “the Cummings effect”.


Tim Martin, the wealthy Wetherspoons boss, caused a huge public backlash after informing his staff members that they would be paid up until the date that the government forced pubs to shut, with no more wages until the furlough scheme kicked in. Shockingly, Martin then proceeded to send a video message to all of his staff, advising them to look for alternative employment at Tesco if they needed money in the meantime. The negative publicity around this damaging approach was across all media, with reputational damage on a wide scale.

Plan in Advance

Even the best strategic plans can go haywire. But whether your campaign or PR strategy has covered all the bases or not, you can quickly find yourself in a comms disaster where reputational damage can occur. And the ways it can go wrong can be unpredictable and challenging. Knowing how to respond and deal with difficult situations is part of the job of a professional communications practitioner.

An issues or crisis communication plan should be something that’s already in place for your business or organisation, preferably before the crisis happens.

If you’re looking for crisis management, help with creating a bespoke strategy or advice on what your business or organisation needs, we’re here to help. Drop Michael Gregory an email at

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