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Stop, Drop, and Roll: These 4 PR Blunders Really Burn!

David Bosley

It’s probably safe to say you’ve already seen the Best Picture blunder at this year’s Academy Awards. But for the uninitiated, two accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers handed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope resulting in the wrong announcement and a lot of confusion.

This was a public relations nightmare for PwC and the company quickly jumped into damage control mode to save their reputation. When it comes to PR blunders, it doesn’t get much more public than the Oscars, but PwC isn’t alone. In recent history, numerous companies faced PR nightmares of their own, but unlike PwC, many of them caused long-lasting damage to their reputations and bottom lines.

  1. Yahoo! Breach
    Companies get hit with cybersecurity breaches all the time, and the vast majority are quick to plug up the leaks and offer guidance for users to protect their information. Yahoo! did the exact opposite. In the wake of the biggest breach in company history, in which the personal information of more than 500 million users became compromised, Yahoo! didn’t disclose it for two entire years. Yahoo! stock plummeted more than 7% overnight, and it was recently announced that CEO Marissa Mayer will lose her annual bonus and stock award.
  2. Microsoft’s Unfriendly Bot
    Letting the online community directly influence your products and promotions is a risky proposition, and Microsoft found this out the hard way. In early 2016, Microsoft introduced “Tay” a Twitter-based bot whose attitude and insights could be influenced by conversations she had with real humans. Tay quickly discovered the dark side of humanity and in less than a day, @TayandYou was spouting racist and sexist messages. The experiment was immediately terminated, but the damage to Microsoft – which has publicly struggled to hire and retain female and minority employees – was dealt.
  3. EpiPen Price Hike
    Countless people count on EpiPen in the event of an allergy emergency. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that food allergies result in more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits every year among children. So it’s no wonder that Mylan – the manufacturer of EpiPen – caught some serious flack when they increased the price by 400%. After taking a lot of heat, Mylan announced they would release a cheaper generic version of the injection. However, the company is currently under an antitrust investigation, has been hit with numerous lawsuits, saw its stock prices fall 70%, and was forced to lay off 10% of its workforce.
  4. Martin Shkreli’s PR Suicide
    America’s most hated pharma-bro, Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, became of public villain after approving a 5000% price hike on the drug, Daraprim. Although Shkreli offered a somewhat coherent argument defending the increase, it’s his provocative and disrespectful demeanor that caught the nation’s negative attention, including the U.S. House of Representatives. Following a brief Congressional testimony during which Shkreli refused to answer questions and exercised his Fifth Amendment rights, he gained the attention of authorities. In December 2015, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI, charged with securities fraud, and accused of running a Ponzi-like scheme.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Fortune 500 company or a mom-and-pop shop, a PR nightmare can have a significant impact on your business’ reputation and the bottom line. The best way to handle a public relations blunder is to learn from others about not only what to do, but also what not to do.


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